Gay community groups have slated an organisation representing traditional leaders for its homophobic stance on same-sex marriage. The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) has said that moves to legalise same-sex unions should be rejected.

According to its general secretary (and ANC MP), Mwelo Nkonyana, the only acceptable way to deal with the Constitutional Court’s ruling to legalise same-sex marriage is to amend the constitution to only allow heterosexual marriage or to hold a referendum on the issue.

He was speaking at a hearing on the Civil Union Bill by the national assembly’s home affairs committee. His stance has also been supported by the National House of Traditional Leaders.

According to the Joint Working Group (JWG), “Contralesa’s attack on the constitution, the building blocks of a free and democratic society, illustrates a mindset amongst traditional leaders that is stuck in a patriarchal and homophobic past.”

In a statement released on Wednesday, it says that while Contralesa claims to acknowledge that gay and lesbian people should be treated with dignity, they still refer to such people as “oddities” and a “problem” that needs “remedy. This undermines our dignity and stigmatises our relationships.”

The JWG also says that it believes that African norms and values do support constitutional notions of human dignity, equality and freedom for all people, adding that the fundamental African value of Ubuntu is closely linked to the protection of human dignity. “Through Ubuntu the worth of all individuals are recognised and respected. As such, homophobia is an unAfrican because it denies people the opportunity to express their full humanity,” states the JWG.

Nonhlanhla Mkhize of the Durban Gay and Lesbian Community and Health Centre says that “instead of calling for rational discussion on same-sex relationships, Contralesa has chosen to pretend that homosexuality does not exist in African culture and in doing so whitewashes the lived reality of African lesbian and gay people.”

Describing the constitutional amendment proposal as a “a step backward,” Melanie Judge, of OUT LGBT Well-being, urges Contralesa to “rise to the challenge of a plural and diverse society and make peace with the diversity of African experiences. This means honouring rather than rejecting our constitution.”

The JWG called on traditional leaders to “lead with intellect and wisdom and not with ignorance and suppression. We need Contralesa to realise that, as traditional leaders, they need to ensure that the influence of African traditional values is experienced through peaceful development in the modern South Africa.”

“The Constitution is the epitome of the spirit of Ubuntu – and this is not visible from the statement to parliament on civil unions by Contralesa,” said Mkhize.

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