And now there are five....
With yesterday's passing of the Civil Union Bill, South Africa joins Canada, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Spain as countries where same-sex marriage is legal.
It can certainly be argued that the Bill still allows for discrimination in that it provides for equal but separate ways of getting married depending on whether a couple is gay or straight. But, as Johannesburg's Business Day put it in their editorial:
Do the means matter, as long as the end is the same? Can separate ever be equal?
It is possible that these questions will still have to be answered by the Constitutional Court, despite the legislature's best efforts to find the middle road. Government appears to have recognised that the compromise position is not ideal in the long term. Patrick Chauke, who chairs Parliament's home affairs committee, is already talking of the need for a comprehensive review of the marriage laws, whether or not the Civil Union Bill ends up before the Constitutional Court again.
In an ideal world, one law should cater for everyone, regardless of gender or sexual persuasion. But it was probably wise for the lawmakers to take into account the fact that SA is not an especially tolerant society -- our diversity may make living here infinitely more interesting than it is in more homogenous states, but there are downsides too. The Civil Union Bill could be seen in the same way as some of the political reforms that were introduced in the dying days of the apartheid era. They did not go nearly far enough, but served as a means of persuading a conservative society to accept long-overdue change without provoking avoidable conflict. The sky did not fall in, and racial attitudes have progressed rapidly since then.
If the Civil Union Act serves to extend an existing right to more South Africans, while at the same time placating traditionalists, it would be churlish to be overly critical of its means of doing so.