Peter Tatchell: ‘Nelson Mandela was a gay icon but he failed on HIV, poverty & Mugabe’

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Commenting on the death of Nelson Mandela, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell writes for PinkNews of how the former president became a “gay icon” – but says Mandela “failed” when it came to dealing with the HIV epidemic, challenging Robert Mugabe, and tackling poverty during his time in office.

Nelson Mandela was an African liberation hero and a supporter of LGBT human rights. He continued the liberation struggle pioneered by Kwame Nkrumah and ranks with Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King as one of the world’s great humanitarians. His government supported LGBT equality and ended legal discrimination against LGBT people. But Mandela was not without his shortcomings. His presidency did not do enough to tackle poverty and HIV. He failed to speak out against Mugabe’s tyranny and homophobia in Zimbabwe.

Mandela was a political and moral giant. He led the victorious liberation struggle against apartheid, and then pioneered the peaceful transition to multi-racial democracy. He was the first African leader to embrace LGBT rights. His extraordinary compassion and forgiveness led to reconciliation with his former white supremacist oppressors. For all these reasons, he is a global icon and a gay icon. Few people in history can match his moral stature.

Despite his greatness, Mandela was not without his shortcomings. There were three notable failures.

When he was South African president, from 1994-99, HIV was killing more South Africans than the vile system of apartheid ever did; claiming 600 lives a day, which is the equivalent of nine Sharpeville massacres every 24 hours. Mandela bowed to public sensitivities and taboos; failing to deal decisively with the HIV crisis. He refused calls to lead a public education and prevention campaign. His government failed to make anti-HIV drugs widely available. Earlier and stronger action would have saved tens of thousands lives. His later public statements on HIV were welcome but they came years too late.

Under his presidency, not nearly enough was done to tackle poverty. For the most part, the black majority remained impoverished. Mandela did not significantly reform the economic system and the income inequalities of the apartheid era. Land reform was slow, piecemeal and limited. The majority of black South Africans are still shut out from economic progress.

Mandela’s other big failing was that he never spoke out against the murderous and homophobic Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe or expressed his solidarity with Zimbabweans struggling for their freedom. Robert Mugabe killed more black Africans than the apartheid leaders, John Forster and P W Botha, combined. Thousands were massacred in the Matabeleland region in the 1980s. Yet Mandela said nothing about Mugabe’s terror campaign of detention without trial, torture, rape and extra-judicial killings. Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans had their homes demolished. Millions were starved into submission by the withholding of food aid. This was tyranny on a scale comparable to the worst excesses of the apartheid regime. Yet Mandela was silent. He also said nothing when Mugabe demonised, harassed and threatened the LGBT community.

Is it fair to criticise the great man? Yes. From an extraordinary leader, we expect extraordinary leadership.

Mandela’s shortcomings do not, however, detract from the fact that, for the most part, he was a truly remarkable, honourable man. I shed a tear at his passing. He will be long remembered – and long loved.

On this sad day I look back to a moment of great joy. I remember watching the live television coverage of Nelson Mandela on the historic day in 1990, when he walked free from prison after 27 years incarceration. It was a joyous occasion for millions of people worldwide who had campaigned so long and hard for his freedom – including me. This was an emotionally-charged moment. A lump swelled in my throat. After 21 years of campaigning for Mandela’s release, it was as if a dear, close friend had been finally freed from jail.

Since 1969, I had been part of the global anti-apartheid movement. One of our key demands was the release of Nelson Mandela – and other ANC political prisoners. He had been jailed for life in 1964 on treason charges.

My first anti-apartheid protest was in 1971 at one of the main churches in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. It was promoting an Australian athlete who supported sporting ties with apartheid South Africa. A small group of us interrupted the service to criticise the athlete and the church.

At around the same time, we protested at Lorne beach, south west of Melbourne, which was hosting an international competition with the South African surf lifesaving team. Forty of us lay on the sand in front of the boat house, in a bid to stop the boat being launched. This infuriated the all-white South African crew and the Australian team and officials. They knocked us about with their oars and their heavy boat was dropped on us. Many of us were carted off by the police.

Although a staunch supporter of the anti-apartheid struggle, I was never an uncritical yes man. In 1987, I exposed the ugly homophobia within Mandela’s liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC).

I wrote to Thabo Mbeki, who was in exile in Lusaka at the time and who later become the second post-apartheid South African president. My letter criticised ANC homophobia and appealed to the leadership to support LGBT equality. I was delighted when Mbeki replied to me making the ANC’s first public condemnation of homophobia and its first public pledge to LGBT equality under a future ANC-led government – and with a request that I publicise this new ANC commitment, which I did.

Heartened by this commitment, in 1989 I proposed to the ANC that their post-apartheid South African constitution should have a comprehensive anti-discrimination clause, including a prohibition of discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.

In consultation with South African activists, I drafted a clause, which was broadly accepted by the author of the ANC’s draft constitution, Albie Sachs. It was agreed by Mandela and the rest of the ANC leadership. As a result, South Africa became the first country in the world to guarantee equal treatment to LGBT people. Mandela, uniquely among African leaders, embraced the LGBT community.

The high-point of my anti-apartheid activism was from 1986 to 1990, when I was involved in the 24/7 non-stop picket on the pavement outside the South African embassy in London. The picket lasted every day and every night for four years, even in pouring rain and through freezing winters. Participants rotated to keep a constant presence. Our key demands were an end to apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners.

There were repeated attempts by the police, acting at the request of the apartheid state and the Thatcher government, to stop the non-stop protest. Hundreds were arrested on spurious charges. Some eventually won compensation for unlawful arrest. The most notorious sabotage attempt was the use of international diplomatic protocols to ban the protest on the grounds that it was an affront to the dignity of the South African embassy. There were mass arrests, including of some Labour MPs, before the British government and police relented.

The day Mandela was freed from prison in 1990 the non-stop protest swelled from the usual 30 people to over 2,000. We sang, danced, smiled and cried with joy. The protests inside South Africa, supported by those of us outside the country, had got a result. Nelson Mandela and his fellow political prisoners were free at last. Bravo!

Peter Tatchell is director of the London-based human rights organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, and coordinator of the Equal Love campaign.

As with all comment pieces the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of