When non-registration becomes non-recognition: examining the law and practice of customary marriage registration in South Africa

Authors Monica de Souza

ISSN: 1996-2088
Affiliations: Researcher at the Centre for Law and Society, Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town
Source: Acta Juridica, 2013, p. 239 – 272


The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998 provides legal recognition to traditional African marriages and sets up a process whereby these marriages are formally registered with the Department of Home Affairs. With reference to testimonies from Msinga, a rural district of KwaZulu-Natal, this article examines how the current registration process is out of touch with reality and difficult to comply with, especially in respect of polygamous marriages. Customary marriages therefore often remain unregistered. While customary marriages are legally valid despite not being registered, in practice registration has become the threshold for recognising the existence of these marriages when marital status is in question. As a result, non-registration is effectively non-recognition and deprives women and children of the significant benefits and protections associated with marriage. More broadly, the article will argue that the registration process actually undermines several of the Act’s objectives — leaving women living in rural, customary law contexts in a vulnerable position.