Looking back on our awareness campaign around the recent legal amendments to African customary and civil marriages

In 2021, and in partnership with the Canadian High Commission in South Africa, we set out to create awareness around a trilogy of cases that brought equality in marriage rights to as many as 400 000 elderly, married black women.

Marriage laws such as the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act (RCMA), the Natal Code, and the KwaZulu Act, rendered women who married according to customary law perpetual minors, with property ownership passing only to their brothers, husbands, and sons. Women were barred from owning property or securing tenure over land due to this exclusion. African women in civil marriages before 1988 and in terms of the Black Administration Act (BAA) were similarly affected. According to the BAA, the default position for marriages between African couples was out of community of property. In 1988 the Matrimonial Property Act (88 of 1984) repealed this section of the BAA and amended the law in respect of African civil marriages but permitted couples married out of community of property only a two-year window of opportunity to change their matrimonial regime from 1988. Many women were not aware that they could change their matrimonial regime, and, in any event, they required the consent of their husbands to effect the change. The LRC filed three separate court applications to challenge the RCMA to secure women’s equal access to property ownership and tenure security. The third application on behalf of Ms. Agnes Sithole and the Commission for Gender Equality, challenged the Matrimonial Property Act, arguing that it perpetuated the discrimination established by the BAA, that marriages between black couples entered into before 1988 are automatically out of community of property. The Constitutional Court ruled on 14 April 2021 that Section 21(2)(a) of the Matrimonial Property Act is unconstitutional and invalid and upheld the rights of approximately 400 000 elderly black women in South Africa.

To reach these women, and perhaps other people with interest on the subject, we developed podcasts on this subject. The podcasts discuss the legal cases of Gumede, Ramuhovi and Sithole, which resulted in the passing of the RCMA Amendment Act and a new legal order which reversed the discrimination inherent in marriages entered into before 1988 by black women. To reach our targeted audiences, we established partnerships with seven radio station: three in the Eastern Cape, six in Kwa-Zulu Natal and another six in Limpopo. Through each of these stations, we arranged 38 slots in English, Sepedi, isiXhosa and isiZulu. These broadcasts aired from February 8th to March 10th, 2021.

The response to these podcasts was overwhelmingly positive, with stations reporting that most of the audiences that called in reflected that it was very important for everyone to know where they stood legally.

Additionally, as part of this project, we were also able to produce a video that features Ms. Agnes Sithole in which she outlines her journey to justice and how, in a bid to ensure that she does not end up homeless, she ended up emancipating as many as 400 000 other black women from discriminatory marriage regimes. What a legacy for Ms. Sithole! You can watch this video here.

We are very grateful to the Canadian High Commission in South Africa’s Canada Fund for local initiatives for making this project possible and we are hopeful for more future collaborations on suitable projects.