It was 15 years ago that South Africa became the first nation on the continent and the fifth in the world to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.
On 30 November 2006, the Civil Union Act came into effect; allowing gay and lesbian couples to either marry or enter into a civil union.
Marriage equality in South Africa was a direct result of a 1 December 2005 Constitutional Court ruling that ordered Parliament to allow people of the same sex to marry within one year.
It took a network of activists and a lesbian couple, Marié Adriaana Fourie and Cecelia Johanna Bonthuys, to bring the case to the court to force the government’s hand.
The court unanimously ruled that it was indeed unconstitutional for the state to provide the benefits of marriage to opposite-sex couples while denying them to same-sex couples.
The court also said that if Parliament did not take action by 1 December 2006 to remedy this, then the Marriage Act would automatically be changed to allow same-sex marriages to take place.
The final outcome was something of a compromise. Rather than simply amending the Marriage Act, the government chose to create the Civil Union Act, a separate law. To make sure it didn’t discriminate, same-sex and opposite-sex couples can marry under the act.
Its passage within the year deadline was extremely tight and it almost didn’t make it. The bill was passed by the National Assembly on 14 November; the ANC ordered its MPs to vote for the bill and the DA allowed its MPs to vote according to their conscience.
The bill was then approved by the National Council of Provinces on 28 November. It was finally signed onto law on 29 November by Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and came into effect the following day.
South Africa’s first legal same-sex wedding took place in George, in the Western Cape, on Friday 1 December 2006 when Vernon Gibbs and Tony Halls exchanged vows and wedding rings at a Home Affairs office.
The couple, who ran a guest lodge and wildlife rescue centre, wore their game-ranger attire. The wedding was attended by friends, the media and the curious. It was solemnised by Petro Kruger, a Home Affairs marriage officer.
Vernon Halls-Gibbs told the SABC: “I just have one message I would like to give to everybody – that we are just two men who love each other and who have loved each other for a long time.”
The Civil Union Act was a great victory for the LGBT community in South Africa, giving same-sex couples the option to choose the rights, responsibilities and benefits of marriage. But the law has not been without its problems.
While it allows for civil marriages and unions between same-sex couples, churches are entitled to choose to not marry same-sex couples or to acknowledge these relationships. While some have started to accept same-sex unions, most churches still do not recognise these as “true” marriages.
Of course, just because there’s a law in place does not mean that everyone respects the concept of marriage equality. Same-sex couples continue to face homophobic discrimination from businesses and individuals, such as the now infamous Beloftebos wedding venue in the Western Cape .
The Civil Union Bill also allowed civil servants to refuse to marry same-sex couples based on their conscience or beliefs. The provision resulted in same-sex couples being treated as second class citizens by the state and being turned away from Home Affairs offices that did not have officials to provide the service.
After years of lobbying, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed the Civil Union Amendment Bill in October 2020 which removed this discriminatory clause. Home Affairs was given 24-months to implement the amendment bill and must in the meantime ensure that it can offer the service to same-sex couples at every branch.
In another major development in South Africa’s marriage equality story, the government is proposing to enact a new single inclusive marriage law, regardless of a person’s sex or gender, that will also accommodate transgender South Africans and could allow for polygamous queer marriages.
The journey to the full and equal recognition of all forms of love between consenting adults is still not complete, but we have come a very long way. Here’s to all those queer couples who have tied the knot over the last 15 years. Love has and will continue to win.