By Phindile Cele, former Johannesburg intern


The coming into effect of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998 brought recognition of both monogamous and polygamous marriages, as in the past these types of marriages were recognised as customary unions. The Act introduced changes to ensure that customary marriages adhere to the principles provided by the Constitution. This is particularly evident in how the Act attacks the rules of patriarchy, and aims to ensure that women have the same status and capacity as their husband to acquire and dispose of their assets in a customary marriage. Previously, the matrimonial property system in customary marriages was regulated by the status differentiation between the rankings of houses in a polygamous marriage. The arrangement consisted of:

  • Family property: property acquired by the family head which has not been allocated to any of his wives’ houses, that he as the head has the right to use as he pleases; and
  • General property: property acquired by the wife and children of a household.
    This arrangement was considered unconstitutional as it placed women and their children at a disadvantage in that women involved in such marriages generally lack the opportunity to earn an income and acquire property. Previously a wife did not own any of her property during her marriage and would leave her marriage without having acquired any property because her capacity as a wife was limited to her husband’s exclusive capacity to administer the immovable property.

As a result, the Act now provides that the default matrimonial system for monogamous customary marriages is a marriage in community of property and of profit and loss, unless the parties enter into an antenuptial contract excluding community of property, profit and loss. Section 7(6) was enacted to ensure the protection of all parties who wish to enter into a customary marriage, especially women. This section provides that a husband involved in a customary marriage who wishes to enter into a further customary marriage with another woman after the commencement of the Act must make an application to the court to approve a written contract which will regulate the future matrimonial property system of his marriages. After taking into consideration the rights of all the interested parties, the court terminates the existing property system and distributes the property between the spouses equally.

Statistics however reveal that most parties who enter into customary marriages are indigent people who are based in areas where there are issues of inaccessibility to courts, which then results in section 7(6) being less effective. The Act as well is silent on the consequences of non-compliance. However, we find authority on the principle of non-compliance in the case of Mayelane v Ngwenyama. The Supreme Court of Appeal in 2012 heard that section 7(6) deals merely with the patrimonial consequences and that non-compliance does not render the marriage void. The court further found that the failure to comply with the mandatory provisions of this subsection cannot but lead to the invalidation of subsequent customary marriages, but the further marriage would be out of community of property. This however means that the consequences of their patrimonial interests are directly opposed to each other as we see the rights of both wives compromised. This is the reason why in most polygamous marriages we find that one spouse is married in community of property and the other spouse is married out of community of property. This creates conflict as the first wife’s property is often used to establish the prospective wife’s household, and the prospective wife would own nothing, while the first wife owns a share in her property with their husband. It is evident that a further customary marriage without a court-approved written contract influences one or both of the spouses negatively.

As it stands in terms of the Act, there is a need for development in terms of the consequences of non-compliance of section 7(6). There is a great need to advise and encourage those who are parties to a customary marriage, or those who are looking into entering into a customary marriage, about the consequences the law will present them with should they decide to enter into a further marriage without obtaining approval from the court.


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