[JURIST] The South African National Assembly [official website] passed the Civil Unions Bill [JURIST report] Tuesday by a 230-41 vote, becoming the first African nation to recognize same-sex unions [JURIST news archive]. 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 bill must be approved by the National Council of Provinces [official website], the upper house of parliament, and signed by President Thabo Mbeki before it becomes law.
The legislation was drafted in response to an October 2005 ruling [judgment,PDF; summary; JURIST report] of the South African Constitutional Court holding 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 new legislation. BBC News has more. SAPA has local coverage.