Affording post-relationship rights to unmarried intimate life partners in South Africa — A comparative analysis of the legal position

Authors: Brigitte Clark & Belinda van Heerden

ISSN: 1996-2177
Affiliations: Associate Professor, School of Law, University of KwaZulu-Natal; Honorary Visiting Researcher, Oxford Brookes University; Retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa
Source: South African Law Journal, Volume 140 Issue 3, p. 611-646


Unmarried cohabitation has become an international phenomenon. A wide diversity of legislative and judicial approaches to cohabitation exist in different jurisdictions, and there are divergent views on whether to protect either the traditional family or vulnerable partners. This debate appears to be central to how to protect vulnerable parties: countries adopt either a contractual laissez-faire approach based on the protection of marriage or a default status-based legislative cohabitation regime. After analysing the international situation, we address the need for South African law to protect life partners or those in religious marriages not yet recognised by law when the relationship is terminated by death or separation. We note that in South Africa, the choice to marry or cohabit permanently is often illusory in the context of the lives of many vulnerable partners. Recent case law has highlighted the need to encourage Parliament to pass legislation to protect such relationships. The South African Law Reform Commission has produced a Discussion Paper which inter alia provides for the recognition of certain life partnerships but still excludes myriad relationships requiring protection in this country. We argue that South African family law urgently needs to draft legislation on these relationships to reflect the lives of many vulnerable South Africans.