“Today shows a successful Pride without violence and without intimidation is possible in Africa.”

The first-ever LGBTI Pride parade to be held in the deeply conservative kingdom of Swaziland (recently renamed eSwatini) took place on June 30th. About 500 people took part in the march, Swazi Media reported.

The event attracted attention all over the world in mainstream and social media. The Times Sunday newspaper in Swaziland reported on July 1st: “By all intents and purposes, it was a march that confronted and attempted to break the socially entrenched homophobic stereotypes.”

There was high anticipation among the marchers about whether they would be allowed to proceed towards the city centre, the newspaper reported, “but the agreement with the police was to avoid those busy areas of the city for security reasons. The messages out there were about sensitising society to embrace this group of people, show them respect, and love them just as God loved them.”

US Ambassador to Swaziland Lisa Peterson and EU Ambassador Esmeralda Hernandez Aragones were among those to speak on the need for human rights and justice for all people.

Homosexual acts are illegal in Swaziland. A May 2016 report by Rock of Hope, which campaigns for LGBTI equality in Swaziland and organised the Pride event, said that laws, social stigma and prejudice prevented LGBTI organisations from operating freely.

The report also referred to inequality in access to general healthcare for LGBTI people including HIV prevention, testing and treatment services, and said that they are condemned openly by society, while abuses against them continue to go undocumented and unprosecuted.

But despite this hostility, for Melusi Simelane, communications officer for Rock of Hope who spoke to the BBC, it was a case of: “If not now, when?”

pride flag“We are a small country with a very welcoming culture.” Image: Creative Commons 2008

“The right time [for a Pride parade] will never come,” he said. “It is an issue of being courageous enough. So we decided if no-one is going to do it, we would.”

“I was so impressed by his determination, really against all the odds, to pull this off,” said Matt Beard, chief executive of All Out, a “global movement for love and equality” which helped support the event.

“There have not been many Prides in Africa, and this is a small country – an absolute monarchy where homosexuality is illegal – and this young guy had this vision to pull together this moment.

“This will be the first time this community has been able to come together in public, to have that level of dignity and pride in themselves.”

However, that doesn’t mean the idea of walking proudly through the streets of this tiny nation – home to just 1.1m people – was not slightly nerve wracking, even if the authorities had given permission for it to go ahead.

“There is persecution each and every day,” Mr Simelane said. “We are harassed, we are violently abused, we are emotionally abused.”

And yet, Mr Simelane, who is a full-time student alongside his role at Rock of Hope, said that in fact, most people were excited to see what the day would bring. “We are a small country with a very welcoming culture. Everyone is interesting to see what it is going to look like,” he said.

Gay Star News hailed the march as a ”massive success”. Matt Beard of All Out believes the day will catalyse the LGBTI movement and possibly create a pathway to decriminalize homosexuality. “Today shows a successful Pride without violence and without intimidation is possible in Africa,” he said.

Pride came to another southern African country, Namibia, a few years ago. Uganda has held an annual pride parade since 2012; 2016 marked the first parade since the controversial “anti-gay” law was scrapped. There have been pride parades in South Africa since 1990.

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