‘Marriage Above All Else’

The Push for Heterosexual, Nuclear Families in the Making of South Africa's White Paper on Families

South Africa continues to be a nation that is celebrated for producing one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. In an effort to depart from its oppressive apartheid past, the Constitution of South Africa, as the supreme law of the land, ‘…lays the foundation for an open society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights…’. While this legislation continues to guarantee the rights of its citizens, after two decades of democratic governance, it is evident that what is aspired to in the Constitution is not being fully realised in reality. There exists a disjuncture between the ethos of this – and other laws – and the realisation of the human rights they embody, especially for people who do not conform to hegemonic gender and sexuality norms.

This report comments on the policymaking processes that led to the development of the White Paper on Families as it exists in its current iteration. The report highlights the power dynamics that have led to the inclusion and exclusion of specific content and language, particularly around the notion of what constitutes a family in contemporary South Africa. It considers the diverse roles played in the drafting of this document by civil society representatives, government representatives and the general public. On the basis of interviews with these actors and a close reading of the white paper, this report points to two worrying trends in the making of policies and laws in South Africa: (1) public policy in South Africa is becoming increasingly conservative as a result of religious and cultural doctrines which do not recognise sexual diversity or support the engendering of human rights in society; (2) the South African government and its representatives are promoting a heteronormative value system in its policy and programming, despite resistance from civil society. Most significantly, this paper illustrates that the cabinet’s approval of this policy could mean that access to resources will be determined by the extent to which one’s family fits the narrow, heterosexist definition of a family being promoted in the white paper.

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