More women than men are filing for divorce, according to Statistics South Africa, although there have been no significant increases or decreases in the marriage and divorce rates.
According to its data on civil marriages, there were more female than male plaintiffs in divorces in 2010. Experts say this could be linked to the increased economic independence of women.
‘With independence at an economic level, women are not always financially dependent on a male counterpart,” said Mariam Seedat Khan, a sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. ‘There is a greater emphasis on education and economic independence — for women. Some women are delaying marriage, some are altogether abandoning the idea and others embrace it alongside economic independence.”
Liz Dooley, a social worker and director of Family South Africa Johannesburg, agreed. ‘The emancipation of women has had quite a big part to play, because women are able to be economically independent so they don’t have to stay in a marriage because of finances,” she said.
Traditional marriages were much more role-defined than the modern-day institution, Dooley said. ‘The wife would do the child-minding and washing up and cooking and the husband would do something else. The roles were quite clearly defined.
‘In a modern marriage they share much more. Dad will change nappies. It’s a much more equal partnership. Traditionally, it was also equal on a certain level but there were very well-defined roles. There was an expectation that the man would be the breadwinner.”
Dooley said women were sometimes earning much more than men, who were increasingly becoming stay-at-home dads. But not everyone was happy about this.
‘There’s a social expectation that men will work and this can cause a big problem. But men who stay at home should feel they’re contributing to their families, because somebody has to do the housework,” said Dooley.
Seedat Khan said technological advances had meant that more and more couples were meeting online. ‘Cases of people dating online and rushing into marriages across cultures and continents is prevalent. People commit to a marriage in a new country and a new culture without meeting face to face,” she said.
‘Online relationships allow you to be anyone you want to be. This is one of the biggest challenges that people face when beginning online relationships.”
Dooley said divorce had also become more acceptable. ‘These days it’s much more acceptable to get divorced than before. We live in a society now where if we don’t like something we can change it. We’re not stuck.”
But she advised couples not to throw in the towel too readily. ‘I personally believe people should try before they get divorced because of the devastation of divorce. A lot of people are impacted on, especially if there are children.
‘It’s like being in a bad job. If you don’t really try, you get out with a sense of failure. If you tried, you get out feeling a bit okay.”
Mixed-race couple feels love above all
The year was 1979. In South Africa marriages between whites and other race groups were deemed illegal and not recognised, even if they took place on foreign soil. But on a cold winter’s day in a registry office in London, 28-year-old Hanif Laher, an Indian South African dentist, tied the knot with white Englishwoman, Irene Williams.
‘I got married in my blue Wellington boots because I forgot to carry my shoes with me to work that day,” Laher recalls.
Laher, who now lives in Westville, Durban, with his wife, grew up and completed his schooling in Johannesburg, after which his father sent him to the United Kingdom to study.
‘We met in a dental chair on February 7 1975,” says Rehana (Irene was renamed ‘Rehana” by her sister-in-law, a name she has happily adopted as her own).
‘He was a dental student working in the school of dentistry at King’s College Hospital. I was a nursing sister there and I went to him for five or six dental check-ups. During the penultimate one, he said: ‘Your gums bleed a lot, I think you need someone to take you out and buy you a nice steak.’”
When the couple eventually did go out, after Rehana’s last check-up, Hanif was clear about his intentions. ‘He told me he was going to have to go back to South Africa after he finished his training and that his intention was just to go out with me, to the theatre and to concerts, et cetera,” says Rehana. ‘I was fine with that as I had no intention of moving to South Africa.”
But by the time 18 months had passed, the relationship had deepened and the couple became romantically involved. ‘I had told her I’d never marry her because I was young and the temptation to try out things was there,” says Hanif. ‘Growing up, we’d see white kids living a very different lifestyle — eating steak-and-kidney pies and going to the cinema — and you’d think ‘I wish I could try that’, but we were told not to be tempted by these things when we go to the UK.
‘But I soon found out I wasn’t the sort who got tempted and ran away — I believed in long-term relationships.”
The pair got married when they decided to have children, but concealed the marriage from many of Hanif’s family members back home, including his mother.
‘You were told you’re going to England to study. When you come back you’ll get married the way we get married and live in the community,” says Hanif. ‘Children are meant to be obedient and respectful and I didn’t want to upset my mother.”
But five years and two sons later, the couple did travel to South Africa for a visit and, in spite of initial resistance, Rehana’s mother-in-law eventually accepted the marriage.
‘When I arrived at the family home from the airport, she was crying and tearing her hair out. That was very scary,” says Rehana. ‘She quite quickly came round and wanted to make friends with me because she saw I was respectful. And when she saw our boys she really fell in love with them.”
The Lahers relocated to South Africa in 1989 and moved to Durban, where Hanif took up an academic post at the then University of Durban-Westville.
The couple say that, apart from minor difficulties, married life has been smooth. ‘Although we come from different continents, different races, different religions, we have so much in common — our political views, our tastes — even the things Hanif’s mother used to say to him are the same things my mother used to say to me,” says Rehana.
‘People might think you come from different cultural backgrounds, different race groups and different countries — all those things say you wouldn’t succeed as a couple,” says Hanif.
‘But deep down we were both brought up the same way — you get married, that’s your partner, you make a go of it. Separations and divorces are in the distance — you don’t think about that. Irene believes the same thing: Marriage is for keeps,” says Hanif. — Fatima Asmal-Motala