Can you be a feminist and still practice lobola?

Credit: iStock
Credit: iStock

The groom's family is standing outside of the gate of the bride's home. They're waiting to be let in, in order for the negotiations to start. They are eventually let in, and the proceedings begin. The bride's father is there, and most probably her uncles as well, but her mother waits outside as the men of both families discuss the matter at hand. 

This is not something that a feminist might savour, so what happens when one is faced with this kind of tradition?

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South Africa is a uniquely modern and equally traditional country. There are lots of examples that come to mind when considering how we've diluted some of our chief beliefs in order to accommodate either our own or global ways of thinking that are always in flux.

This can sometimes raise complications when some of the meanings behind the traditional aspects of our cultures and lifestyles when placed in a different context, like lobola. 

According to cultural expert and lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Gugu Mkhize, lobola is "a token of appreciation from the groom's family to the bride's family". Taking this into consideration, the general belief around it is that the success of the negotiations is meant to bring the two families together in unity and celebration.

Some of the beliefs around this tradition, however, have been altered; and Gugu believes that the meaning and purpose of it has changed from what it is supposed to be. "People don't understand it; what the value of it is," she said.

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Gugu says that the outrageous amounts that families often ask for lobola are because "[families] just name whatever price they want to name for their child, bringing in education; and spoil[ing] the whole thing." So, instead of it being about appreciation, it becomes a matter of milking as much as possible from the groom's family in the name of having a good, well-educated daughter.

This contributes to some of the reasons why a man would presume that paying lobola for a woman deems her his property. The purpose of lobola as a token of appreciation gets sidelined, and the lobola that the groom's family pays is seen as a price for the bride and not as a sign of gratitude. "Some do think it's about buying [the bride] but others do know that it is about appreciation," Gugu adds.

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"From a cultural point of view, it's a practice that was there a long time ago that is carrying on. It has it's faults, but it's part of any cultural practice." The fault she named was the issue of exorbitant amounts being requested by the bride's family. The mistake, or the misinterpretation of the custom, lies in the fact that men see the payment as buying the bride and this is where patriarchy shows its face. 

The patriarchal aspect of lobola lies in the fact that in certain tribes, mother-figures are not involved in the negotiations and if they are, it is only because there are no father-figures available to partake in the negotiations. Another hint of patriarchy is that after the negotiations are finalised, the new wife is expected to learn and perform certain domestic duties which are often still seen as one of the key ways in which a wife proves herself.

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Lobola in itself is a tradition that doesn't oppose feminism - only if it is respected as a tradition that is meant to express gratitude and bring the families together. The tradition challenges feminism the most when men and families believe that lobola is a currency by which women are bought and owned.

There are rare but significant instances where women are allowed to be a part of the negotiations, given that the bride has no present father figures and the women are capable enough to represent the bride or groom.  

Beyond this - beyond the success of the lobola negotiation that is solely meant to be a token of gratitude - a woman should be allowed to decide how her life as a wife will play out, without her feeling like and being told that she is the property of her husband. 

We asked a few millennials what they thought about lobola and feminism:

When you speak to traditionalists and people who are in line with matters regarding ancestors and all of that, they will tell you that lobola is about showing gratitude to the family for raising the bride up to that point in time. And if we look at it, the money for lobola sometimes goes into wedding preparations and when you have to buy gifts for the in-laws. The problem comes in when men look at lobola as a price they pay for the bride; in the sense that they're buying the bride. So, because they paid they feel as though they have ownership over the woman and that they get to dictate how she lives her life.
There haven’t been a lot of marriages in my family lately but my family has a strong matriarch which is my grandmother and because of that I don’t see why she wouldn’t be part of her grandchildren’s lobola negotiations. My family is basically run by women, there is only a handful of men and it wouldn’t make sense to call on distant uncles to be part of the process if the last time they saw you was when you were five. Obviously it is also about requesting which elders you would want to represent you. I haven’t heard of a situation where anyone was forced to have certain representatives at their lobola negotiations.

For most Sepedi tribes, and in the tribe that I'm in - the Kekana Ndebele - during the lobola negotiations, the rakgadi (your father's sister) is part of the lobola negotiations and she's there to represent you [the person getting married]. Both the bride's and groom's aunts are there for the negotiations and to give the bride a introduction to the family.
If your partner pays lobola for you, it is out of love - he's not buying you as his wife. I think lobola is a way to bind the families and ancestors together. It's not for men to say "I paid for you, so now you should do everything for me". I think men use it as a weapon against feminism and it shouldn't be. Lobola is for the families, and then afterwards the bride can decide how far she wants to go regarding her duties as a wife and as a child of her in-laws. If it was possible for us to pay lobola for men - I hope it evetually will be - then they would also have to go to their in-laws to help with the duties.

Watch two women talk about what lobola means to them below:

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