Why marriage is important for African family building

What is an ideal family culturally? (Mike Kemp/Getty Images)
What is an ideal family culturally? (Mike Kemp/Getty Images)

South African divorce statistics reveal that the observed crude divorce rate was 44 divorces per 100 000 estimated resident population in 2018.

In breaking this down racially, it was also discovered that black African couples had the greatest number of divorces in comparison to other population groups throughout the ten-year period (2009 to 2018).

I wonder if this makes some of the youth to believe that marriage is not the way to go.

Studies do show that, globally, young people increasingly resort to cohabitation, where couples decide to live together before considering marriage. 

From my observation, marriage give couples a certain level of structure, when with the right partner one receives enough support. This can be emotional, physical or mental support.

On top of that, marriage creates a sense of stability for both the couple and children.

Couples marry for different reasons, such as starting a family, partnership, support, and others even marry because of beauty or financial security.

All these reasons are justified and there is nothing wrong with them.

Other couples do not even want to get married, ever, and that is okay. We live in a democratic country where everyone has a choice to do whatever it is that is suitable to them.

Our history

Unlike in the past, where in some cultures, such as the Xhosa culture, many women had no choice when it came to marriage.

Their union was arranged by the elders, mostly by the uncles of the family. A negotiation was done where families agreed upon the girl who would be married to their son.

The beauty in this was that the family would take care of you even though you may not have known your husband or have seen him before in the cases of 'Ukuthwala', the illegal practice of abducting young girls and forcing them into marriages. 

Even if you are not happy in your marriage, you had to stay.

In the past, women were the anchors of the home and had to do whatever it took to please their husbands.

However, with time, certain practices that go against human rights have been abolished. There are also some practices that are not considered harmful, because of the reasoning behind them.

My story

Recently, I gave birth to a wonderful baby boy. I was not married to his father and this was wrong culturally. Damages were paid to my family, as our culture requires.

Damages, or Intlawulo, is the fine paid to the family of the women who became pregnant out of wedlock. This practice is also common in the Zulu and Swazi cultures.

The damages are not for the father of the child to claim the baby as his, but are for the family of the boy to acknowledge that they have wronged the family of the girl who is now pregnant.

My son carries my surname and stays with my mother, who culturally, is his mother. When he grows up, the expectation is that he would see me as his older sister, and he would say ‘mom’ to my mother.

Culturally, that is the right way. In my case, he will be raised to know that his father passed away, as my family will be referring to my own father, who passed away years ago. 

Culturally, the biological father has no rights in this case because the child was born out of wedlock. It does not matter whether he is paying maintenance every month, culturally, he has no right.

Many things may have changed with the times, but these parts of our culture have not. 

An explanation

Parent24 invited Dr Nokuzola Mndende to chat to us about what may be some of the reasons that practices such as this one are still in effect and what we may be missing from them.

Dr Mndende is famously known as a host of 'ibuzwa kwabaphambili at Umhlobo Wenene FM. She is a national chairperson for the Council Of African Religion, and is also the deputy chairperson for the Commission on Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims. 

Why is the child being raised by the grandparents, when the parents are around?

Dr Mndende tells us that the sole priority of the African culture is to protect the child.

To give the child a sense of belonging, she says.

This is important because should something happen to the biological parents such as death, the child will have somewhere to claim as his or her home, at their grandparents’ place.

Secondly, "to protect the identity of the child". She adds that, when the child has the surname of their mother, even if the mother later gets married, the child will be taken care of by the grandparents at their home.

Unlike, in a case where the child takes a surname of their father, and the father moves on and marries someone else.

In that situation, even if the biological father loves and supports this offspring, when among other children in the family, this child will always be labelled as “ivezandlebe’ or the mistress's’ child.

Protecting the child’s identity is also important for inheritance purposes. Dr Mndende explains that when your child has his mother’s surname, he will be able to inherit whatever is left when his grandparents pass away, but when he has his father's surname, he will not inherit anything if his father has other children. 

What is the role of the biological mother in the child’s life in this case?

Dr Mndende explained that taking care of siblings and cousins is something that has long happened in our families.

Therefore, being part of the child's life will always be something that is welcomed or allowed by the family. The mother will continue to take care of the child like she would do to her siblings, she adds.

The father can also buy necessities for the child and give them to the mother to give to the child, says Dr Mndende.

However, even if the father plays an active role in the child’s life, the father can not take that as an authority to come to visit or be seen around the child whenever he wants, as that will confuse both the child and the family.

That is why the parents in the Xhosa culture need to start the family when they have officiated things, because this will give both parents a chance to raise their child under one roof.

Why is marriage so important?  

Dr Mndende also explained why marriage is important for starting a family in the Xhosa culture, by highlighting the following points:

1. To give the child the freedom to experience the love and culture of both parents.

This will make it possible for the child to stay with both parents. For the child to know both families and receive love from both families rather than from the mother's family alone.

2. To give the child the confidence to claim who he is. 

When a child is raised by the mother’s family, the child is called different names on the street. Unlike when the child is raised by both parents, where he is confident enough about who he is and does not get to be called names by strangers.

3. To secures the future of the child.

As the child grows, there are important rituals and cultural rites that need to be performed for the child such as ‘Imbeleko’ and circumcision.

Now perhaps these cultural practices and beliefs appear to be justified, however, shouldn't there be some adjustments to these practices with time and the Western influence?

What are your thoughts? Let us know!


Share your stories and questions with us via email at chatback@parent24.com. Anonymous contributions are welcome.

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