[JURIST] The South African National Council of Provinces [official website] has approved the Civil Unions Bill [JURIST report], legislation that would make South Africa [JURIST news archive] the first African nation to recognize same-sex unions [JURIST news archive] if President Thabo Mbeki [official profile] approves the measure. The lower house of the nation's parliament approved [JURIST report] the bill earlier this month in a 230-41 vote. While religious leaders inside the nation and elsewhere in Africa oppose the bill, calling it motivated by "foreign influence," gay rights groups have voiced their approval of the measure. The bill, without specific reference to heterosexual or same-sex couples, recognizes the "voluntary union of two persons, which is solemnized and registered by either a marriage or civil union." It also includes an opt-out clause, which allows officiants to refuse to perform a same-sex ceremony if it conflicts with his or her "conscience, religion and belief."
The government drafted the new law in response to an October 2005 South African Constitutional Court judgment [summary; JURIST report] that the 1961 Marriage Act [1997 extension text, PDF], effectively precluding same-sex marriages, violates the South African Constitution [text]. The court gave the government until December 1, 2006 to draft the new legislation. PinkNews has more.