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We brought rings and two witnesses to the Edenvale Home Affairs office because we had been told to.

It was 22 February 2009. I had gone to the office, located on a scrappy strip of motor-repair shops and panel beaters east of Johannesburg, to book our ceremony three weeks previously. My partner, C, and I had been together for nearly two decades, but we had little interest in the rites of marriage. We had decided to do it, now, solely because it would facilitate our move to France, where he had been offered a job. It was, we told each other, merely an administrative matter.

Three years before, the South African parliament had passed a law permitting same-sex marriage, upon injunction from the Constitutional Court. We could have done it more easily – through a gay rabbi I know, for example, or a gay judge who is a friend – but we wanted to see the system work for us. Even though we lived on the other side of town, we chose Edenvale because friends had had a positive experience there. Like all Home Affairs offices, it was grimy and arcane, contemptuous and chaotic; the last place on earth you would want to get married. In the old days, Home Affairs had been the processing room of apartheid: it told you who you were and where you could (and could not) be. It was still a place of profound alienation; of a million frustrations and rages a day.

And I was about to have one of them: I had been waiting in the queue since 2.30 p.m., and had only made it to the front just after 3 p.m. Although the office closed at half past three, processing stopped half an hour before, and I was just too late. I would have to come back the next day. I was on the brink of a spirited lecture on the meaning of ‘Batho Pele’, the department’s new slogan of ‘People First’, when one of the women behind the desk looked up at me, gold hoops in her ears to match her attitude, and barked: ‘Same sex or opposite sex?’

It took me a moment to comprehend. ‘Same sex,’ I said, a little too loudly, glancing round to see if any of the other clerks in the room would look up in shock, or perhaps just interest. They did not.

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