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Wednesday, February 4, 1998 Published at 16:59 GMT

image: [ BBC Despatches ]Richard Downes
South Africa

The High Court in South Africa has ruled illegal an attempt by the police medical insurance scheme to refuse medical cover to the partner of a homosexual officer. The policewoman concerned, Jolande Langemaat, applied for medical cover for her female partner, but was refused on the grounds that their homosexual relationship was not comparable to a heterosexual marriage. The High Court said the police medical scheme acted unconstitutionally by discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Richard Downes reports from Johannesburg:

South Africa was the first country in the world to enshrine homosexual rights in its constitution. But while there's protection for homosexuals at the highest level of the law, discrimination is still widespread.

The age of sexual consent, for example, is 16 years of age for heterosexuals, but 19 for gay couples. The police medical scheme argued that the lesbian relationship at the centre of the case was purely a love affair and couldn't be compared to a marriage.

But Captain Langemaat told the court that her relationship with Beverley-Ann Myburgh was 11 years old, and the couple owned a house together. If one partner died, the other was the sole beneficiary of the will.

She argued that their relationship was equivalent to marriage, and called on the court to force the medical scheme to extend cover to her partner. The judge agreed, saying committed gay and lesbian relationships were no different from heterosexual marriages.

The couple hugged each other outside the court, and said they were delighted. South Africa is a conservative country where sexuality is concerned, and there's often open hostility to homosexuals.

But gay people have benefited from the overthrow of apartheid. Their cause has been championed by leading figures in the ruling African National Congress, and activists believe that it's now only a matter of time before gay couples can marry and adopt children.

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