"Giving homophobia a red card," reads a poster for the 2012 Soweto Pride march. Charles Haynes/Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0). Some rights reserved.
The website of the Family Policy Institute (FPI) in South Africa greets you with a large banner photo of a man, woman and child on the beach. The woman is holding her pregnant belly with one hand as the couple play with their son on the sand. This is, supposedly, perfection. Utopia encapsulated in a picture.
Founded a decade ago by a man named Errol Naidoo, FPI is a fervent opponent of reproductive choice and LGBTQ rights. It describes itself as “protecting family values” – but apparently only the values of certain, so-called 'traditional' families. It calls for the defense of “faith, family and freedom” – and has a number of international allies.
Last year, Naidoo travelled to Budapest, Hungary for the 2017 World Congress of Families summit of ultra-conservative movements. There, he claimed that “all kinds of wickedness came into South Africa” in the 1990s, after the end of the apartheid regime, when “the doors were thrown open and an ultra-liberal constitution was imposed on us.”
In response to this supposed crisis, FPI says it has “the single-minded objective of making the restoration of marriage and the family the cornerstone of South African social policy.” As such, it aims beyond influencing its own supporters – at impact on our society at large.
It describes itself as “protecting family values” – but only the values of certain, 'traditional' families.
FPI’s arsenal includes a media production arm, two television programmes, and a YouTube channel, through which it seems to be intent on broadcasting hate masked as morality.
‘Watchmen on the Wall’ promises a Biblical perspective on the news, while ‘Salt and Light’ covers marriage and family issues. The latter airs on the TBN in Africa satellite channel – part of the now global empire of the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), founded in the 1970s by an evangelical couple in southern California.
Videos on FPI's YouTube channel include ‘Breaking News’ segments mimicking the look and feel of mainstream TV news.
One, presented by a member of the anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), discusses South Africa’s 1996 Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act which legalised abortion upon request up to twelve weeks. FPI and the ACDP are lobbying Parliament to amend this law and include mandatory counselling and an ultrasound scan (which many clinics do not have the capacity for).
In another video, Naidoo is positioned as the newscaster in a room dressed up to look like a mainstream news studio, akin to the BBC or the local SABC. The presentation gives the whole production a false air of gravitas and authority. But instead of reporting the news, Naidoo makes a long speech opposing the proposed legalisation of marijuana.
His ‘report’ presents no opposing views and focuses on the concerns of so-called experts from a group called Doctors For Life, who present dagga as wildly evil and harmful, and its legalisation as dangerous for the public.
A third video features Zizipho Pae, expelled from the University of Cape Town’s student council in 2015 for posting homophobic comments on Facebook after the Supreme Court decision upholding marriage equality in the US.
On its website, FPI thanks the “loyal support” of its “friends and partners,” though these (holy) ghostly supporters are not named, nor are their specific contributions. Elsewhere, Naidoo has explained how international support got the group started.
In 2015, Naidoo described how he and his wife attended a "six month training mission with Family Research Council in Washington DC in 2007," and then "returned home and established FPI with nothing else but our faith.”
In an article for the website of “Christian family living magazine” Joy!, Naidoo says that FPI has also lobbied South Africa's parliament on “legislation affecting the family” with written submissions and meetings with various (unnamed) cabinet ministers.
He claims that “attacks against the convictions and Biblical beliefs of Christians” are on the rise in South Africa, including through anti-discrimination laws. He also name-checks international allies including the Family Research Council and the Christian conservative 'legal army' Alliance Defending Freedom.
Errol Naidoo. Photo: Elekes Andor/Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY-SA 4.0). Some rights reserved.
“Being part of this powerful global network has significantly improved our ability to analyse and respond to threats against the family,” said Naidoo, of the World Congress of Families. FPI is also a member of the Family Rights Caucus at the United Nations, which works to “prevent destructive anti-family resolutions from being advanced at this global body,” he added.
Through media productions and political lobbying, FPI and its evangelical and conservative Christian allies appear to be positioning themselves as a ‘moral’ force in public spaces and institutions while pushing ultra-conservative and hateful rhetoric.
In doing so, they are adding to an already dangerous environment for women and LGBTQI individuals in South Africa – which has high levels of homophobia and gender-based violence, including homophobic rape and gruesome crimes against queer women.
Though FPI’s TV programmes and videos have arguably limited reach in a country where not everyone has access to digital, satellite channels and the internet – and while Christianity is a major religion in South Africa, a whole host of other leaders influence the way our society thinks about various issues including gender relations.
Traditional and cultural leaders have also lobbied for gay rights to be excised from South Africa’s constitution, for example, promoting anti-rights views as well as xenophobia and practices such as virginity testing, to prove the ‘purity’ of young girls.
The social and political role of traditional leaders within South Africa is wide and complex, including chiefs who preside over kingdoms as well as a council of traditional leaders which sits within the parliamentary structure. According to a government website: "The Constitution states that the institution, status and roles of traditional leadership, according to customary law, are recognised."
These formal and informal structures allow traditional leaders significant influence. Recently, protests around the South African movie Inxeba (“The Wound”), which chronicles a homosexual relationship at an initiation school, provided another example of how culture and the media are battlegrounds in the backlash against sexual and reproductive rights.
Critics have called for the movie to be pulled because it ‘violates culture.’ The film’s cast and crew had to be moved to a safe house amid security threats. Protests by Xhosa leaders and others across the country eventually led to the film being pulled from cinemas in the Western Cape, a province that is considered a Xhosa stronghold.
The emotional and conceptual space for tradition and culture within South Africa allows for those in powerful cultural positions to hold much sway. These leaders are often among the loudest anti-rights voices, and their role in the backlash must also be investigated.