Gay couples in South Africa can be joined in matrimony under new legislation passed by parliament in an unprecedented move in a continent where homosexuality is taboo. 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 by framers determined to make discrimination a thing of the past.
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"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 color, creed, culture and sex," Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula declared.
South Africa's constitution was the first in the world to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, providing a powerful legal tool to gay rights activists, even though South Africa remains conservative on such issues. A traditionalist lawmaker, Kenneth Meshoe, said Tuesday 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.
"The roots of this bill lie in many years of struggle," said Defense Minister Mosuia Lekota, who reminded lawmakers that many homosexuals went into exile and prison with ANC members during white racist rule.
"This country cannot afford to be a prison of timeworn prejudices which have no basis in modern society. Let us bequeath to future generations a society which is more democratic and tolerant than the one that was handed down to us," Lekota said.
In 1989 Denmark became the first country to
legislate for same-sex partnerships and several other European Union members have followed suit. In the US, only the state of Massachusetts allows gay marriage, Vermont and Connecticut permit civil unions, and more than a dozen states grant lesser legal rights to gay couples.
Activists in Europe hailed South Africa as a shining example and gay couples in the country started making wedding plans.
"It's a beautiful thing for South Africa today."