[JURIST] South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka [BBC profile] Thursday approved the country's Civil Unions Bill [JURIST report], making South Africa [JURIST news archive] the first African nation to recognize same-sex unions [JURIST news archive]. Mlambo-Ngcuka signed the measure into law on behalf of President Thabo Mbeki [official profile] who is at a conference in Nigeria. Both houses of the South African parliament passed [JURIST report] the measure this month. The law, 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. SAPA has more.