The Million Rand Question: Does a Civil Marriage Automatically Dissolve the Parties' Customary Marriage?
Keywords:Customary marriage, Recognition of Customary Marriages Act;, ante-nuptial contract, dual marriage, converted marriage
In 2016 the Eastern Cape Local Division in Mthata heard a claim by Mrs Winnie Madikezela-Mandela that, amongst other things, her customary marriage to former President Nelson Mandela continued to exist until his death, despite the dissolution of their civil marriage. Not long thereafter, in 2017, former President Jacob Zuma's daughter made headlines by claiming half of her soon-to-be-ex-husband's multimillion-rand estate despite the couple’s having entered into a valid ante-nuptial contract. The claim was that her preceding customary marriage had not been accompanied by an ante-nuptial contract, and therefore the marriage was in community of property. These high-profile cases raise the fundamental legal question: what effect does a civil marriage between parties have on the parties' customary marriage to each other?
Historically the subsequent civil marriage terminated the customary marriage, as such marriages were not legally recognised in South Africa. The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998 allows for such dual marriages without specifying the consequences thereof. Most commentators have interpreted the provisions to perpetuate the historical position; the civil marriage terminates the customary marriage. While this appears distasteful, the rationale is legal certainty and accords with the recommendations of the South African Law Commission. Furthermore, alternative customary dispute resolution mechanisms are still available to the parties, who are unlikely to suffer prejudice under the interpretation. In addition, given the social reality in which dual marriages are conducted and how they are perceived by parties, parties should be allowed to conclude an ante-nuptial contract after their customary marriage but before their civil marriage to regulate the proprietary consequences of their marriage.
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