JOHANNESBURG — Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, said Thursday that any thought of putting gay rights in the nation’s new constitution was “madness,” and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who often disputes almost everything Mr. Mugabe says, this time seemed to agree.
Both men were appearing at a belated celebration of International Women’s Day in a suburb of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. The pro-Mugabe state-run news media in Zimbabwe reported Friday that the president was scornful of the very idea of gay rights, which the 86-year-old president said would make the nation’s ancestors “turn in their graves.”
Mr. Tsvangirai’s response, according to the news media, was, “Why should a man seek to have a relationship with another man when women make up 52 percent of the population?”
Mr. Mugabe’s comments were unsurprising. In the past he has described homosexuals as behaving “worse than pigs and dogs.” Gay bashing is one of his enduring themes.
Mr. Tsvangirai, on the other hand, has won international awards for championing human rights. He was considered among the favorites to win last year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
On Friday, the prime minister’s spokesman, James Maridadi, tried to play down the significance of the remarks. “Tsvangirai was speaking off the cuff in a very lighthearted way,” he said.
Mr. Maridadi continued: “He wasn’t getting into the rights of gays. Whatever he said, it was a personal opinion, and he always invites people to agree or disagree with his personal opinions.”
Homosexuality is illegal in Zimbabwe, but gay rights organizations have been allowed to operate openly. In nearby Malawi, such groups can work only clandestinely. Two gay men there could face 14 years in prison after they were arrested for holding an engagement party in December.
Homophobia is the norm throughout Africa. In Uganda, a lawmaker has proposed harsh penalties for homosexuality, including the death penalty in some circumstances. In Kenya last month, the police broke up a gay wedding and arrested many of the guests; the police intervened, they said, to keep an irate mob from killing the participants.
Zimbabwe is writing a new constitution that is meant to pave the way for new elections. In 2008, Mr. Tsvangirai bested Mr. Mugabe, the long-time president, in the first round of elections but then dropped out of a discredited runoff after state-sanctioned thugs terrorized his supporters.
In early 2009, after months of violence, difficult negotiations and reluctant compromise, a power-sharing deal was consummated between the two nemeses. Mr. Mugabe kept control of the nation’s security forces, but he gave some ground to Mr. Tsvangirai, swearing him in as prime minister and divvying up the government ministries.
Gay rights has not been a matter of friction between the two adversaries. In fact, Mr. Tsvangirai’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has “no position on gay rights per se,” said its spokesman, Nelson Chamisa. “We are for human rights, but Zimbabweans are very conservative, and something like gay marriage is condemned, not just by our culture but by religion.”
He added, “We believe people should have the latitude to decide whatever is best for them. But — and I underline the word ‘but’ — the position of people in this country is that the word ‘gay’ should not appear in the constitution.”
Barry Bearak reported from Johannesburg, and Alan Cowell from Paris.
spotted by RS