Marriage and divorce are shifting in South Africa

 ·25 Jun 2021

South Africa is seeing a decline in traditional ‘nuclear’ families, with similar shifts in divorce and marriage rates being seen over the last decade.

This is according to a white paper on families published by the Department of Social Development this week, which considers data collected from Home Affairs, Statistics South Africa and other government sources up until 2018.

“Registered marriages have been declining over a period of ten years 2008-2017, except for a slight increase of 0.6% between 2016 and 2017. Thus, the lowest number of marriages were reported in 2017 (135,458) from a high in 2008 (186,522),” the department said.

A similar decrease is seen in customary marriages, and in 2017, just 2,588 customary marriages were registered at the Home Affairs. This is a steep drop from the 16,003 customary marriages recorded 10 years earlier, in 2008.

Other metrics show that there has been a steady increase in divorce rates across the country.

“The total number of divorces fluctuated over the period 2008 to 2011 followed by a consistent increase from 2012 to 2017, with the highest number observed in 2009 (30,763) and the lowest in 2011 (20,980),” the department said.

“In 2017, about 155 divorces were granted for same-sex couples of which 115 were female couples and 40 were male couples. The observed crude divorce rate was 0.4 divorces per 1,000 estimated resident population in 2017.”


Together, the decrease in marriage and increase in divorce has led to a sustained decline in couple-headed households for some time in South Africa, the department said.

“By the year 1996, couple headed families were already low compared to the rest of the world, at 54.7%, and single-headed families constituted 47.3%.

“During the short period of 18 years, a “crossover” happened, with couple headed families dipping lower than single-headed families.”

About a fifth (20.9%) of all children did not live with their parents in 2018. By comparison, one-third (34.4%) lived with both parents.

Most children, however, lived with their mothers only (41.4%) while a far smaller percentage (3.3%) of children lived only with their fathers.

“This situation has not changed much from what was recorded in 2007 when children who stayed with both parents were recorded to be 34.3%, mothers only 39.9%, fathers only were 2.8% and neither parents were 23%,” the department said.

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