Launching the new law at Midrand, Deputy Justice Minister Cheryl Gillwald said millions of people would directly benefit from the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act.
"It brings to an end the tyranny of dictatorial recognition of civil and other Eurocentric faith-based marriages at the expense of marriages concluded in accordance with customary law."
The Act defines a customary marriage as one negotiated, celebrated or concluded in terms of any of the systems of indigenous African customary law in South Africa.
Until now, there has been no legal foundation for such marriages, although they are considered binding by the African community.
Gillwald said the Act engendered new respect for the African legal tradition, and elevated the status of women and children in a marriage.
"To the women in particular must go our most sincere apology that mothers had to wait so long to gain the benefit of the first democratically drafted constitution."
Former SA Law Commission member Thandabantu Nhlapo, who attended the launch, said the Act gave black women equal partnership in marriage.
Nhlapo was closely involved in the drafting of the new legislation. He recently joined the Department of Foreign Affairs.
He said individuals over the age of 18 could marry under the new law, but those younger than 21 required the consent of their parents.
Existing customary marriages, whether monogamous or polygamous, would now be recognised as valid and should be registered within a year.
The Act did not include marriages concluded in accordance with Hindu, Muslim or other religious rites, Nhlapo said.
Gillwald said spouses in existing marriages could change the property arrangements in wedlock under the supervision of a court of law.
Under the new Act, customary marriages could only be terminated by decree of the court. In the traditional system, marriages were dissolved by the families of the spouses, which clearly put women and children at risk, Gillwald said.
There were many practical difficulties in trying to balance traditional culture with modern constitutional rights.
"We have, however, demonstrated that traditional practices and law are not incompatible with our Constitution," Gillwald said. - Sapa