30 November 2011

The LGBTI community celebrates 5 years of the enactment of the Civil Union Act this month

It was a long and difficult journey for gay and lesbian rights advocacy groups and individuals to legalise same sex marriage, especially in a significantly conservative South Africa.

Following heated public debates, deliberations and court battles on this matter, the Civil Union Act was finally signed into law on the 30th of November 2006 under President Thabo Mbeki's administration.

Then followed the much deserved celebrations around the country in many different ways - some getting married, some lining up to make their "previously unlawful" marriage legal and others initiating lobola negotiations since they had a "legal motivation" to the act.

The act was adopted to recognise and solemnise same-sex marriages since the older, more traditional, Marriage Act did not make provisions for such. The act is also open to heterosexual couples should they wish to register their partnership as a civil union rather than a "marriage".

The act made headlines across the world but more prominently within the African continent. Gay and lesbian people in some African countries tried to have their own celebrations but were victimised in countries where same-sex relationships are illegal.

A couple from George, in the Western Cape, Tony Halls and Vernon Gibbs were the first same-sex couple to wed legally in South Africa on the 1st of December 2006, a day after the civil union bill was passed into law. The ceremony was held at the Home Affairs office in George where, in their own words, "history was made".

Their wedding coincided with World Aids Day. They told a British newspaper, The Guardian, ‘We are so pleased we did it on December 1, World Aids Day. We dedicate our marriage to all HIV/AIDS sufferers and gay people who have experienced discrimination.'

Virginia Setshedi, Director at Equality Project, a gay and lesbian rights advocacy organization, said passing of this law meant the struggle is over in some way. "But I just wonder how convenient and friendly the actual process of registering for a civil union is because some people claim to have faced problems," she said.

Musa Ngubane, an LGBTI and human rights activist from the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) said, this act is something all South Africans should to be proud of - it shows that this country respects the human rights of all its citizens regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.

"We as a country are champions of human rights. It feels great knowing that should I as a lesbian woman wish to walk down the aisle, I can, and the state will officiate and recognize my marriage," she said.

South Africa has arguably set a good example, especially within its continent, in committing itself to upholding universal human rights.

The Civil Union Act, as argued by many LGBTI and human rights advocacy groups, is just another crucial step in promoting tolerance to bring about acceptance in the South African community.

SAHA is currently working with civil society organisations in the LGBTI sector to support the use of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) in their advocacy work  in order to protect their rights.