The limited judicial discretion to redistribute property in marriages out of community of property: Revisiting feminist arguments on intersectionality, women’s work and choice

Authors: Elsje Bonthuys and Azille Coetzee

ISSN: 1996-2193
Affiliations: BA, LLB, LLM (Stell) PhD (Cantab), Professor of law, University of the Witwatersrand; BA, LLB, BAHons, MA (Stell), PhD (Stell) Postdoctoral fellow, Department of Psychology and Department of Philosophy, Stellenbosch University
Source: Stellenbosch Law Review, Volume 34 Issue 1, 2023, p. 185 – 209


Section 7(3) of the Divorce Act 70 of 1979 gives courts a discretion to deviate from antenuptial contracts in marriages out of community of property without the accrual system, if it would be just to do so, because one of the spouses contributed to the growth of the other spouse’s estate. This is known as the discretion to make a redistribution order. However, when the provision was enacted, this discretion only applied to civil marriages concluded before 1984. Gradually, however, the discretion was extended to other forms of marriage and to some civil marriages concluded after 1984. This article argues that the failure to extend the redistribution discretion to all marriages impacts disproportionately on women and constitutes impermissible discrimination on the basis of gender. It does so because the seemingly neutral statutory limitation on redistribution orders operates in a social context which is deeply marked by structural gender inequalities. These, in turn, mean that many women tend to be in a weaker bargaining position than men with respect to the terms of antenuptial contracts and whether spouses enter into such contracts at all. Moreover, women’s disproportionate responsibility for childcare and other domestic tasks usually has a negative impact on their ability to generate income and grow their own estates, while often enhancing those of their husbands. The failure of the law to take account of actual inequalities between men and women means that the current position discriminates indirectly on the basis of gender and there is no legitimate government purpose which justifies this discrimination.