Divorce in South Africa because of lockdown
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  • There are strong indications that South Africa saw a surge in couples wanting to divorce this year, with large backlogs still at the courts. 
  • For many, spending months in close proximity during lockdown became too much. 
  • The traditional divorce peak season - at the start of every year, following the December holiday - could be particularly intense in 2021. 
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Months spent in forced proximity under lockdown, and the stress (financial and otherwise) brought on by the pandemic, are expected to have a marked impact on South Africa’s divorce rate.

While many unhappy couples were left with few remedial options between April and June, due to the country’s stringent Level 5 and 4 lockdown, lawyers and courts have since been inundated with divorce applications.

READ | It's peak divorce season in South Africa - a celeb lawyer has advice on how to avoid costly mistakes

A recent report by the department of justice confirmed a massive backlog of civil cases, which includes divorce matters, in both regional and district courts. In an attempt to ease this backlog, Minister Ronald Lamola recently amended the Magistrates Court Act, allowing every regional court in the country to adjudicate civil disputes.

Limpopo’s Regional Court President Jakkie Wessels recently confirmed that there were 11,788 divorce matters outstanding in the province alone. This is almost half of the total number of divorces (just over 25,000) recorded for the whole of South Africa in 2018 - indicating that a large national increase can be expected.

“There has definitely been a huge surge in new divorce instructions,” says Bertus Preller, family law attorney at Maurice Phillips Wisenberg in Cape Town. “Usually, we find that February and March is the so-called ‘divorce season’, however, June to November this year has been extremely busy, more than the yearly divorce season.”

This is confirmed by Legal Aid South Africa and DIY Legal, which offers "do-it-yourself" uncontested divorce options. The latter reported that 62% of divorce cases registered after hard lockdown had been instituted by wives. 

“Tension bred by forced proximity is a massive reason (for the increase in the divorce rate). Marriages which were already in trouble before the lockdown have been exposed to a situation where spouses were 24/7 in each other’s presence, with no freedom,” says Preller.

“Secondly, COVID-19 has brought with it an array of psychological effects, anxiety, depression, fear and the effect thereof on any relationship is not conducive to a harmonious situation.”

Preller added that, in addition to the spike in divorce matters, lawyers and courts have seen a sharp rise in applications for protection orders owing to an increase in domestic abuse during lockdown.

And as South Africa is forced to face restrictions due to the coronavirus’ resurgence, Preller warns that, similarly, a fiercer second wave of divorces lay just beyond the festive season.

“I assume that we will see an even bigger surge in divorce instructions after the December holidays,” explains Preller.

“Many unhappy couples enduring marital difficulties may see the December holiday as an opportunity to come together as a family and repair the broken fences of their relationship. At the same time, the holidays can also be extremely stressful and emotionally charged, which may only worsen the problems in a failing marriage. While it is difficult to attribute this pattern to anything concrete, I see a lot more new clients from middle January and February consistently year-to-year than in other months of the year.”

This “divorce season” described by Preller is expected to coincide with additional difficulties associated with the coronavirus’ second wave. Tighter restrictions, or a return to a harder level of lockdown, will compound preexisting issues responsible for divorces.

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