Legal Reasons for Divorce in South Africa

What are the Legal Reasons for Divorce in South Africa (grounds for divorce)? South Africa’s legal system provides clear and specific grounds for divorce, ensuring that individuals seeking to end their marriage have well-defined paths to follow.

From irretrievable breakdowns and mental illness to abuse and desertion, the laws are designed to address various challenging situations within a marriage. Understanding these legal reasons not only helps those contemplating divorce but also sheds light on the protections and considerations offered by the Divorce Act, 70 of 1979.

Let’s explore these grounds in detail and see how they shape the journey of divorce in South Africa!

List of Legal Reasons for Divorce in South Africa

Divorce in South Africa is governed by the Divorce Act, 70 of 1979. The Act outlines specific legal grounds on which a divorce can be granted. Below are the primary reasons, each essential for understanding the legal landscape of divorce in South Africa.

Irretrievable Breakdown of the Marriage

The most common ground for divorce is the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. This is defined under Section 4(1) of the Divorce Act. It occurs when the marital relationship has deteriorated to such an extent that there is no reasonable prospect of restoring a normal marriage. Several situations can illustrate this breakdown:

  • Continuous separation: According to Section 4(2)(a), if the couple has been living apart for a continuous period of at least one year, this can be evidence of an irretrievable breakdown.
  • Adultery: If one spouse commits adultery, and the other finds it impossible to continue the marriage, this can be grounds for divorce as noted in Section 4(2)(b). For example, discovering that a spouse has a long-term affair with a co-worker could lead to divorce.
  • Habitual criminality: If a spouse engages in criminal behavior and becomes a habitual criminal, the other spouse can file for divorce on this basis, also under Section 4(2)(c).
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Also Read: What is a non-working spouse entitled to in a divorce in South Africa

Mental Illness or Continuous Unconsciousness

Another ground for divorce in South Africa is when one spouse suffers from mental illness or continuous unconsciousness, as specified in Section 5 of the Divorce Act. Specific criteria must be met for these conditions to be valid reasons:

  • Mental illness: The spouse must have been institutionalized for mental illness for at least two years, and there must be no reasonable prospect of recovery. Section 5(1) requires medical evidence and psychiatric evaluations to support this claim.
  • Continuous unconsciousness: If a spouse has been in a state of continuous unconsciousness for at least six months, and there is no reasonable prospect of recovery, the other spouse can file for divorce under Section 5(2).

Abuse and Domestic Violence

Abuse and domestic violence are significant reasons for divorce. South African law recognizes that a spouse should not have to endure abusive behavior. Abuse can take several forms and is generally considered under the broader context of irretrievable breakdown:

  • Physical abuse: Any form of physical violence inflicted by one spouse on the other can be grounds for divorce under Section 4(2)(d). An example is regular physical assaults leading to injuries.
  • Emotional and psychological abuse: This includes behaviors that cause emotional distress and psychological harm. Constant verbal abuse, threats, and manipulative behaviors are examples.

Read: What are my rights as a wife in a divorce in South Africa


Desertion occurs when one spouse abandons the other without consent, intending to end the marital relationship. There are two main forms of desertion:

  • Actual desertion: When one spouse physically leaves the matrimonial home without the intention of returning. The period of desertion must be at least one year for it to qualify as a ground for divorce, as described in Section 4(2)(e).
  • Constructive desertion: This happens when one spouse’s behavior forces the other to leave the matrimonial home. The law views the spouse whose behavior caused the separation as the deserter, also covered under Section 4(2)(e).
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Incompatibility and Unhappiness

While not as legally robust as other grounds, incompatibility and unhappiness in the marriage can also be considered under the broader category of irretrievable breakdown. This encompasses situations where the spouses find it impossible to live together harmoniously:

  • Constant arguing and lack of communication: Continuous conflicts and an inability to resolve differences can indicate that the marriage has broken down irretrievably under Section 4(1).
  • Lack of shared interests and goals: When spouses no longer share common interests or goals, it can lead to a breakdown in the relationship.

Read: Who Loses The Most in a Divorce Process in SA?

Understanding the legal reasons for divorce in South Africa is crucial for anyone considering this difficult decision. Each ground has specific criteria and requires adequate evidence to support the claim. From irretrievable breakdown to abuse, these reasons highlight the various ways a marriage can fail and provide a framework for seeking legal separation under the Divorce Act, 70 of 1979.