LGBTQ+ South Africa holiday advice

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 Free and Equal campaign in Cape Town

Attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community

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.

But 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 LGBTQ+ people. South African society is comprised of many races, religions, beliefs and customs; unsurprisingly, therefore, attitudes towards sexuality and gender vary widely across the country.

Within some communities, it is claimed that same-sex relationships are ‘un-African’, as they are associated with colonialism or Western culture – which, of course, is a myth. Words describing same-sex relationships in languages such as Setswana and Khoikhoi existed long before European colonists arrived. It was the colonists and Christian missionaries who accelerated the persecution of LGBTQ+ people. In the 21st century, the ‘colonial import myth’ has been perpetuated by former president Jacob Zuma, who shared homophobic views while speaking out against the civil marriage bill.

LGBTQ+ South Africans continue to face social stigma, thanks to these ideas amplified during colonial and apartheid eras – particularly in rural areas and conservative communities. Discrimination and violence towards LGBTQ+ people is not uncommon. As with most violent crime in South Africa, this takes place largely within local communities, particularly in poorer townships, with tourists unlikely to be targeted.

Changing times

Some attitudes may be changing. A survey carried out by the Other Foundation in 2008 found that 84 percent of South Africans did not believe that same-sex relationships were morally acceptable; by 2013 this had dropped to 61 percent. Ten years later, a in poll by Ipsos, just 19 percent of those surveyed opposed same-sex marriage and/or legal recognition.

The current South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, is often a vocal ally, speaking in videos celebrating the LGBTQ+ community and denouncing toxic masculinity, and there are now a number of openly LGBTQ+ politicians. In 2021, Lehlogonolo Machaba became the first openly transgender woman to make it into the finalists for Miss South Africa; there’s also been an increase in more inclusive LGBTQ+ pageants.
However, other reports have showed a disturbing reversal in this trend. At least 24 people were murdered in 2021 in bias-motivated attacks and traumatising conversion ‘therapy’ is still widely practised. 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.

Human Rights Watch reported on the harassment and violence faced by Black lesbian women and transgender men, who are especially vulnerable to assault due to a mix of discrimination against their race, gender, sexuality and assumed rebellion against patriarchal ideals. Journalist and filmmaker Laura Fletcher’s documentary African Pride covers some of these issues, including the contradictions between law and culture that influence the complex attitudes towards same-sex relationships in South Africa.

For more information on attitudes towards LGBTQ+ 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.”

History of LGBTQ+ rights

From 1948 to 1994, same-sex relationships were a criminal offence in South Africa – a ruling adopted from colonial Dutch law and punishable by up to seven years in prison. 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. 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 and disability.
Appropriately for the country nicknamed the ‘Rainbow Nation’, the push for greater LGBTQ+ rights continued throughout the 2000s. In 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, becoming the first – and, still, the only – African country to legalise same-sex 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. Non-binary genders, however, are not legally recognised.

How to support LGBTQ+ rights in South Africa

Back LGBTQ+-owned restaurants, bars, shops and accommodation in South Africa, and consider supporting local organisations such as…
Access Chapter 2 South Africa, which works to improve the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people through everything from informing public policy to offering legal support and education. OUT LGBT Well-being also does great work in campaigning and offering stigma-free sexual health services, as well as supporting victims of hate crimes and offering inclusion training. The Other Foundation focuses on fighting for gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights, giving grants to people and organisations who work to advance and defend human rights in Southern Africa.

LGBTQ+ travel in South Africa

South Africa is a draw for many LGBTQ+ travellers as it is by far the most welcoming country on the continent. Equality is enshrined in its law, and it has many LGBTQ+-owned tour operators and accommodations, as well as several festivals and events celebrating LGBTQ+ culture across the country, from Pride marches and film festivals to street parties.

Cape Town, South Africa’s ‘Pink City’, is renowned for its LGBTQ+ 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 LGBTQ+ travel, with information on accommodation, venues and events.

While all the tour operators we work with describe themselves as LGBTQ+-friendly, it is worth asking questions to learn more about how this is put into practice in their South Africa holidays. It is easy to operate an LGBTQ+ tour in socially liberal Cape Town; however, it is less straightforward to incorporate village tours, homestays and explorations of South Africa’s more conservative cultures into an LGBTQ+-friendly holiday. Good tour 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 traveller. We would generally advise, for example, avoiding public displays of affection when visiting rural 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 holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

LGBTQ+ festivals & events

Cape Town Pride – February-March. Ten days of marches, parties and parades across the city. Pink Loerie Mardi Gras and Arts Festival, Knysna – April-May. Featuring parades, concerts, art exhibitions and parties. Durban Gay and Lesbian Film Festival – usually August-November. A 10-day 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 a mixed crowd.
This guide is updated regularly but do check news sources such as Mamba Online and Human Rights Watch for more up-to-date information.
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]