n South African Journal on Human Rights - The 'inevitability' of same-sex marriage in South Africa's post-Apartheid state

Volume 23, Issue 3
  • ISSN : 0258-7203



This article argues that the adoption of the Civil Union Act, extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, does not represent the inevitable and triumphant victory of a long legal and political struggle for the emancipation of gay men and lesbians in South Africa. A combination of luck, wise strategic leadership and fortitude eventually led to the adoption of full marriage rights for same-sex couples. The article traces the roots of this legal and political victory back to the debates about the inclusion of the sexual orientation clause in the South African Constitution and points to the importance of the distinct (conservative) legal strategy employed by the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality in achieving full partnership rights for all. The initial jurisprudence developed by the Constitutional Court created the basis for later legal victories and brought along judges who might have had some misgivings about the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples had the issue arisen earlier on. The Constitutional Court's judgment in left very little room for Parliament to manoeuvre because it emphasised the symbolic value of marriage and confirmed that a 'separate but equal' partnership law for same-sex couples would not pass constitutional muster. However, this important legal victory will not have any direct and immediate bearing on the lives of many gay men and lesbians in South Africa as they face social, cultural and economic hardship in ways that cannot be easily addressed through the legal reform of partnership laws. The improvement of the lives of ordinary gay men and lesbians will go hand in hand with changes in societal attitudes towards minority sexualities, which to a large extent will be dependent on grassroots activism and organisation. Because the battle for full marriage rights was a well directed, elite-based legal battle, it failed to build a sustainable, vibrant, grassroots movement to take on this task but the symbolic space created by the same-sex marriage reform may well begin to allow for the fostering of such a movement and thus for true emancipation of gay men and lesbians.

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