Gay people in South Africa can be joined in matrimony under new legislation passed by parliament in an unprecedented move on a continent where homosexuality is taboo.
Traditionalists said they were saddened. Gay activists said the bill, passed yesterday, did not go far enough.
Veterans of the governing African National Congress hailed the Civil Union Bill for extending basic freedoms to everyone under the spirit of the country’s first post-apartheid constitution, adopted a decade ago.
“When we attained our democracy, we sought to distinguish ourselves from an unjust painful past, by declaring that never again shall it be that any South African will be discriminated against on the basis of colour, creed, culture and sex,” home affairs minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said.
South Africa’s constitution was the first in the world to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. That provided a powerful legal tool to gay rights activists, even though South Africa remains conservative on such issues.
Traditionalist MP Kenneth Meshoe said yesterday was the “saddest day in our 12 years of democracy” and warned that South Africa “was provoking God’s anger”.
Homosexuality is illegal in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana and most other sub-Saharan countries. Even in South Africa, gays and lesbians are often attacked because of their sexual orientation.
One church leader in Nigeria denounced the move as “Satanic” and another slammed it as recognition of “animal rights” rather than human rights, reflecting the views on a deeply conservative continent where some countries are debating constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriages.
Activists in Europe, where several countries have gay union provisions, hailed South Africa as a shining example and gay couples in the country started making wedding plans.
“For some people marriage means nothing. It is just a piece of paper, but we want that symbolism of having a legally binding document of our love,” said Lindiwe Radebe, who wants to marry her partner, Bathini Dambuza.
The bill provides for the “voluntary union of two persons, which is solemnised and registered by either a marriage or civil union”. It does not specify whether they are heterosexual or homosexual partnerships.
The National Assembly passed the bill 230-41 with three abstentions. It now has to go to the National Council of Provinces, which is expected to be a formality, before being signed into law by President Thabo Mbeki.