Home » Columns » A critique of Moroka J’s abolition of the delict of Adultery

A critique of Moroka J’s abolition of the delict of Adultery

Publishing Date : 15 May, 2018

Ndulamo Anthony Morima
EAGLE WATCH



In a recent land mark judgement in Precious Kgaje v Oreneile Phindile Mhotsha, CVHFT-000237/17, Moroka J made two Orders which may, unless the judgment is appealed and quashed by the Court of Appeal, forever change Batswana’s family institution.


Moroka J’s judgment is undoubtedly of historical moment in our jurisprudence. His Orders were short, yet far reaching. His first Order was that “the delict of adultery is no longer consistent with the boni mores (good morals) of contemporary Botswana.” In other words, according to Moroka J, Batswana’s general sense of justice and legal convictions today view adultery favorably and condone it and such evolution of Batswana’s culture should be reflected in our law.


The second was that “the actio iniuriarum based on adultery which affords the innocent spouse a claim for contumelia (insult to the self-esteem) and loss of consortium ( comfort and society) is no longer wrongful and thus no longer available as part of our law.” In resolving the question whether the delict of adultery is still valid given the change in the boni mores of society, Moroka J answered in the negative influenced, inter alia, by the fact that many countries including England, Namibia, South Africa and Seychelles have abolished the delict of adultery.


Moroka J was also persuaded by the argument that highly personal relations should not be regulated by the law but should be left to the sphere of ethical self-regulation of the community through unwritten norms and values. According to Moroka J it is the quality of the citizen, his or her integrity and voluntary respect for the marital institution and not the fear of sanction that sustains tranquility in the marriage.


Moroka J cites the Setswana proverb which says ‘matlo a na otlhe’, translated to mean all houses have leaky roofs, to demonstrate that Batswana accept adultery since the proverb is often used to counsel the innocent spouse in cases of adultery. This, he says, shows that while Batswana condemn adultery family preservation is encouraged as opposed to impulsive breakdown through divorce, stating that marriage is a union of forgivers.


He also cites the Setswana saying ‘Nyatsi e tiisa lelwapa’, translated to mean that an adulterer strengthens a marriage, to demonstrate Batswana’s tolerance of adultery. But, in admitting that Batswana regard adultery as wrong he states that “this is by no means an encouragement of an otherwise reprehensible conduct but an expression of attitudes towards it.” Before critiquing the judgment, it is apposite that I address some of the things that have been said about the judgment itself and the judge generally.


Some have wondered why one person, a judge, can change a law, arguing that only Parliament should have the preserve to make and change law. Judges have the power to develop the common law provided they do so in a manner that promotes the spirit, purport and objects of the Constitution, and in accordance with public policy. I, however, suggest that the law be amended to provide that decisions of the lower courts which have constitutional implications, as this one does, should be referred to a panel of three judges to confirm it before they have effect.


Others have, while accepting that Moroka J had the power to change the law, argued that he became overzealous and considered matters that were not before him, arguing that it is as if he had been waiting for the case to make a land mark judgment for his own legacy. At paragraph 1 of the judgment, the judge states that “the Defendant has invited this court to evaluate the constitutional and common law validity of the third party delictual actio iniuriarum claim based on adultery pertaining to a civil marriage, in the light of the changing mores of our society.”


The question is: did the judge do that and nothing more? Though one is not privy to the evidence led during the trial and the heads of arguments submitted by the parties, one wonders at the judge’s conclusion that Batswana’s morals have changed to the extent that they no longer consider adultery as wrongful. There is no reference, in the judgment, of evidence led during the trial which supports such a conclusion. There is also no reference to any empirical report or survey which supports such a conclusion.



Moroka J also, at paragraphs 53 and 54 of the judgment, refers to reasons for the support of the remedy and reasons against, which he says are, in part, from the readings of legal and sociological books and material, but such books and material are not referenced in the judgment. It has also been asked whether Moroka J’s judgment abolished the delict of adultery for both civil and customary marriages. Some argue that it only abolished adultery in civil marriages because the case dealt with the actio iniuriarum based on adultery which relates to civil marriages and not customary marriages.


If that interpretation is correct, does it mean the claim is still available for those who contracted their marriage under customary law? If that is the case, won’t we see those who are in support of the continued outlawing of adultery opting for customary marriages? But, some say because the judgment said the actio iniuriarum based on adultery which affords the innocent spouse a claim for contumelia and loss of consortium is no longer wrongful and thus no longer available as part of our law means that it applies to both customary and civil marriages because they are both ‘part of our law.’


But, was the issue before the court adultery in customary marriages? Did the judge make his enquiry in relation to customary marriages? Now, back to the substantive critique of Moroka J’s judgment. The question is: was Moroka J right in holding that there is no longer need for the continued existence of the delict of adultery.


Mandla J, in DE v RH [2015] ZACC 18, was right in concluding that, in essence, this is the only issue to be determined. The question is whether or not in contemporary Botswana the act of adultery meets the element of wrongfulness in order for delictual liability to attach. In determining whether or not the act complained of is wrongful the Court applies the criterion of reasonableness.


As was held in the case of Delange v Costa 1989 (2) SA 857 (A), this is an objective test which requires the conduct complained of to be tested against the prevailing norms of society in order to determine whether such conduct can be classified as wrongful.  Since the element of wrongfulness is cardinal for delictual liability, by holding that the delict of adultery is no longer consistent with the boni mores of contemporary Botswana Moroka J is effectively saying adultery no longer meets the element of wrongfulness for delictual liability to attach. I disagree.


Moroka J is saying the majority of Batswana no longer find adultery wrong and distasteful; they find it right. This cannot be correct. Below I give examples of practices and sayings that demonstrate that adultery is as much abominable for Batswana today as it was in the past. In Tswana culture, when newlyweds go through ‘go laiwa’, that is, when they are counselled by elders on how to conduct themselves in marriage one of the things that is emphasized is faithfulness to their spouse.


In Setswana, the third party adulterer is called Nyatsi, which is from the word go nyatsega which means something which is to be belittled. I disagree with Moroka J’s statement that the fact that the Childrens’ Act, Cap.28:04 does not permit discrimination of children born of adultery means that in Botswana both adultery and its fruits are no longer regarded with sort of inflexible moral fundamentalism.


Firstly, the Childrens’ Act was meant to protect the innocent child, not the adulterer. Secondly, despite the Childrens’ Act’s existence children born of adultery still face discrimination. Thirdly, even in cases where such children face no discrimination it does not mean that the adultery itself is condoned. Moroka J has held that the continued existence of the delict of adultery does not protect the marital institution, holding that it is only the parties themselves who, through fidelity, should protect their marriage.


I disagree with the judge’s assertion that adultery has nothing to do with the culpability of the third party and that it is the adulterous spouse that would have pierced the veil of unavailability. Granted, married persons should themselves abide by their marital vows. But, are we saying a third party who, knowing full well that a person is married, gets involved in an adulterous relationship with such person does no wrong and should not suffer any recrimination?


I agree with Moroka J that the fact that the actio iniuriarum of adultery renders the guilty spouse beyond the reach of the law despite clear culpability is an anomaly and that there are instances where the guilty spouse assists the third party to pay damages. But, should such anomaly warrant abolition of the actio iniuriarum of adultery itself?


Shouldn’t Moroka J have developed the common law to provide that both the third party and guilty spouse are liable in damages to the innocent spouse? Of course some would argue that that would be of no effect because the guilty spouse would pay from the joint estate. I take the point, but a provision could be made that the guilty spouse pays from sources other than the joint estate. But, can a spouse married in community of property own anything not part of the joint estate? No.


Or, a provision could be made that a guilty spouse’ share of the joint estate is reduced, and such would have consequence in the division of the joint estate during divorce. But, what if the spouses never divorce? Moroka J states that no threat of sanction may protect the marriage from a spouse who is no longer willing to live by the marriage vows. That is not wholly correct. Some marriages have been saved by the fear of the delict of adultery.


Imagine a situation where, as a result of this judgment, adulterers would fear no legal repercussion! It would result in anarchy, the so-called passion killings, murder-suicides and all manner of immorality. Moroka J argues that because of the principle of Botho which is based on self-respect, self-restraint and respect for others and sacred institutions, Batswana respect the law not out of fear of sanctions, but out of self-respect.


But, the very Batswana, governed by the very Botho still commit rape, murder, theft, e.t.c and laws exist for punishment, deterrence, reform, rehabilitation and even retribution. Where is their self-respect and self-restraint in such cases? Why should we only talk of self-respect and self-restraint in the case of marriage?         


I am aware that there is an adage which says ‘monna ke selepe oa hapaanelwa’, loosely translated to mean a man is an axe who is exchanged, which has been used to justify adultery, stating that it means that like an axe which is exchanged a man or husband can be shared by women. This interpretation is erroneous. Tradition has it that the adage means that a man should be of assistance in the community so that even unmarried women or families without a male should not suffer when it comes to male related duties when there is a male in the community.


I am also aware of the adage which says ‘monna ga a botswe ko a tswang teng’, loosely translated to mean that a man or husband is not asked where he is from, which is interpreted to mean that a man or husband can leave the home or even spend a night away from home, even for adulterous escapades, and he should not be asked where he is from.


This too is an erroneous interpretation. The correct interpretation is that a responsible man or husband always communicates his whereabouts or is, if away from home, does so for the family’s good such that there is no need for him to be asked about his whereabouts. Even today, in some cultures a guilty spouse is regarded as not only having defiled his or her body, but also brought insult to the innocent spouse, and, as a pre-condition for  forgiveness, is required to compensate the innocent spouse by giving him or her a cow. In some cultures, a cleansing ceremony is performed to cleanse the adulterer of the evil and filth that is adultery.           


Moroka J canvassed the changing societal norms mainly in terms of such new forms of sexual indiscretions as sexting and cybersex which are neither regarded as moral by the majority of Batswana nor are they forms of adultery. Besides, these sexual indiscretions were not before the court. Neither was the issue of adultery with a prostitute. What was before the court was adultery in relation to an ordinary married person and a third party.


Moroka J’s argument that the fact that the lurid details of adultery have become a source of amusement in tabloids and social media platforms means that adultery has ceased to be regarded with shock and revulsion cannot be sustained. On the contrary, it shows that it is not condoned, hence the desire to name and shame the culprits. The same applies to his argument that the right to privacy, entrenched in section 9 of the Constitution, which recognizes that human beings have a right to a sphere of intimacy and autonomy that should be protected from invasion, should be used to protect adulterers.  


Moroka J talked of consortium and society of the spouses, today, being lost to multiple sources and adultery being just a small percentage of these threats. But, that was not the issue before him. The issue before him was consortium and society of the spouses lost through adultery.


When the CoA, in Mabote and another v Mabote [1999] 1 BLR 386 (HC), approved Watermeyer JA’s views that “...in modern times and in the so-called permissive age there is now no inherent improbability per se about two persons in love, although not married to each other, committing adultery...”, it did not say Batswana no longer regarded adultery as wrongful. It was merely commenting on the increased existence of the vice.


Also, when the CoA said “...there can be no doubt that in many modern societies adultery no longer carries the stigma that it did 50 years ago. This in turn has impact on the loss of dignity sustained by the innocent party...” it was talking of the reduction in stigma, not that adultery was no longer wrong. Also, the comment was made not mainly in relation to the moral blameworthiness of adultery, but mainly in relation to the determination of the quantum of damages against the third party. In my view, therefore, this judgment would better be served by an appeal or referral by the Attorney General, failing which the legislature should intervene by legislation. I may be wrong. 

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