Law forms one of the major structural contexts within which family lives play out, yet the precise dynamics connecting these two foundational institutions are still poorly understood. This article attempts to help bridge this gap by applying sociolegal concepts to empirical findings about state law's role in family, and especially in marriage, drawn from across several decades and disciplines of South Africanist scholarly research. I sketch the broad outlines of a nuanced theoretical approach for analysing the law-family relationship, which insists that the relationship entails a contingent and dynamic interplay between relatively powerful regulating institutions and relatively powerless regulated populations. Accordingly, while my argument broadly distinguishes the more repressive regimes of colonialism and apartheid from the more expansive post-apartheid legal regime, it also partially undoes that periodisation by highlighting limits and evasions of repressive law and obstacles impeding access to post-apartheid law's expansive promises.
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