Marriage in South Africa

Marriage in South Africa

Marriage in South Africa exists in a number of different forms, as a result of the diversity of religions and cultures in the country. Historically the legal definition of marriage, derived from the Roman-Dutch law, was limited to monogamous marriages between opposite-sex couples.[1] Since 1998 the law has recognised marriages, including polygynous marriages, conducted under African customary law,[2] and in 2006 South Africa became the fifth country in the world to allow same-sex marriage.[3]



The laws under which a marriage may be contracted in South Africa are:

  • The Marriage Act, 1961,[4] which allows for the solemnisation of a civil or religious marriage between a man and a woman.
  • The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, 1998,[5] which allows for the registration of marriages under African customary law. Some communities' customary law allows for polygynous marriages, and these are recognised subject to certain conditions.
  • The Civil Union Act, 2006,[6] which allows for the union of two people of the same sex or of opposite sexes; the partners can choose whether their union is to be described as a marriage or as a civil partnership. The legal consequences of a marriage under the Civil Union Act are the same as those of a marriage under the Marriage Act.

A person may only be married under one of these laws at a time, except that a couple in a monogamous customary marriage can contract a marriage with each other under the Marriage Act.

Marriage officers

Marriages under the Marriage Act and the Civil Union Act must be solemnized by a marriage officer and in the presence of two witnesses. Magistrates are ex officio marriage officers, and civil servants (in practise usually officials of the Department of Home Affairs) may be designated as marriage officers by the Minister of Home Affairs. The Minister may also designate ministers of religion as marriage officers; they cannot solemnize marriages under the Civil Union Act unless their denomination has applied to the Minister to be registered to do so.


According to Statistics South Africa's Community Survey 2007, the marital status of South Africans over the age of 15 breaks down as follows:[7]

Married in a civil or religious ceremony 7,721,159 23.5%
Monogamously married under customary law 2,977,764 9.1%
Polygamously married 23,695 0.1%
Living together as if married 2,493,094 7.6%
Never married 16,803,267 51.1%
Widowed 2,020,677 6.1%
Separated 306,930 0.9%
Divorced 546,597 1.7%

In 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the Department of Home Affairs registered 171,989 marriages under the Marriage Act, of which 81,650 were solemnised by a minister of religion and 90,229 were solemnised by a government officer. 13,506 customary marriages were registered under the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, and 760 marriages or civil partnerships were registered under the Civil Union Act. In the same year 30,763 divorces were recorded.[8]

See also

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