Is marriage an old-fashioned institution?

Marriages are becoming less common in South Africa. Could this mean that marriage is becoming a fading tradition? According to the Marriages and Divorce, 2020 report released by Statistics South Africa, the total number of people getting married has fallen steadily from 2011 to 2020. Besides the high decline in 2020 that may have resulted from the restrictions on gatherings in that year, the number of civil marriages have been consistently declining. Civil marriages fell by 22,5% between 2011 and 2019 and declined by a further 31,1% in 2020.


Customary marriage is one that is “negotiated, celebrated or concluded according to any of the systems of indigenous African customary law which exist in South Africa”, and excludes marriages concluded in accordance with Hindu, Muslim or other religious rites. In 2020, 1 585 customary marriages were registered at the Department of Home Affairs, indicating a decrease of 43,2% from the 2 789 customary marriages registered in 2019. From 2011 to 2019, these marriages declined by 45,1%.

While recognition of same-sex marriages has boosted the number of marriages, this increase has not been enough to reverse the declining trend. In general, the number of civil unions registered in South Africa increased between 2016 and 2019. In 2020, however, the number of civil unions registered decreased by 16,9% from 1 771 in 2019 to 1 471 in 2020. Most civil unions were registered in Gauteng (659) and Western Cape (434), and the lowest were in Northern Cape (6) and Limpopo (5).

For those that have decided to get married, the report shows that they are choosing to wait until they’re older to tie the knot.

For civil marriages, the median age of bridegrooms increased from 36 years in 2016 to 37 years in 2020, whereas that of brides increased from 32 years to 33 years over the same period. The average age difference between brides and bridegrooms is 4 years. Civil unions are classified by the ages of spouse-1 and spouse-2 at the time of the solemnisation. For civil unions over the five-year period, the yearly differences in the median ages of spouse-1 and spouse-2 ranged between two and three years. The median ages of spouse-1 fluctuated between 35 years and 36 years over the five years period 2016 to 2020, while the median ages of spouse-2 fluctuated between 33 years and 34 years over the same period. Customary marriages however, show a different trend than civil marriages and civil unions. The average age gap is much larger for traditional marriages, where the age difference between brides and bridegrooms is about six years. The median age of bridegrooms fluctuated between 33 years and 36 years whereas that of bride fluctuated between 27 years and 30 years.
The report also shows that while marriages are declining, so too are divorces. It is possible that some of the decline in divorces could stem from the fact that fewer people are getting married.  Divorces decreased by 32,1% from 23 710 in 2019 to 16 097 cases granted in 2020. The median age at the time of divorce in 2020 was 45 years for males and 41 years for females, indicating that, generally, divorced males were older than divorced females, with a difference of about four years. The peak age group of male divorcees was between 45 to 49 years at 18,2%, while the female divorcees at the age group 35 to 39 years were higher, with 20,8%.


For more information, download the full report here.