The South African parliament was expected to approve new legislation recognizing gay marriages Tuesday a first for a continent where homosexuality is largely taboo.
The Civil Unions bill, worked out after months of heated public discussion, has upset religious groups and traditional leaders, but gay rights activists say it does not go far enough.
The bill provides for the "voluntary union of two persons, which is solemnized and registered by either a marriage or civil union." It does not specify whether they are heterosexual or homosexual partnerships.
The National Assembly was expected to approve the bill, given the big majority held by the ruling African National Congress, despite the unhappiness of some ANC lawmakers.
The bill was drawn up in order to comply with a Constitutional Court ruling last December that said existing marriage legislation was unconstitutional, as it discriminated against same-sex couples.
The court gave the government a Dec. 1 deadline to change the laws, saying that otherwise same- sex marriages would be legalized by default.
But it also says marriage officers need not perform a ceremony between same-sex couples if doing so would conflict with his or her "conscience, religion and belief."
Gay rights groups criticized the "opt-out" clause, saying they should be treated the same as heterosexual couples, reports AP.
But in general, they hailed the new measure as a "rejection of previous attempts to render lesbian and gay people as second-class citizens."
"It demonstrates powerfully the commitment of our lawmakers to ensuring that all human beings are treated with dignity," said Fikile Vilakazi of the Joint Working Group, a national network of 17 gay and lesbian organizations.