South African traditional marriage customs: Lobola and polygamy

Marriages are considered sacred in most societies, and especially so in the tradition-steeped continent of Africa. African weddings usually involve not just the coming together of the couple in question, but their extended families and sometimes entire communities, although traditions vary vastly across the continent. Traditional marriage practices in South Africa involve the customs of lobola and polygamy.

Lobola: According to this ancient tradition, a man must pay a price to acquire the right to marry a woman. The practice continues to be followed extensively in contemporary African societies. Lobola involves a complex, formal process of negotiation between the families of the bride and groom amid great ceremony, to arrive at a consensus on the price (traditionally paid in number of cows) that the groom must pay the bride’s family.

Many modern couples opt for cash instead of cows for the sake of convenience. This money can be used to help the bride set up her home; however, this is something that happens very rarely.

Surprisingly, African customary law has advocates even among modern, educated women in South Africa, many of whom believe that it provides them protection without hindering them in any significant way. In fact, women’s rights activists were among the greatest proponents of a new law enacted in 2001 which recognises African customary law, in order to protect women living in common-law unions and their children. Payment of the lobola, however, means that the bride is paid for, and a divorce is not usually granted unless the bride’s family can repay the amount.

Often, the lack of the means for repayment may force women to stay in unhappy or abusive marriages. Although customary laws enjoy predominance over constitutional rights in several African countries, South Africa accords women strong constitutional protection.

Polygamy:  The same law of 2001, distasteful as it may seem to most modern women in other parts of the world, also recognises polygamy – even though it is something that fewer and fewer modern South Africans practice. However, South African President Jacob Zuma’s recent marriage for the fifth time has reignited discussion on the topic.

While the press has been rather indulgent, there is open disapproval from some quarters. South Africa’s AIDS scourge is attributed largely to sexual promiscuity, and the President’s example complicates the process of educating the public on the importance of single-partner sexual relationships in preventing the spread of the disease.

In affirming gender equality as fundamental to South African democracy, the Constitution states that should there be a contradiction between customary law and the Bill of Rights, the latter should take precedence.

The practice of polygamy is in essence the practice of gender inequality. While all customary marriages are required to be registered to ensure that each wife in a polygamous family has an equal right to property, this still does not address the issues of neglect, or the transmission of infections that polygamy may entail.

White South Africans are more vocally disparaging of the practice, especially so of the President’s antics. Besides, in a country where only half the population is female, the acquisition by a man of five or more women is also likely to create social imbalances by denying other eligible men partners. They however of course will buy engagement rings for example contining with their more western wedding traditions.

Image source: Media Club South Africa

Also see:

Polygamy is way for husband to cheat on his wife

Bride Price – An Alternative View Point

Lobola is sexist

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