The practice of Lobola in contemporary South African Society.

Author:Parker, Glynis


In some African countries, for example, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho, the tradition of paying Lobola for a wife is common practice. According to this tradition, marriage is a contract between families and not just individuals, so the transfer of cattle from the relatives of the bridegroom to those of the bride serves to legitimize the marriage and to ensure certain rights. The most important of these rights is that the children of the marriage would legally belong to the father's lineage group.


Lobola is still practiced in South Africa today although problems surround the practice and changes are occurring. Some of these are: Firstly, cattle are largely being replaced by money as "families living in a city might not have the physical capacity to receive cattle." (1) This change to the use of money instead of cattle has led to the perception that paying for the bride now makes her the property of the groom, which may make her vulnerable to abuse by both her husband and in-laws.

Secondly, there is a connection between Lobola and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV and Aids. "The Lobola tradition is also known as the 'Customary Law of Marriage' (South Africa; Act 120 Justice Department, 2000), which permits the husband to marry up to four wives." (2) These spouses are seen as concurrent multi-partners, so this practice can lead to the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases amongst the different wives and the husband. Thirdly, it may result in delay in young couples getting married, owing to them being unable to raise the Lobola as a result of the unrealistic prices demanded by the bride's family. Posel says about Zulu society in South Africa: "between the high cost of ilobolo and respect for ilobolo as a custom--[this] contributes to the very low marriage rales observed among Zulu people today." (3)

The negative depictions of Lobola that have been discussed above are paralleled by a positive one. Lobola is an age-old, African custom and some people feel that abandoning this custom will be another step towards the loss of everything African. Lobola is seen by many people as socially beneficial because it is the bringing together of families as well as an acknowledgement by the bridegroom and his family of this precious gift, the bride. There is the belief held by both men and women that the payment of Lobola "creates a greater value and strength in their marriage; if Lobola is not paid, the marriage will not last." (4) Against this background it can be seen that Lobola is a contentious issue. There are two problem areas surrounding Lobola that are of great interest: Firstly, the place of traditional practices in the new South Africa and, secondly, women's rights. Questions that come to the fore regarding women's rights are, for example: If a bride is paid for (in cattle or money) is this dehumanizing women and relegating them to the status of a commodity? Is Lobola in conflict with gender equality, for which many women are fighting in South Africa?

The aim of this article is to report the findings of a small research project that was conducted to help cast light on these two problem areas. To reach this aim, the remainder of the article is structured as follows: A conceptual-theoretical framework will be outlined in the next section, followed by a description of the empirical research design, the findings of the project, a discussion of the findings, and finally some recommendations and a conclusion.


The study entailed understanding the practice of Lobola against the backdrop of Ubuntu and feminism as the theoretical framework. Ubuntu is an African philosophy and way of life, which expresses respect and compassion for others.

Understanding marriage and Lobola in the light of Ubuntu

In African traditional culture, marriage is a central institution that needs to be understood in relation to the individual and the group. Kinship is an important aspect of African traditional society; a person is related by blood (consanguinity) or marriage (affinity). African society's emphasis is on the interconnectedness of the individual with the group. "Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual." (5) It is also important to remember that members of the group are not just the living, but also those who have passed on, (the 'living dead' [ancestors]) as well as the unborn.

This philosophy of the interconnectedness of people is called Ubuntu, which is an ethical or humanistic philosophy focusing on people's allegiances and relations with one another. It is in this light that the institution of marriage in a traditional African context must be understood. Marriage is the focus of existence and is seen as a person's duty both to the community and to oneself. Marriage and producing children are interconnected; one cannot have the one without the other. The children are seen as the continuation of life; genetically they perpetuate both the mother and father and, therefore, the ancestors as well.

Lobola plays a major role in marriage and was traditionally a practice designed to bring families together and to foster a feeling of trust and mutual understanding between them. Lobola demonstrates that the "man getting married is capable of taking care of a family and [it] also serves as a token of gratitude to the bride's family for raising a wonderful woman." (6) Lobola, as bride wealth, needs to be understood in relation to the concept of Ubuntu and the interconnectedness of the community.

A point that needs to be made is the importance of affinial relatives, those acquired by marriage. When a woman is married, the rights over her are transferred from her father and family to her husband and his agnatic (descent) group. Firstly, the husband has sexual rights and the rights to her labor, both domestic and in the fields. (7) In return, the husband and his agnatic group have to provide the woman with "a 'house'--living quarters, fields and lifelong security." (8) Secondly, as mentioned before, the husband and his lineage group have legal control over the children.

The notion of a 'house' for the wife and children consisted of: a house field, a house granary, a hearth and domestic goods. "These were hers by right, and she could sue for their provision if her husband denied them." (9) The size of the cattle herd of a homestead will vary depending on the fluctuation in the numbers of family members. As a daughter got married, the family herd would increase owing to her bride wealth.

There is often a link between a sister and her brother; they are said to be 'cattle-linked.' The sister is, therefore, regarded as the enabler of her brother's marriage due to her bride wealth. If the wife is barren, this could result in the dissolution of her marriage by divorce and the return of the bride wealth.

Lobola is a complicated transaction and traditionally did not embody a sense of personal enrichment. While 'compensation' to the girl's family and the loss of parental authority are often mentioned as rationales for Lobola, "... Anthropologists and many missionaries have generally agreed that the idea of 'purchase and sale' was not traditionally a significant element of the custom. Nor was commercial profit typically an important motive for the girl's family." (10)

As with many traditional...

To continue reading