The role of the recognition of the Customary Marriages Amendment Act 1 of 2021 and wills in determining the proprietary consequences of polygynous customary marriages [Discussion of Mshengu v Estate Late Mshengu (9223/2016P) 2021 ZAKZPHC 49 (6 August 2021)]

Author: Tshepo Aubrey Manthwa

ISSN: 1996-2193
Affiliations: LLB LLM LLD, Associate Professor, School of Law, University of South Africa
Source: Stellenbosch Law Review, Volume 34 Issue 3, 2023, p. 451 – 459


The Recognition of Customary Marriages Amendment Act 1 of 2021 amends section 7(1) of the Recognition of Customary Marriages 120 of 1998 as a sequel to Gumede v President of the Republic of South Africa 2009 3 SA 152 (CC) and Ramuhovhi v President of the Republic of South Africa 2018 2 SA 1 (CC) in which this section was declared unconstitutional on the basis that it unfairly discriminated, on the basis of gender and race, against women married in terms of customary law before the commencement of the Act. According to the Constitutional Court, these women did not have the right to possess property in terms of customary law, which left them especially vulnerable in the absence of statutory protection if their marriages were dissolved for example.
The achievement of gender equality is an important transformative and social justice goal in South Africa. Over the years, the courts have reconstructed customary law to promote gender equality. Customary law traditionally did not discriminate against women and they were allowed to manage property. However, this changed after contact with colonialism where, through collaboration with African men, women were treated as minors. This was a distortion of the legal system. The problem is that all the focus, including that of the courts and the legislature, is on the distorted version of customary law, and the true version that did not discriminate against women is being ignored. Consequently, in reconstructing and creating gender equality, a new form of customary law is being created, namely constitutional customary law. The true form of customary law does not recognise private ownership of property, A person can only manage property, not own it, but through constitutional customary law, the court and legislature have imposed common law concepts such as joint and equal ownership of property. This has unfortunate consequences, such as the fact that a customary heir can alienate family property after divorce while disregarding any responsibility to the family.