By Lebogang Seale

Human rights and gender groups are appalled and outraged by Jacob Zuma's condemnation of same-sex marriages as "a disgrace to the nation and to God".

The ANC deputy president made these disparaging remarks during Sunday's Heritage Day celebrations in Kwadukuza, Kwazulu Natal.

His comments came at a time when parliament is preparing to hold public hearings on same-sex marriages, with a view to placing them on the same level as heterosexual marriages.

Addressing thousands, Zuma said in his personal capacity and "as a man" that same-sex marriages were a taboo that should not be tolerated in any normal society.

"When I was growing up, unqingili (homosexuals) could not stand in front of me," Zuma was quoted as saying.

Evashnee Naidoo, legal officer for the Durban Lesbian and Gay Community, said she was utterly shocked and taken aback by Zuma's statements, especially as he was a high-ranking member of the ruling ANC.

"We are appalled that a person of such standing in the community should make such utterances, especially at a time when we are actively fighting for the recognition of same-sex marriages. With all the resistance we are currently facing, it is shocking for such a prominent ANC member harbouring presidential ambitions to utter these statements.

"It is quite scary as we are not sure whether this is a reflection of the ANC as a whole," she said.

A joint working group of the Gay and Lesbian Community (GLC) was also quick to launch a scathing counter-attack on Zuma, saying his utterances were a form of hate speech displaying an attitude that suggested that gays and lesbians were not part of the proudly South African heritage.

"Such homophobic comments display his ignorance of lesbian and gay identities and our nation's diversities. How can a narrow-minded person like this be expected to lead our nation? It seems Zuma still has a lot to learn about leadership. A true leader leads with intellect and wisdom, not popularity and favour," the GLC said.

Human Rights Commission chief executive Tshidiso Thipanyane concurred, saying Zuma's statements were not only regrettable but dangerous too, with the potential to inflame homophobia in the country.

"It is regrettable that these statements were made by someone like Zuma, whose party was instrumental in adopting the constitution which is currently considering whether to adopt matrimonial rights for gays and lesbians," he said.

Chairperson for the Commission on Gender Equality Thuli Madi said Zuma's statements were "grossly inappropriate, irresponsible and highly discriminatory against homosexual persons".