Cape Town - In a conference room on Old Mutual’s West Campus in Pinelands on Wednesday morning, there was a graduation with a difference.
Whereas such a ceremony is usually a time for individuals to celebrate meeting lifelong goals, the end of years of studying, this graduation was one for an entire population to celebrate.
For the first time since Muslims were brought to South Africa as slaves over 300 years ago, Muslim weddings will be recognised by the state.
Until now the issue has caused endless trouble after wives were stripped of their husbands’ estates as their traditional marriages were not official.
On Wednesday morning, 100 imams crowded into the conference room, a sea of taqiyas decorating the dimly-lit interior. After studying the nuances of the 1961 Marriage Act and passing a rigorous exam, these imams will be able to officially marry Muslim couples – which until now was only possible through a civil union.
It was labelled as the realisation of one of Home Affairs “greatest goals” when 100 imams were handed certificates on Wednesday morning, officially making them marriage officers.
“When I got married, we were taken by our parents to a civil ceremony,” said Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor. She was told the real ceremony would happen later.
The minister pointed out the goal had been for all unions to be recognised, so that there only needs to be one wedding.
She said the presence of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe at the graduation showed the importance of recognising the marriage.
“We take this opportunity to congratulate the imams who have graduated today,” said the deputy president.
He added that the strict test required the imams to achieve a mark of over 70 percent.
For the rest of the ceremony, imams received their certificate, shaking hands with Motlanthe, Pandor and the other officials who had gathered on stage.
The imams, from the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, were part of the Home Affairs’ pilot programme training marriage officers.
The marriages will for the first time be recorded on the National Population Register, thereby receiving legal status and recognition.
The officers will be expected to register all marriages they officiate at.
Motlanthe delved into the history of the Muslim population, highlighting the necessity for and importance of today’s ceremony.
The imams represented the beginning of a significant new movement in South Africa, he added.