Throughout the African continent, LGBTI individuals face harsh realities of persecution, discrimination and often violence. In many instances, the church itself is complicit in the injustice, and doesn’t provide any solace or support. As an organization known for its work supporting the LGBTI community throughout Africa, IAM is often approached by individuals seeking assistance to leave the horrible situations they are living in. Though South Africa itself has its share of issues regarding the treatment of LGBTI people, at least the LGBTI community is provided equal protection under the law according to our progressive constitution. This is one story of how LGBTI individuals are persecuted on the African continent, and how IAM is helping where it can to make a difference.
Hillary Mugari joined the Zimbabwean Police Force in 2004 when he was only 18 years old. In 2013, during a joint operation with the army and prison services, he was caught by a police patrol kissing another member of the operation. His superiors were wary of the story getting out – the rhetoric in Zimbabwe was that “gays are worse than pigs and dogs” and that there are no gay people in the country. The other man was immediately transferred out of the assignment, and Hillary was told that his case would be dealt with after the operation to avoid any undue publicity.
Hillary sought legal advice and was cautioned that he must resign from the police force immediately to avoid the case going to military court and being prosecuted under the Zimbabwean Police Act. If that happened, he wouldn’t have the right to legal representation or a trial by judge and jury, but rather the matter would be treated as an internal issue to be dealt with by senior law enforcement officials.
Within 24 hours Hillary signed the paperwork and resigned, forfeiting all benefits he’d accrued over his years of service. He immediately crossed the border into Zambia to avoid prosecution, surviving there until 2016, when he moved back to Zimbabwe, hoping that enough time had passed and that the matter had been forgotten.
In 2018 Hillary was in his third year of a Finance degree when he was visited at his home by two policemen who wanted to question him in relation to a 2013 case. Telling them he was fetching his ID document, Hillary escaped over the back wall of his house, injuring his ankle during his flight. The police sought him out at the hospital, and he managed to escape again thanks to a tip from the doctor treating him.
Hillary was rightfully worried about what would happen to him if he was detained by the police. In a country where homosexuality is treated as a crime by the Constitution, Hillary knew he would be easily convicted if he ever even got a trial. “In Zimbabwe what happens is that people just disappear. They were going to take me into the police cells, they were going to tie up that report. The evidence was overwhelming, as we were actually caught – unless it was a technicality, I was not going to get out of this.” He was helped by international organizations HIVOS and Lawyers for Human Rights, who confirmed his story and reviewed his case. Lawyers for Human Rights offered their opinion that he would surely be prosecuted as a police officer, even though he had resigned. They cited a similar case where a lesbian woman was convicted in a trial without representation and is currently serving time in military prison without chance of appeal.
He was advised to leave the country again. This time Hillary crossed into South Africa, where he stayed with family for a short while. Here, IAM and PASSOP helped him as he has sought asylum in the country. He stayed in IAM’s safe house, iThemba Lam, and we helped him to travel to and from the asylum offices in Durban for his application. Hillary faced an uphill battle, contending with South African government officials openly disdainful of his homosexuality, interrogating him on his sexual practices. He was told that as a Zimbabwean asylum was no longer an option, that his only avenue was to find someone to employ him and apply for a work permit or be deported.
There was hope that the political climate for LGBTI communities in Zimbabwe would change under the new government and evolving political climate, but there is evidence that many things are actually getting worse. For Hillary, changes aren’t coming quickly enough. Hillary still fears deportation back to Zimbabwe, sure that he will go to prison simply for being who he is. “This is a constitutional issue. The Police Act is a bylaw of the constitution. Even if the constitution may change to the favor of gay people, if the Police Act doesn’t align, they will find a way to convict me.”
Hillary’s story, unlike many, has recently taken a more positive turn. He was successful in finding employment and accommodation that will help him to stay in South Africa legally. But Hillary has still lost so much in this fight. “I feel like I’ve been a fugitive for the better part of my working life…I don’t have a sense of belonging.” His family doesn’t understand why he left his job on the police force or his studies. “My family has told me that my parents didn’t give birth to gay people. We are church-going people, we are raised in church, that is impossible that you are gay. They can’t understand, they assume that I have become gay for money. To them it doesn’t really make sense. Sometimes I feel like IAM is my only family right now.”
Hail IAM, rise and be on the journey of hope
The universe lives in the shadows of homophobes
Be the light that spreads the message,
Or the mirror that reflects the light
Let thy people not perish because of lacking knowledge
Behold the universe is in darkness,
The LGBTI lives in despair and desolation
– Excerpt from a poem written for IAM by Hillary Mugari