The country’s marriage laws could in the near future allow women to marry more than one husband, just as polygamous men can have many wives.
Legalisation of polyandry is one of the wide-ranging proposals in the Green Paper on Marriages.
The Department of Home Affairs published the landmark 67-page policy document this week.
The department stressed in the document that it sought to create a new Marriage Act that will allow all in the country to conclude recognised, legal marriages.
A range of types of marriages in the country were not recognised; and on the other hand, marriage legislation was deemed to not promote equality.
Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Rastafarian marriages were not recognised by South African law. The green paper introduces proposals for their recognition.
“The failure to recognise these religious marriages is untenable and discriminatory,” said the document.
Home Affairs hosted ministerial dialogues in 2019 and 2020 before producing the green paper.
Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and officials heard from stakeholders, including traditional leaders, religious leaders, academics and LGBT and gender activists.
“Moreover, activists submitted that equality demands that polyandry be legally recognised as a form of marriage,” said the document.
The green paper proposed three new marriage regimes that it maintained could bring about equality in marriage laws.
Option one was an “inclusive customary and religious marriage regime”. This would see the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act amended to cater for all marriages irrespective of race, cultural and religious persuasions.
Option two would be a religion and culture-neutral marriage regime.
The third option would be a gender-neutral marriage regime. “This would accommodate both polygyny and polyandry,” said the document.
“The difference between options 2 and 3 is that this option is gender neutral. Therefore all marriages, whether monogamous or polygamous, could be concluded regardless of the sex or sexual orientation of the person.”
Home Affairs appeared to favour the third option, saying it promoted equality.
“The political appetite of the country to confront the challenges of the current marriage statute will be tested through these options. However, if Section 9 of the Constitution was to be implemented in its entirety, option 3 will tick all the boxes,” it said in the green paper.
Polyandry and polygamy emerged as some of controversial topics during the ministerial dialogues.
Traditional leaders were among those who objected to polyandry and labelled it an “unacceptable practice because it is not of African origin”, revealed the document.
“Ironically, stakeholders who believed in the practice of polygamy … were opposed to the practice of polyandry,” commented the department.
The public has until the end of June to comment on the department’s proposals.
Home Affairs said it was aware its process was bound to ruffle feathers, but maintained the changes were necessary.
“This is the beginning of a crucial public discourse that will re-define the concept of marriage in South Africa,” it said.
“The process will unearth issues that may make some of us uncomfortable, but will encourage dialogue within the South African and international communities.”