LGBT South Africa vacation advice

In 1998, South Africa became the first country in the world to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. It was the fifth country in the world to legalise same sex marriage - and remains the only country in Africa to do so.

History of LGBT rights

From 1948-1994, homosexuality was a criminal offence in South Africa, punishable by up to seven years in prison. Gay people were harassed and persecuted, events were outlawed and activists were imprisoned under the harsh apartheid government. In 1998, under President Nelson Mandela, the Employment Equity Act was passed, with the aim of achieving equality in the workplace. A number of companies have since been taken to court following discriminatory incidents, with the court ruling against them. This was followed in 2000 by the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, a comprehensive law which forbids discrimination by individuals, private organisations and the government. This may be based on – amongst other things – sexual orientation, gender and HIV/AIDS status, as well as race, religion, disability, etc.
Appropriately for the country nicknamed the ‘rainbow nation’, the push for greater LGBT rights continued throughout the 2000s. As early as 2002, the court ruled that same sex couples should be given the same rights as married couples with regards to adoption. Same sex couples can adopt a child together, as well as adopting each other’s children. In 2006, the South African parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a bill permitting same-sex civil marriage. In addition, openly gay people may serve in the South African armed forces, and transgender people are permitted to alter their recorded gender in the population registry, allowing them to acquire updated passports and other identity documents.

Attitudes towards the
LGBT community

I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking at the launch of the global United Nations Free & Equal global education campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality in 2013
Just as the end of apartheid has not resulted in equality for South Africans, regardless of race, so enshrining equality and rights in law does not mean that there is no discrimination against LGBT people. Within some black communities, it is claimed that homosexuality is “un-African”, as it is associated with colonialism or Western culture. Even the South African President, Jacob Zuma, has been particularly outspoken against the civil marriage bill, and LGBT people continue to face social stigma – particularly in rural areas and in more traditional communities. South African society is comprised of many races, religions and contemporary and traditional beliefs and customs; unsurprisingly, therefore, attitudes towards sexuality and transgender people vary widely across the country. Sadly, discrimination and even violence towards homosexuals, including the horrific practice of “corrective rape”, is not uncommon, although as with most violent crime in South Africa, this takes place largely within local communities (particularly in poor townships), and the threat is often overstated, with foreign visitors unlikely to be targeted. And in a country with one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world, the reluctance of gay men to be open about their sexual orientation can cost them their lives.
Attitudes may be changing, though. While a survey carried out by the Other Foundation in 2008 found that some 84 percent of South Africans did not believe that homosexuality was morally acceptable, by 2013 this had dropped to 61 percent, with significantly increased support for same-sex marriage. However, other reports, as reported in Mamba Online, have showed a disturbing reversal in this trend in Gauteng province, and Human Rights Watch has reported on the harassment and violence faced by black lesbians and transgender men in particular. Journalist and filmmaker Laura Fletcher’s 2014 documentary African Pride covers some of these issues, including the contradictions between law and culture that influence the complex attitudes towards homosexuality in South Africa.
For more information on attitudes towards LGBT people in South Africa, see the full report from the Other Foundation. Interestingly, the report is titled “progressive prudes” because, according to the organisation, “the majority of South Africans think that gay and lesbian people should have the same human rights as other people and should be part of the cultures and traditions of South Africa – even though the majority also think that sex between people of the same sex is morally wrong.”

LGBT travel in South Africa

South Africa is a draw for many LGBT travelers as it is by far the most welcoming country on the continent. Equality is enshrined in its law, and it has many LGBT-owned tour operators and accommodations, as well as several festivals and events celebrating LGBT culture across the country, from Pride marches and film festivals to street parties. Cape Town, South Africa’s “Pink City”, is renowned for its LGBT community, events and nightlife, with the district of De Waterkant, close to the V&A Waterfront and Green Point, one of the main hubs. Other cities, including Johannesburg, Durban and Knysna, also have growing gay scenes, and the South Africa Tourist Board has several pages on its website promoting LGBT travel, with information on accommodation, venues and events.

While all the tour operators we work with describe themselves as LBGT friendly, it is worth asking questions to learn more about how this is put into practice in their South Africa vacations. It is easy to operate an LGBT-friendly tour in socially liberal Cape Town; however, it is less straightforward to incorporate village tours, homestays and explorations of South Africa’s more traditional cultures into an LGBT-friendly vacation. Good operators should be able to share information about customs and beliefs – not just for South Africa as a whole, but for individual regions and cultures across the country.
And while we always do our best to call out any discriminatory or other unethical behaviour within the tourism industry, we also recognise that there is a very fine – and at times blurred – line between expressing your identity (whether on the grounds of sexuality, religion or political beliefs, for instance), and being respectful of local customs as a responsible traveler. We would generally advise, for example, avoiding skimpy, see through or overly tight clothing, as well as public displays of affection when visiting more traditional communities. However, this advice applies for all visitors – regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about South Africa or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

LGBT festivals & events

Cape Town Pride – February-March. Ten days of marches, parties and parades across the city. Pink Loerie Mardi Gras, Knysna – April-May. Featuring parades, concerts, art exhibitions and parties. Durban Gay & Lesbian Film Festival – August-September. 10-day queer cinema festival, featuring local and international filmmakers. Gay Pride March, Johannesburg – September/October. The march through the cities is followed by street parties and an open air concert. Mother City Queer Project, Cape Town – December. An incredibly popular event described as Africa’s biggest gay costume party, attracting gay and straight crowds.
Read more in our guide to LGBT vacations
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Niko Knigge] [Top box: Niko Knigge] [Violence against lesbians protest: Charles Haynes] [Cultural experiences: South African Tourism]