South Africans deeply conservative on homosexuality, abortion, cheating

29 April 2014 - 11:38 By Leonie Wagner
A gay couple holding hands. File Photo.
A gay couple holding hands. File Photo.

We have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world but, for most South Africans, homosexuality and abortion are immoral.

South Africans emerged as a conservative lot when independent American fact tank Pew Research Centre released the findings of its Global Views on Morality survey earlier this month.

South Africa fared the most tolerant of the African countries polled – including Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya – but less so than its international counterparts.

The study, which covered 40 countries, focused on eight moral issues ranging from premarital sex to contraceptive use and divorce.

The following percentage of South Africans found these practices morally unacceptable:

Extramarital affairs: 65%
Homosexuality: 62%
Abortion: 61%
Premarital sex: 48%
Gambling: 40%
Divorce: 40%
Alcohol use: 36%
Contraception use: 15%

The majority in all countries surveyed – bar France – dubbed cheating on a spouse as taboo.

Contraceptive use is generally considered morally acceptable worldwide, except in Pakistan, Nigeria and Ghana.

Ninety eight percent of Ghanaians believe same-sex relationships are immoral. At 93%, the figure is slightly lower in Uganda. This is in stark contrast to European countries like Spain, Germany, Britain and Italy, where less than 20% rate homosexuality as unacceptable.

For South Africa, the findings could explain why, despite the human rights guaranteed in the constitution, the country still experiences hate crimes, including violent attacks on members of the lesbian and gay community. Some stay in abusive marriages rather than face the stigma of divorce, while others abandon their babies because their families view abortion as taboo.

Speaking on the poll, former Constitutional Court Justice Zak Yacoob said there was a “huge disconnect” between societal values and the constitution. He suspected that the true picture of South Africans’ views on moral issues was in fact “much worse”.

Lisa Vetten, researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, said: “We have a constitution that aspires to ideals and values that are not shared by many people and one of the things that we don't pay enough attention to is that we are a secular state. The line between church and state is not as clear as it should be.”

Chairman of the Free Society Institute, Jacques Rousseau criticised the use of morality as a “dressed up form of prejudice” that was often out of sync with the constitution.

He said that people failed to think critically about their morals but rather unquestioningly accepted the beliefs “handed down” to them.

“It might be that the time is long overdue to discuss the role of religion in our country,” Vetten added.

Other experts questioned the meaning of morality, saying rather than the items polled, South Africans should be concerned with “real moral issues” such as racism, lack of housing and unfair wages for domestic workers.