Johannesburg - Leading human rights organisations have urged President Cyril Ramaphosa in an open letter, to sign off on the Civil Union Amendment Bill that affords same-sex or same-gender couples the right to be married by any state-employed marriage officer and magistrate they choose.
South Africa became the fifth country in the world and the first in Africa to legalise same-sex marriage through the adoption of the Civil Union Act 17 of 2006, (Civil Union Act).
However, under Section 6 of the act, government-employed marriage officers can refuse to solemnise same-sex unions if they state their religious objection in writing to the minister of Home Affairs.
In 2017, then minister of home affairs, Hlengiwe Mkhize acknowledged that 421 of the ministry’s 1130 marriage officers were exempt from performing same-sex civil unions as they “objected on the grounds of conscience, religion or belief”.
Couples attempting to enter into civil unions in terms of the Civil Union Act have reported persistent systematic refusals by some officials of the Department of Home Affairs to offer them services including those related to the civil unions and partnerships because of their sexual orientation.
Co-host of African literature podcast, Cheeky Natives, Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane said signing the Civil Union Amendment Bill into law will mean the Department of Home Affairs will no longer be discriminatory.
“Currently, Section 6 as it stands, is basically state-sanctioned homophobia. Now, the effect of this limitation has a number of couples having horrible experiences at home affairs.
“Couples are turned away, and told they can’t be married,” he said.
Mokgoroane said challenges faced by LGBTQI+ people to access appropriate services from the Department of Home Affairs do not only end with civil unions and partnerships.
“Spouses who transitioned while married under the Marriage Act, and applied to change their gender marker, were compelled by the department to divorce and remarry under the Civil Union Act. They had to approach courts for assistance.
“In 2017, a Western Cape High Court judgment, KOS v Minister of Home Affairs, stated that actions of the department were unlawful and inconsistent with the Constitution.”
Queer human rights organisation, Iranti, along with the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), Women’s Legal Centre, Sonke Gender Justice, Triangle Project and Gender DynamiX are, therefore, calling on the president to take steps to address this issue by signing into law the Civil Union Amendment Bill.
Director of Iranti, Jabu Pereira said the organisation believed same-sex people were not afforded full rights.
“Iranti signed the open letter to the president because the Constitution is the highest law. We must protect and preserve and supersede our religious beliefs and personal value choices.
“The president must protect the most vulnerable, and in this matter, same-sex persons have not been afforded their full rights,” said Pereira.
Kayan Leung, policy development and advocacy manager, Sonke Gender Justice, noted: “Sonke believes that the amendment does not encroach on Section 15 right of state-employed officers in their capacity as private citizens.
“State officials must act in accordance with the state’s constitutional obligations and not based on their personal prejudices.”
Echoing her sentiments was LRC attorney Mandi Mudarikwa, who said the centre was committed to seeing a South Africa where all people were equal.
They are requesting the president to sign the Civil Union Amendment Bill into law as a way to reaffirm the commitment to realising the rights of LGBTQI+ people.
Attorney at the Women’s Legal Centre, Charlene May, said: “We are asking the president to sign the Civil Union Amendment Bill into law as a way to reaffirm the commitment to realising the rights of LGBTQI+ persons and, generally, to a more substantially equal South Africa.”