South Africa: Unnatural Offences Act Struck Down

On May 8, 1998, South Africa struck down as unconstitutional the common law crimes of sodomy, unnatural sexual offences and section 20A of the Sexual Offences Act, which criminalized any act calculated to stimulate sexual passion or to give sexual gratification between "two men at a party."

It was an historic decision, handed down on the second anniversary of the promulgation of the 1996 Constitution.

Delivering his judgment, Judge Jonathan Heher of the Johannesburg High Court stated that "constitutionally [the people of South Africa have] reached a stage of maturity in which recognition of the dignity and innate worth of every member of society is not a matter of reluctant concession but is one of easy acceptance."

The National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE) responded jubilantly to this long awaited judgment, calling it a "sombre indictment of [South Africa's] intolerant colonial past during which these common law offences carried the ultimate penalty of death," and declaring the decision to be "[one] of which every South African, irrespective of their sexual orientation, can be proud."

It was in November 1997, that the Coalition and the statutory South African Human Rights Commission applied to the High Court to have these common law "crimes" declared unconstitutional. The African National Congress (ANC) immediately welcomed the judgment, stating that it "represents a significant milestone in the alignment of South Africa's laws with the basic human rights contained in the Constitution's Bill of Rights."

Mary Sigaji, Africa Specialist at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) warmly welcomed this landmark decision, stating that, "we have a lot to learn in the United States about sound jurisprudence based on the inherent equality of all people. The United States should heed the call from South Africa and repeal the sodomy laws in those remaining states which still maintain them."