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South Africa debates same-sex marriage

Gay marriage has been legal for three years, but some groups want to overturn ruling.

Gays flaunt it at the Johannesburg Gay Pride march recently held here. South Africa is the only African country where gay marriage is legal, but advocates and opponents of gay rights both agree that challenges to the law are mounting. (Nicolas Brulliard/GlobalPost)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When the Joburg Pride parade proceeded through the northern suburbs of South Africa’s largest city recently, the reaction from onlookers seemed one of overwhelming support. Residents waved friendly signs, drivers honked and even traffic controllers showed their solidarity by sporting tutus.

South Africa is the only country in Africa to allow same-sex marriage, and its government and judiciary system have proved particularly progressive in their handling of gay rights issues, but both advocates and opponents of gay rights agree there is a growing movement to challenge the gay community’s legal advances.

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“People are just not prepared to let it go,” said Steve Swart, a member of parliament representing the African Christian Democratic Party. “Legislation was passed. Legislation can always be relooked at.”

After apartheid ended 15 years ago, South Africa moved quickly to grant recognition and rights to same-sex couples. As an organization that had fiercely fought the discrimination of the previous regime, the African National Congress-led government saw little logic in denying fundamental rights to a group based on sexual preference. South Africa's constitution became the first in the world to specifically enshrine the rights of homosexuals. Along the same lines, several court decisions ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, and in late 2005 the constitutional court gave parliament one year to make it legal for same-sex couples to marry.

The legalization process wasn’t a smooth one. Opponents marched on government buildings, and churches and other organizations voiced their opposition to same-sex marriage during a series of public hearings.

“To my knowledge the overwhelming majority of people were against same-sex marriage being legalized in South Africa under any circumstances,” said Errol Naidoo, president of the Family Policy Institute, an organization that promotes conservative family values.

The ANC had a strong enough majority of loyal members in parliament to get the law passed despite opposition from the ACDP and others, and in December 2006 South Africa’s first same-sex marriage was celebrated.

Passage of the bill did not achieve widespread acceptance for the gay cause. South Africa’s religious and traditional leaders by and large frown upon homosexuality, and South African society remains quite conservative. While homophobia is often latent, it can flare up in the most brutal of ways.

Last month, a man was sentenced to life in prison for the gang rape and murder of Eudy Simelane, a former member of South Africa’s national women's soccer team and an openly gay woman. The body of the lesbian activist was found in a field last year.