Is a Customary Marriage in a Community of Property in South Africa?

Is customary marriage in a community of property in South Africa?

In South Africa, customary marriages are generally recognized as being “in community of property,” unless there is an agreement to the contrary registered with the marriage. This means that unless a couple signs a prenuptial agreement specifying a different marital property regime, all assets and debts acquired by either spouse from the date of the marriage onwards are shared equally. This is the default marital regime under the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of 1998.

Here’s a bit more detail:

  1. Recognition of Customary Marriages Act (1998): This Act formally recognizes customary marriages, which are defined as marriages conducted according to the traditions and customs of indigenous African peoples in South Africa. The Act stipulates that these marriages must be registered within a certain period to ensure legal recognition.
  2. Community of Property: Without a prenuptial agreement, the spouses’ estates (what they own and owe) are combined into a joint estate, meaning that they share ownership of all assets and are jointly liable for debts, irrespective of who incurred them or who earned or acquired the assets.
  3. Contracting Out: Couples entering into a customary marriage can opt out of the default in community of property regime by drafting a prenuptial agreement, which needs to be registered. This agreement allows them to declare their marriage as “out of community of property,” with or without the accrual system, which can alter how assets are handled upon divorce or death.
  4. Legal Proceedings and Documentation: For the agreement to be valid, it must be executed by a notary and registered at the deeds office before the marriage takes place. If the customary marriage is not registered, difficulties can arise, particularly in the division of property in the event of divorce or the death of a spouse.

This system aims to protect the rights of spouses within customary marriages, particularly in the context of equality and fairness, aligning with the principles of the South African constitution.

advantages and disadvantages of customary marriage

Customary marriages, recognized under the customs and traditions of indigenous peoples, can have both advantages and disadvantages, influenced by cultural, social, and legal factors. These marriages are particularly significant in places like South Africa, where they are legally recognized alongside civil marriages. Here’s a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages:

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  1. Cultural Continuity and Identity: Customary marriages are deeply rooted in the traditions and heritage of the community. They help preserve cultural identity and practices, fostering a sense of belonging and continuity among generations.
  2. Community and Family Bonds: These marriages often involve not just the couple but the entire family and community, strengthening bonds and ensuring community cohesion and support.
  3. Legal Recognition: In countries like South Africa, customary marriages are legally recognized, giving them the same status as civil marriages. This legal framework provides spouses with rights to property, inheritance, and protection under the law.
  4. Flexibility: Customary marriages can offer more flexibility in terms of ceremony and practice, allowing them to be tailored to the specific traditions and expectations of the communities involved.
  5. Support Systems: Because these marriages typically involve extensive family input, individuals may benefit from stronger support systems, which can provide assistance in times of financial, emotional, or physical need.


  1. Potential for Gender Inequality: Traditional customs may sometimes perpetuate gender roles that disadvantage women, particularly regarding inheritance rights, divorce, and decision-making within the marriage.
  2. Legal and Administrative Challenges: Although legally recognized, the procedures for registering customary marriages might not be well understood, leading to challenges in proving the legality of the marriage, which can affect everything from inheritance to custody of children.
  3. Polygamy Issues: Customary laws in some cultures allow polygamy, which might lead to issues of equality, emotional well-being, and financial complications within families, particularly affecting women.
  4. Modern-Day Conflicts: The traditional aspects of customary marriages might clash with modern values, particularly those related to individual rights and freedoms, leading to potential conflicts within families and communities.
  5. Divorce Complications: Divorce in customary marriages can be complex, especially if the marriage was not officially registered. This can lead to difficulties in enforcing rights related to alimony, child support, and property division.
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Customary marriages blend tradition with legal recognition, offering unique benefits tied to cultural identity and community support, but they also face challenges, especially regarding the balance between traditional practices and modern legal standards.

grounds for dissolution of customary marriage

The dissolution of a customary marriage in jurisdictions like South Africa follows the same general grounds as for civil marriages, as stipulated under the Divorce Act. Here’s a breakdown of the common grounds on which a customary marriage can be dissolved:

Grounds for Divorce

  1. Irretrievable Breakdown of the Marriage: This is the most common ground for divorce. It means that the relationship has deteriorated to such an extent that there is no reasonable prospect of restoring a normal marital relationship. This could be evidenced by a variety of factors such as constant arguing, lack of communication, infidelity, or extended periods of separation.
  2. Mental Illness or Continuous Unconsciousness: The court may grant a divorce if one of the spouses has been mentally ill or continuously unconscious for a specified period. This generally involves situations where a spouse has been admitted to a mental institution or has a severe mental disorder that makes a continued marriage relationship untenable.
  3. Adultery: If one spouse commits adultery, the other spouse can file for divorce. Although adultery is not as strong a ground as it used to be due to changing societal norms, it is still a valid reason for the dissolution of a marriage under South African law.
  4. Abuse or Cruelty: Physical or emotional abuse can be grounds for divorce. This includes any form of domestic violence or persistent cruelty that makes living with the spouse intolerable.

Process of Divorce in Customary Marriages

  • Filing for Divorce: The spouse who seeks the divorce must file a petition for divorce in a court that has jurisdiction over their marital home or where the defendant (the other spouse) resides.
  • Service of Process: The divorce petition must be served to the other spouse, providing them an opportunity to respond.
  • Settlement and Mediation: Many courts encourage mediation to resolve issues such as property division, custody of children, and spousal support. If the parties can agree, they can make a settlement agreement that the court can make an order of court.
  • Trial: If mediation fails, the divorce will proceed to trial where the court will make decisions based on the evidence presented.
  • Final Decree: Once all issues are resolved, the court will issue a final divorce decree, legally ending the marriage.
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  • Cultural Sensitivity: In the context of customary marriages, it’s important that all proceedings respect the cultural practices and norms of the parties involved. This might affect aspects of the divorce, particularly those related to the division of property and custodial arrangements, which may follow customary law principles if both parties agree.
  • Legal Representation: Given the complexities of balancing customary law with formal legal standards, obtaining competent legal representation is crucial to navigate the divorce process effectively.

Understanding these grounds and the associated legal processes can help individuals in customary marriages approach divorce proceedings with better preparedness and awareness of their rights and obligations.


Does paying lobola mean you are married in community of property

No, paying lobola alone does not mean you are married in community of property. In South Africa, for example, customary marriages are considered to be in community of property by default only if they are legally registered and there is no prenuptial agreement specifying a different marital property regime. Simply paying lobola does not automatically register the marriage nor does it determine the property regime; these aspects require additional legal steps.