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Voting yes to black and gay rights



One of the first votes I ever cast was the one in which I got to help decide whether a marginalised group of people should have the same rights as me.

Stamp in identity document of a white South African recording their participation in the 1992 apartheid referendumIt was March 1992. I was a young, white, enfranchised South African working as a journalist at the South African Broadcasting Corporation. A couple of years earlier I had interviewed F. W. de Klerk, then Minister for National Education and Planning, and just months away from being sworn in as state president. He struck me as a man of moral conviction, one who was not willing to be held hostage by an old guard clinging in vain to its conservative ideology.

The referendum was one of the methodical steps taken by de Klerk in the dismantling of apartheid: the ban on anti-apartheid groups (including the ANC) had been lifted, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, the group areas act had been abolished and the government had started negotiating with the ANC for a peaceful resolution to its armed insurgence.

Undermining these efforts was the Conservative Party which had, until now, exercised much power in marshalling voters' anti-egalitarian sentiment. Apartheid had taken root in their Calvinist dogma; God had ordained white people as superiors, they believed, and had designated black people (and those of mixed race) the 'hewers of wood and drawers of water' as described in the scriptures. An end to apartheid would be an assault on their religious freedom, and on God's will. De Klerk's reforms infuriated them.

But the electorate was getting restless: it was time for change and they knew it. De Klerk's YES campaign promoted the ideals of peace and equality; NO supporters warned of civil war and chaos and communist rule. Of course none of these things eventuated: the YES campaign won, with a massive voter turnout returning an almost 70 per cent vote in favour of reform.

On the day of the referendum, I cast my vote at a school in my childhood neighbourhood alongside other white constituents. We were among a minority of around 12 per cent of the country's population, and the only ones allowed to vote. Then I went back to work, to report on the referendum. It was thrilling to be part of this historic event as both participant and observer. A year later, de Klerk and Mandela jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize, and a year after that South Africa held its first democratic elections.

I've been thinking a lot about that long-ago referendum as Australia 'votes' on the issue of same sex marriage. Of the huddle of empowered whites lining up to determine the rights of people whose skin colour was different from theirs; of myself, a naïve white woman barely out of school, who got to decide whether my 50-something black colleague could one day vote, too; of the weight that people's individual prejudices were given in determining whether our government would start treating everyone equally in the eyes of the law.


"In years to come, we will hopefully all recognise - as many white South Africans now do - the utter absurdity of asking one group of people to determine the fundamental human rights of another."


Though de Klerk had good reason to call the referendum (apartheid was a time-bomb that could only be defused with the most delicate, the most intuitive of hands) it should never have got to the point where whites were called on to debate the legal rights of blacks. If not for the staunch, morally indefensible support of entrenched discrimination, such change would surely have been passed through parliament.

And so it is with Australia's postal survey: it should never have come to this. We should never have been given the right to debate and determine the legal rights of people whose sexuality doesn't match our own. But for the staunch, morally indefensible support of entrenched discrimination, such change would most certainly have been passed through parliament.

Instead, homosexual people must now rely on heterosexual people to help determine their marital rights. Much like those 'hewers of wood and drawers of water', they must listen as conservative Christians publicly proclaim their own religious freedoms — and their biblical interpretations of sexuality — to be more sacred than gay people's civil rights. They must sit by as debaters conflate legal marriage and religious matrimony. They must look on as their very personhood is attacked.

When else would we allow one group of people to judge and evaluate another in so public, so humiliating, so divisive a way?

With luck (and some prudence), Australia's NO campaign will suffer the same defeat as did the pro-apartheid campaign during South Africa's historic referendum. Dissenters notwithstanding, Australia will do what the once bigoted, intolerant South Africa did as far back as 2006 and legalise same-sex marriage. And in years to come, we will hopefully all recognise — as many white South Africans now do — the utter absurdity of asking one group of people to determine the fundamental human rights of another.



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, marriage equality, apartheid, South Africa



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Existing comments

Afrikaners were always a religious people. For a long time the various branches of the Dutch Reformed Church there supported apartheid on supposedly 'biblical grounds'. Once the World Council of Reformed Churches declared apartheid a heresy the writing was on the wall religiously. Religion is playing a part in the 'No' campaign. My own feeling is, that, on the figures so far in, it looks like the 'Yes' case will romp it in. The Churches need to move on and back a Bill of Rights which protects religious freedom.

Edward Fido | 05 October 2017  

You can bet your sweet life that there will be no demand by the Church, the ACL, or the religious right in Cabinet for their proposals to protect 'religious freedom' to be subjected to a postal survey. It would be absurd, they will say, for the fundamental religious rights of one group of people to be conditional upon the consent of another group.

Ginger Meggs | 09 October 2017  

The results of the 'survey' are not yet in but already it's started. 'On Tuesday [Michael] Sukkar, the assistant minister to the treasurer, told Sky News it [the draft private member's bill] “doesn’t contain the full suite of protections that many of our voters would expect"'. See < www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/oct/31/coalition-conservatives-working-on-alternative-marriage-bill > How he would know what his many of his voters would expect is a mystery because he has never asked. And even if there were 'many' is that reason to include them? There were more than many - indeed a majority - of voters who have been wanting marriage equality for a long time but politicians like Sukkar and his colleagues on the far right of the coalition have continued to block that. Sorry Edward, but what Sukkar wants is not 'protection for religious freedom' but licence for religious discrimination.

Ginger Meggs | 01 November 2017  

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