Unjust Enrichment in South African Law: Understanding the Requirements and Recent Legal Interpretations


Unjust enrichment in South Africa refers to a legal concept where one party is enriched at the expense of another in a way that is deemed unfair or unjust. It’s a principle that aims to prevent someone from benefiting unfairly or unjustly at the expense of another.

Unjust enrichment is primarily governed by the common law, which is judge-made law based on precedent and legal principles developed over time. However, there are also statutory provisions and constitutional principles that may be relevant in unjust enrichment cases.

South African courts have recognized various grounds for unjust enrichment, including mistake, undue influence, and failure of consideration. The courts will examine the circumstances of each case to determine whether there has been unjust enrichment and, if so, what remedies are appropriate.

Remedies for unjust enrichment may include restitution, where the defendant is required to return the benefit received, or compensation for the value of the benefit. The goal is to restore the plaintiff to the position they would have been in had the unjust enrichment not occurred.

Summary of the Law: 

The four elements of unjust enrichment typically include:

  1. Enrichment: The defendant must have received some form of benefit or enrichment.
  2. Deprivation: The plaintiff must have suffered a corresponding deprivation or loss.
  3. Absence of Legal Ground: The enrichment must have occurred without a valid legal reason or justification.
  4. Unjust Factor: There must be an unjust factor, such as mistake, duress, undue influence, or failure of consideration, that makes it unfair for the defendant to retain the benefit.

Plaintiffs typically base their claims on recognized enrichment actions, such as conditio indebiti, conditio causa data causa non secuta, conditio ob turpem vel iniustam causam, or conditio sine causa specialis – transfers that fail to fulfil an obligation, a legitimate lawful purpose, made for an unlawful purpose or made without sufficient legal cause.

In cases like Kudu Granite Operations (Pty) Ltd v Caterna Ltd, courts have reiterated the requirements for unjust enrichment. The defendant’s enrichment, plaintiff’s impoverishment, causal link between enrichment and impoverishment, and absence of legal justification are crucial considerations. Unjust enrichment seeks fairness and restitution where unjustified gains occur.

Recent legal cases, like PRASA v Community Property Company, shed light on the evolving landscape of unjust enrichment claims. 

These judgments underscore that merely pleading the general enrichment requirements are not sufficient. Courts emphasize the need for specific enrichment actions to support claims adequately. While the possibility of a general enrichment claim based solely on the four general requirements exists, it’s considered rare and requires extraordinary circumstances.


Unjust enrichment in South African law serves as a vital tool for rectifying unfair gains and losses. Recent legal interpretations emphasize the need for specificity in pleading unjust enrichment claims, underlining the importance of established enrichment actions. While the possibility of a general enrichment claim exists, it’s reserved for exceptional cases.

Ultimately, unjust enrichment aims to uphold fairness and equity in legal dealings, ensuring that parties aren’t unduly enriched at the expense of others. By understanding its requirements and recent legal developments, individuals can navigate unjust enrichment claims effectively, promoting justice and restitution where necessary.

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