- Same-sex marriage is now official in South Africa after it was signed into law yesterday by the Acting President Phumsile Mlambo-Ngcuka. As of tomorrow, South African gay and lesbian couples can register for marriage.
President Thabo Mbeki should have appended his signatures on the amended Civil Union Bill, but he is currently out of the country leaving the responsibilities to Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka, South Africa's Vice-President.
The act will regulate the solemnisation and registration of civil unions through either marriage or a civil partnership as well as accord legal consequences to same-sex marriages in line with other marriages.
Last year, South Africa's Constitutional Court ruled that the common law definition of marriage in the country's Marriage Act of 1961 was not consistent with the constitution because it failed to give rights to same-sex couples to enjoy the status, benefits and responsibilities just like the heterosexual couples.
The court set 1 December this year as the deadline for the law to be amended and passed by the legislative. This was done by a large parliamentary majority earlier this month, and until today the bill only lacked the President's signature.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) in a statement today welcomed the development because it brings the country's legislation in tandem with the constitution as required by last year's constitutional court ruling.
ANC officials defended their approach to the matter, which they say is only geared towards respecting the human rights of all South Africans, eradicate discrimination as well as honour judicial orders.
"The ANC remains sensitive to, and respects, the divergent views expressed during the consideration of the bill," the ANC statement said, commending organisations and individuals who debated on the issue in a "mature and dignified manner".
"It is important for the development of our democracy that space is created for a broad range of views to be heard, even where there are sharp differences," the statement added. The bill had caused some controversy as it was rejected by South Africa's religious right and went contrary to popular opinion about homosexuality.
Same-sex couples now have the right to marry but the Pretoria Home Affairs Department so far has not made any announcements regarding the practical application of the new legal situation. According to a statement by the Presidency, the act came "into operation" already today. Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula however has not informed whether this means same-sex couples can start registering for marriage, or where to do so.
A spokesman of the department today however indicated that, starting tomorrow, same-sex couples should be able to register for preparing their wedding or civil union. Registration could be done at any office used by heterosexual couples except religious communities, which were exempted from the new law.
Within short, however, some church communities also expect to legally wed same-sex couples. The Metropolitan Community Church has already announced it is seeking authorisation from the Home Affairs Ministry - as provided by the new law - to wed gay and lesbian couples and that it hopes to be able to start marry the first couples already this weekend. The Ministry however says it could take up to three weeks to see off the first authorities priests.
The South African parliament in November overwhelmingly voted in favour of same-sex marriage. It is ranked as the first and fifth country in Africa and the world to officialise same-sex marriage. Other legislators are Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada and the United States.
The issue had opened a new page in Africa, where most countries or people see South Africa as model in the continent. It has been sparking debates on national media of the countries where gays and lesbians cover their face - a sign that gradually some countries might give the same-sex marriage a second thought.
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