Why does 'Rakgadi' have so much power in the family? What you need to know according to experts

Illustration. Photo by Getty Images
Illustration. Photo by Getty Images
  • 'Rakgadi' - which means paternal aunt - is a trending topic that triggered many social media users following Lebohang Khitsane’s memorial service.
  • His sister, Semali Moeti, caused a scene when she revealed on stage during the broadcast event that his wife had apparently brought another man into their marital home while Lebohang was ill. 
  • Many social media users questioned why paternal aunts seem to be invincible in most African families.
  • Below, cultural experts explain.

Lebohang is well known as the brains behind Bataung Memorial Tombstones, which manufactures unique tombstone designs for well-known South Africans. Some of the company's tombstones include those of Nelson Mandela, singer Malinga, actor Joe Mafela, Mduduzi "Mandoza" Tshabalala and Baby Jake Matlala. However, the family drama was widely discussed along with his death due to renal failure.

Following the incident, along with 'Rakgadi', the terms 'my brother's house' and 'don't you dare' have also been widely mentioned after they were uttered during an altercation that ensued. Watch the video below for more.

Many social media users have shared how they, too, have experienced unpleasantness at the hands of their own Rakgadis.

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Cultural expert, languages, and literature specialist and translation lecturer at TUT, Tswako Mokoko, says Rakgadi (the aunt) is seen as the voice of cohesion among her siblings and family in its entirety.

The eldest aunt, culturally speaking, is supposed to be the one who resolves issues among siblings when they disagree. She is also the one who is closest to the parents and other key relatives in the family. Therefore, the relationship between Rakgadi and a woman who comes into the family as a new wife to one of Rakgadi's brothers is incredibly vital.

"Rakgadi is the one who briefs the new wife about the rest to the family and should help her climatise into the family while taking care of her brother's interests," Tswako says. As the go-to person in the family, together with her mother, Rakgadi has the most significant influence on the siblings, including the men.

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Tswako shares that often wives assume that the ideas their husbands bring to them are their own, while in more cases than not, it would have been by insistence from Rakgadi and the mother in law if she is still alive.

"Rakgadi's role is even more amplified by the fact that she is the one who is tasked with looking after the parents when they get older. Hence, the other siblings often feel indebted to her for the sacrifices she makes for her family's well-being. Another issue that makes Rakgadi such as controversial figure is that she is the custodian of all the family secrets as she is called to resolve most problems that arise, so she is in the know," Tswako says.

"She has a robust advisory capacity; hence she becomes the matriarch once the mother is late or too elderly to be involved in highly emotive family issues."

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Mtwalo Matshediso, also a cultural expert with insights into the Tswana and Sotho culture, echoes Tswako's sentiments, saying Rakgadi has a similar status to her father.

"Whenever she speaks, it should be seen the same as the father of the family speaking - she represents him. So in this particular case, the aunt was speaking as a pained parent after her child died under unsatisfactory conditions. She was saying, 'my child has died and I am unhappy with the condition he was in'," Mtwalo says.

He also adds that it is expected that when the truth is spoken (if the allegations were true), it is hurtful; hence aunts are usually on the receiving end of criticism. 

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Gugu Mkhize, a lecturer in the discipline of African Languages at UKZN and cultural expert, explains the eldest sister's role in a Zulu family.

"The eldest aunt on the father's side is known as Mafungwase – which means whenever people exclaim, they call out her name, and she automatically becomes the senior person among the siblings, and attains power through that," she says.

In this case, the male siblings' age is irrelevant, which means that even if some of the brothers are older than her, she is the authoritative sibling.

"Similarly, her marital status is irrelevant, and when there are big family decisions to be made, the family will always say, 'We will wait for Mafungwase'," Gugu says, adding that we can borrow from the English saying, 'blood is thicker than water' in the sense that whatever happens to the brother, Mafungwase is seen to feel greater pain than even the brother himself. Hence she is often labelled as overbearing and theatrical.

READ MORE: ‘I never cried when my mom passed on’ - Why it's not always unnatural to grieve without tears

Addressing the younger aunts' role, Gugu says they also have some power and authority but are still subservient to Mafungwase. These days, Gugu says, wealth speaks volumes. "Even the younger sisters tend to assume the role of Mafungwase if they are wealthier." 

Sharing her thoughts on the events at the Khitsane memorial service, Gugu believes the aunt is like a parent and was not supposed to be attacked during her speech. "The matter should have been discussed beforehand, failing which they should have let the aunt speak and have some other way of stopping her, but not violently (such as muting the mic)," she says, conceding that public and televised events are new to all of us.

The times are changing, so not all protocols are observed when there are events such as funerals in families. "There should be family meetings beforehand, and any issues that arise should be discussed and ironed out there. Hence family members need to arrive earlier than the actual funeral. It's at these meetings that aggrieved parties can make their voices heard. Some things are controlled by wealth these days. As a result, some critical steps are skipped in preparing for family events. Hence the unpleasantness may show up publicly," Gugu says.

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Mtwalo says the Khitsane family now needs to sit together and discuss the matter and the daughter who hit her aunt needs to be reprimanded.

But what happens when Rakgadi is out of order? 

Mtwalo says despite paternal aunts being tasked with being peacemakers, they take advantage of the power they are given in some instances.

"Often, the best solution is to ask the aunt to leave the family event, provided the majority of family members agree that she is out of line. In this case, the younger aunts will have to assume the authoritative role. In extreme cases, the family can resort to getting a protection order to stop any further nuisance from an aunt who is considered troublesome," he says.

How has your family handled difficult situations? Share your story with us here.

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