Protesters in front of the Khayelitsha Magistrate Court in Cape Town, South Africa in memory of Zoliswa Nkonyana. (Photo by Anders Kelto)

Dozens of protesters gather in a large courtyard in front of the Khayelitsha Magistrate Court in Cape Town, South Africa.

They’re here in memory of Zoliswa Nkonyana, a 19-year-old lesbian who was brutally murdered here in 2006. Nkonyana was followed home by a group of young men, after a confrontation at a local bar. The men kicked, clubbed and strangled her, and threw bricks at her head.

Nkonyana died in the street, just a few yards from her home.

Five years later, the trial of the men convicted of murdering her, drags on. Gay rights groups complain the court hasn’t given the case priority. In October, four young men were found guilty of the murder, but the sentencing was postponed. Angy Peter, a legal advocate for the Nkonyana family, said the court’s handling of the case confirms people’s fears about hate crimes.

“If you are a lesbian in this country and you get killed, it goning to spend five years waiting for a result and you don’t even know what those results will be,” she said.

In terms of gay rights, South Africa is among the most progressive countries in the world. The constitution explicitly bans discrimination based on sexual orientation. 

It’s one of just ten countries in the world — and the only one in Africa — to recognize same-sex marriages. Gay couples are allowed to adopt.

But those legal protections don’t necessarily translate into tolerance on the ground. Gays and lesbians say they face discrimination in the justice system.

“One would be dishonest if one were to argue that there is no homophobia in South Africa,” said Tlali Tlali, a spokesman for the South African Justice Department. “There is homophobia in South Africa.”

Last year, gay rights groups filed a complaint about his department’s handling of hate crimes against gays and lesbians.

Tlali said the agency took the complaint very seriously. It launched a national task force that includes officials from six government agencies, as well as leaders of the LGBT community. The task force is pressing the courts to expedite hate crime cases and exploring legislation that would toughen punishments.

It’s also requiring police officers, prosecutors, and judges to undergo sensitivity training. According to Tlali, the message to authorities is clear.

“It really doesn’t matter what the sexual orientation of the victim is. You need to treat this particular individual with the necessary levels of professionalism, with the necessary courtesy, so that they must feel the government is there for everybody, regardless of race, color, creed – including sexual orientation. That is what South Africa is about,” Tlali said.

But he concedes they’re fighting a difficult battle. He said it’s one thing to tell someone how to act — it’s another to change the way they think.

At a small bar in Khayelitsha, music blares from the speakers, as a group of young people swig beer at a table. One woman, who asked to be identified by her first name, Amanda, said she came here because it’s a gay-friendly bar. That's always the case in Cape Town’s poor black townships.

Amanda said people at other bars often harass her for being a lesbian.

“They even say that it’s un-African, being a woman, loving another woman. It’s not possible, they say,” she said.

Another woman at the bar, who asked to be called Sarah, said police officers are the worst offenders. A few months ago, one of her friends was the victim of what’s sometimes called “corrective rape” – a violent act aimed at “curing” lesbians and turning them straight. It’s an alarmingly common crime in South Africa, and according to Sarah, going to the police is a waste of time.

“If you go to the police station to lay a charge as a lesbian, first question they will ask you, why are you lesbian?," Sarah said. "They don’t listen to what you came to do. They ask you why are you lesbian. Why are you sleeping with other girls?”

Sarah said it’s great that the government is requiring sensitivity training, but she questions how effective those programs will be.

“Even if they do the workshops and whatever, if the people they are hiring don’t want to change, they won’t change,” she said.

Prosecutors are expected to argue for a longer sentence in the murder of Zoliswa Nkonyana, because the killing was motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation. If they do, it will be the first time the state’s attorneys have made this argument.

The sentencing is scheduled for December 19th.