This is an ongoing and new series devoted to the South African Secular Society (SASS) and South African secularism. The Past President, Jani Schoeman, and the Current President, Rick Raubenheimer, will be taking part in this series to illuminate these facets of South Africa culture to us. For the opening session, Rick joins us.
Here we talk about secular marriages in South Africa.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is happening with secular marriages in South Africa? How are you involved with some of it?
Rick Raubenheimer: Let us get the background first, the South African constitution adopted after apartheid provides that there shall be no discrimination on various grounds including religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. It was then realized that the South African Marriage Act, as it stood then, only allowed marriage between a man and a woman.
The legislature decided that they should do something about that. Because of the opposition from the churches, they created a whole new act rather than amending the Marriage Act. This was called the Civil Union Act. It provides for a wider definition between any two consenting adults. Therefore, it allows for gay marriage as well.
It broadens the scope from simply being restricted to basically Christian and Jewish marriages. This was all very well. But there was a get out clause. The Department of Home Affairs, as we call it here, is responsible for things internal to South Africa. That is the agency of last resort, if you like, to get married.
It is basically getting married in the registry office. Any two people can go to the Department of Home Affairs, in theory, and can get married. It does not have to be done in a church or anywhere else. The only problem with this is the Home Affairs offices had a get out.
Under the Civil Union Act, they could opt out of giving same-sex marriages. The net result of this was in the more backward – let us say, more rural and religious, areas. It would be more difficult to find someone from the Department of Home Affairs who would marry them.
That loophole has now been closed by an amendment to the act. Home Affairs has two years in which to rectify the situation. In the meanwhile, last year, SASS, the South African Secular Society, had some requests from some of our members that they get appointed marriage officers by the Department of Home Affairs.
They cannot go to the Office of Home Affairs and say, “Appoint me as a marriage officer under the Civil Union Act.” They must go through a ‘religious organization.’ Two people who want to become marriage officers approached SASS and said, “Will you become our ‘religious organization’?”
We approached Home Affairs and said, “We would like to certify marriage officers under the Civil Union Act.” Home Affairs made us jump through several hoops including twice getting us to provide a list of 250 members, which we did. Then, finally, Home Affairs certified us as an organization that can designate marriage officers.
Once we told Home Affairs who we want to get designated, they must study the Civil Union Act and pass with no less than 75%. Having done that, they can be certified as marriage officers. We set up a process to interview people to make sure that they are suitable and follow the guidelines of SASS and agree with our worldview, which includes the naturalistic worldview.
That they will have ceremonies free of supernatural elements and will marry same-sex and opposite-sex couples. We give their details to Home Affairs. Then after a time (not a quick process), Home Affairs sets up their exam at a suitable Home Affairs office. Then Home Affairs takes up to 2 months to mark it.
With any luck, it tells us that we have a designated marriage officer. So far, we have one. Three others have have failed their exams (with 70% each, coincidentally). We await them rewriting their exams. We have another 14 or 16 people in various stages of getting interviewed, notification to Home Affairs, or who are writing their exams for the first time.
This has, in a sense, be a major good for us. Because we have people from all over the country who are interested in becoming marriage officers. A lot of them are gay. That is their reason. They want to provide that service in places where people could not otherwise get married for the next one and a half years, at least.
That is what has happened on the marriage officers side. It is very exciting. It has also increased our membership. Because, to stay on the right side of Home Affairs, marriage officers must be part of our ‘congregation’, hence be part of the paid membership. It is about 10 dollars per month (USD).
Also, the people who are married must be members of the ‘congregation.’ It is gradually growing our membership. It is an unintentional fashion, so we might as well make good of it. Many of our members are intending marriage officers.
Jacobsen: What would be the average number of ceremonies somebody would perform through SASS?
Raubenheimer: Our marriage officer who is in Cape Town who was certified in November has done 5. 1 foreign couple. 1 same-sex couple. 3 mixed couples. 1 was an interfaith couple.
Jacobsen: What is feedback from some of the public, whether in the news or who have had the privilege of having the ceremonies officiated in this way?
Raubenheimer: We do not have feedback from the couples. The public, mostly the atheist community, has been very supportive and said, “Wow, what a wonderful thing to happen.” But I think they are a minority in a traditional country like South Africa.
I think they are providing a valuable service in the secular community and for people who would like to have a ceremony rather than just a plain, “I do,” in the magistrate’s office in Home Affairs – and one that is legally binding. We have put it out there that the people who we designate as marriage officers can provide other ceremonies like funerals – probably the next one – and things like baby namings, coming of age, and renewing of wedding vows.
On funerals, in South Africa, the legal parts are handled by undertakers. They take care of the bodies, dispose of them, or whatever is going to be done. A funeral ceremony can be done by anyone in the family or interested party. It does not require legal certification. But no one has shown a great deal of interest in it.
Jacobsen: Could the organization provide a nice bridge for the atheist and non-religious becoming more accepted but also couples of other worldviews using an intermediary for their interfaith weddings?
Raubenheimer: To a degree. We do ceremonies free of the supernatural. People can bring the ceremonial part of their faith without breaking our rules. I think this was the case with the interfaith couple. Someone from a Jewish background and somebody from a Catholic background.
In a Jewish ceremony, the couples stand under an awning. It is held with four poles and “pole bearers” to carry it. There will be variations. But typically, they will break a glass to symbolize in some perverse fashion that the marriage will not be broken the way the glass has been broken.
From the Catholic side, they had candles, which can be seen as symbols to people in one faith and another faith. They were, in a way, saying to the family that they were respecting them, but without invoking gods, angels, and demons, and so on.
Jacobsen: What do you see as some of the difficulties or the tensions for those who may be conducting these, as you expand into funerals and so on?
Raubenheimer: One of the interesting things that we have had has been from the theistic community. On the website, we explain the naturalistic worldview. We explain the concepts behind SASS and the naturalistic point of view, and the rejection of the supernatural. We ask if they agree with the SASS code of conduct – not doing marriages with the supernatural or with only heterosexuals.
They tick them. Then we ask them, “Why do you want to become a SASS marriage officer?” We get answers like, “I am spiritual but not religious. I do Reiki and touch healing and crystal healing, and x, y, and z. So, I want to do marriages with all these things.”
Even more interesting, we get people who say, “I am a pastor in x, y, or z evangelical congregation. I want to be a marriage officer in the congregation.” They would have to prove they are a legitimate organization and show they have a specific amount of membership and so on.
We simply tell them to apply to Home Affairs directly. Expanding into other areas, we probably have not foreseen everything yet. Part of this would be trying to bring the supernatural in through the back door. Some parts of families being unhappy that some gods are not invoked.
What was said with the interfaith marriage was the tolerance of the different families, the right noises were being made. People seemed happy and tolerant and not finding a problem with it. Often, you would expect – particularly with interfaith things – the families to become acclimatized to the idea that “we need to tolerate another religion on the account that this is what our son or daughter is marrying into. We will put up with this, at least.”
If the opposing god –shall we say– is not invoked, then this becomes a relief.
Jacobsen: Do more men inquire or more women inquire about these forms of weddings – to give a wedding or to be provided a wedding?
Raubenheimer: Interestingly enough, we have not had that many directly. I will explain why. Before the marriage project was ongoing, we had a page on our website with the officers willing to perform secular weddings. This somewhat annoys Home Affairs. But they are not doing much about it.
All of these marriage officers have come through a particular religion or group; thus, marrying “outside their congregation”, it is strictly speaking against the rules. Home Affairs is against it. But there is nothing that they do about it.
Marriage planners tend to inquire about secular weddings. They go there and look up a wedding officer in their area and then ask them. We simply do not have blanket coverage over the country, yet. We work with Cape Town mainly. We cannot provide things throughout the country entirely. We should be able to do this within the next year.
In the meantime, people would approach the marriage officer. So, I cannot answer the question about the distribution of people inquiring.
Jacobsen: What would it take in terms of the advertising and the marketing campaign to expand the reach of secular weddings in South Africa?
Raubenheimer: It would require a certain amount of money as our income is roughly 10USD per month from 20-25 members. The first thing to do would be to use social media or atheist groups to drive up the paid membership, perhaps offer some more benefits like a t-shirt and knowledge that they will be supporting secularism in South Africa.
We could think about paid advertising on social media and so on. At the moment, it is mostly word of mouth and Facebook atheist groups and then trying to get out that way.
Jacobsen: What are other non-secular organizations providing in terms of marriages that could be replicated?
Raubenheimer: We are, in a sense, nationwide pioneers. There is an organization in Cape Town called the Free Society Institute. They preceded us in terms of certifying their director and one other as marriage officers. They were not of great assistance to us in doing the job.
Apart from that, we are being strictly secular, and so being pretty much the pioneers. There are some, shall we say, liberal churches who have put themselves forward as churches. They do not require strict adherence to the faith. They would, in essence, do a secular wedding, as one of the ones listed on our website.
Jacobsen: What are some common vows given at a secular wedding?
Raubenheimer: Again, it is a bit premature to ask me that. We do ask our proposed wedding officers for sample ceremonies that they would give and they would present it to us during the interview. We give them feedback on it.
There is a formula used by Home Affairs. Essentially, the couple says that there is no impediment to their getting married. There is a formula that the marriage officers then put to them. They then say, “I do,” on either side. Then the marriage officer announces them, husband and wife.
But other than that, it is pretty much free form.
Jacobsen: Do you expect a backlash from fundamentalist religious groups who see you as servants of some dark power in some way?
Raubenheimer: We have not seen that yet. It is entirely possible, particularly in rural areas. I think, generally speaking, secularism has been so far below the radar and a minority thing. It is going to take a while before it gets noticed. Unless, we were to conduct an actual atheist billboard campaign.
It [Laughing] really is not our style. We have been more low key and conciliatory. We have been more accommodating rather than in-your-face antitheists. We did lose some members at the beginning when we were settling on our values because of this.
It seems the best way to handle this in South Africa rather than Madalyn Murray O’Hair atheism. It is better to go about things softly. Anti-theists can do things on their own, but not under the SASS banner.
Jacobsen: What is the importance of secular wedding officiants in order to advance secular values in South Africa?
Raubenheimer: I would say it is a key feature because multiple people have said, having discovered that we are getting secular marriage officers organized, “I wish I had this when I got married.” People either had to go to what you would call a magistrate or get somebody who said that they would do a secular wedding and then got carried away based on habit halfway through by throwing god into the mix.
Several people have had unpleasant experiences with that. I think it is key, as we, in fact, say on our website; that we bring in the secular values of the South African constitution. That there will be no discrimination on the basis of religion and actually providing people in their service.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Rick.
Raubenheimer: Thank you, Scott.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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