Skip to content

Courson Complaint


On 11th January 1995, The Herald newspaper reported on an address by the then Minister of Home Affairs, Dumiso Dabengwa, to the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) in which he asked the council to endorse the government’s position on homosexuality. The Herald quoted Dabengwa as saying that, as far as government was concerned, homosexuality was abhorrent and should not be allowed.

On 15th January, The Sunday Mail editorial stated:

We live in an era of permissive society where everything Western seems to be adored and accepted as the Gospel truth and pure. While it may be proper for an innocent reader to flip through a book on a subject which is of interest to him/her, what guarantee do we have that a sex pervert, lesbian or homosexual will not claim his right for literature that is of interest to them?And once that is passed there is no guarantee that such literature will not fall in the hands of children.

A political commentator, Muckraker, of the The Financial Gazette, responded with:

Shouldn’t we instead be protecting our youth from the Stalinist thinking of Sunday newspapers that display an open contempt for human rights, not to mention a disregard for enlightened journalism?

On 22nd January 1995, The Sunday Mail’s headline read ‘Zimbabwe Accused of Violating Homosexual Rights’. It referred to an attempt by William Courson of the The Magnus Hirschfeld Centre for Human Rights in the United States to take the Zimbabwean government before the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights for violations against Zimbabwean homosexuals. The article outlined Courson’s arguments in some detail but the paper revealed its cards in the last four paragraphs by painting Courson as a white, foreign pervert poking his nose in where he was not wanted.

In the article, Zimbabwean church leaders dismissed the petition as an attempt by foreigners to introduce their abhorrent lifestyles onto Zimbabwean culture.”It smacks of cultural imperialism. Here is an American citizen wanting to take a sovereign state and its people to task and legitimise this abhorrent behaviour,” said Reverend Noah Pashapa.

The Social Communications Secretary of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishop’s Conference, Father Oscar Wermter, said: “Homosexuality is a disorder… it is pathological. It contradicts the natural order established by the Creator. African culture abhors homosexuality and considers it abnormal. These foreigners who are new to Zimbabwean culture have to respect it.”

A resident of Harare, Code. Onwell Mukopfa, said although in America they believed that homosexuality was a modern way of living, he didn’t think they would succeed in imposing it on Zimbabwe “because we have a strong culture. It is virtually not showing respect for the people and their culture.”

The article gave the impression that Courson’s filing of the petition with the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights was recent. In fact, as far back as 17th June 1994, Courson had communicated with the Zimbabwean government about his intention to file the petition and this was advertised widely through Courson’s press release of the same day. Courson informed the United States Department of State, the United States Embassy in Harare and the Zimbabwe Embassy in Washington of his plan. The petition was officially filed as case no. 136/94 on 5th July 1994. The Zimbabwe Embassy replied to a facsimile letter from Mr. Courson on 13 July 1994 saying:”Your fax message of 06/24/94 is herewith acknowledged. May you be advised that the contents thereof have been transmitted to the Zimbabwe Government.”

Not having been initially consulted on the matter, GALZ asked Courson to withdraw the application, feeling that it might jeopardise the association’s own tentative moves to win acceptance by government. On 5th July 1994, GALZ secretary, Leigh Price wrote to Courson saying:

We acknowledge that gay and lesbian rights in Zimbabwe are a constitutional issue and must be dealt with at this level. However, many of our members feel that, as an organisation, we cannot support your efforts lest we jeopardise our ‘understanding’ with the government which allows us a relatively large amount of freedom.

Price’s letter also pointed out some factual errors in the submission.
Courson replied on 20th August apologising for having acted precipitously in bringing the matter of Zimbabwe’s legal treatment of its gay and lesbian community to the attention of an international forum. In the same letter he requested confirmation from GALZ about whether or not to proceed by no later than 5th September since, if the case were to be withdrawn, he would need to take further action.

On 3rd September, 1994, Brenda Burrell, responded to Courson:

It would appear that there is little to be gained by continuing with your communications with the African Commission on Human Rights… Forgive the brevity of this fax as it is sent in great haste to reach you before September 5th.

On 5th September, in a faxed letter to the Acting Secretary of the African Commission marked EXTREMELY URGENT, Courson withdrew his complaint.

In an unusual move, the Commission saw fit to acknowledge the withdrawal in its report ’21) 136/94 William Courson v. Zimbabwe’ with accompanying comments:

The communication concerns the legal status of homosexuals in Zimbabwe.

Domestic law of Zimbabwe criminalizes sexual contacts between consenting adult homosexual men in private. According to the complainant, this prohibition is currently being enforced in Zimbabwe, encouraged by statements against homosexuals by the President and by the Minister of Home Affairs…


The communication was withdrawn by the author. The Commission saw no need to continue with it.

It is clear that the government of Zimbabwe and the state-controlled media chose to ignore the complaint at the time it was filed, but deliberately brought it into the open at the start of a virulent anti-gay campaign, six months later. The Sunday Mail article carefully made no mention either of when the petition was filed or that the case had been abandoned. Only on 26th February 1995 did the paper admit that the complaint had been withdrawn. It was a small column buried on the inside pages and headed ‘Petition on Homosexuality Withdrawn’. There was no apology offered to the lesbian and gay community and no mention that GALZ had taken one of The Sunday Mail editors, Pepukai Deketeke, to task over the issue.

On 3rd February, 1995 The Chronicle editorial provided the strongest indication at the time that Government had adopted a virulent anti-gay stance. On this occasion, it was the words of Mugabe himself in a speech delivered at his opening of a new maternity wing at Mpilo hospital in Bulawayo. Referring to people lobbying for the rights of prostitutes and homosexuals, he said:

Our commitment as the Government and as a nation is to protect the bodies and souls of our people from these abominable and destructive ideas.

The editorial continued with what became the familiar rallying cry of the Zimbabwean government: homosexuality is loathsome and abhorrent to all Zimbabweans, and an importation and imposition on Zimbabwe by Western perverts sneaking in under the guise of human rights. Zimbabweans, in particular the nation’s mothers, needed to be on the alert and protect their children from foreign harm:

The President must have been expressing the views of most other citizens of this contrary who loathe foreign ideas on morality which are being imported into this nation and imposed on our people by pseudo-campaigners for people’s so-called rights.