Revolutionary Country

South Africa: Mandela Rule Bans Discrimination -- But Will People's Behavior Change?

April 23, 1997

THE RISE OF Nelson Mandela's African National Congress to power three years ago turned South Africa into a fascinating laboratory of social experimentation. Gradually a country which during many years of white rule was one of the world's strictest in its public mores has transformed itself into one of the most tolerant.

Nowhere is this change as pronounced as in attitudes toward sex.

Under apartheid, the government intervened in personal behavior by banning sex across race lines. Gays were hounded. Pornography was outlawed. One foreign traveler recalls how, after a luggage search, a customs official confiscated a girlie magazine and gave him a receipt stating, "Detained, one Playboy."

Today, anything goes. The country scored a world first by introducing a constitution that guarantees gay rights by prohibiting discrimination against anyone, directly or indirectly, on the grounds of gender, race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture or language.

More is to come. The Gautung province (formerly Transvaal) is debating whether to introduce a law that would decriminalize prostitution. Provincial executive council member Jesse Duarte said she was "impatient" to change the law which protects "those who trade in humans" -- pimps and buyers of sex. "South African law only prosecutes the prostitute," she added. "If a prostitute is arrested, the pimp simply replaces her. The prostitution and degradation continues in prison."

While groups like the Salvation Army fear such a law would increase widespread commercial sex, there appears little debate about the measure. Typical is the view of a Johannesburg Star editorial: "If all this can be translated into actual legislation, the country will have taken another step toward maturity and toward the creation of safer cities."

Laws seldom manage to abolish discrimination. But considering South Africa's past, its effort to create a bias-free democratic society based on toleration is an intriguing one.

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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