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Africa bride price moves from cattle to cash

Date: 2006-12-11

It once cost several head of cattle for a South African man to set himself up with a new wife, but these days many pay in cash, and inflation — or abuse — can be a problem.
December is wedding season in South Africa, with flashy German cars blitzing through dusty township streets and families gearing up for traditional economic negotiations that often precede the ceremony.
The tradition of “lobola”, or dowry, has long been common throughout southern Africa as the groom’s family gives a gift, typically cattle, to the family whose daughter is joining their household.
But in modern South Africa, where few urbanised families have room for pastures, the calculations move quickly to cash. Some men think they have bought their wives and for both parties, inflation is complicating romance.
“It is a beautiful ceremony that has been spoiled by opportunistic people and inflation,” said Amanda Gcabashe, a traditional healer.
Barry Dijoe, a young professional from South Africa’s Tswana tribe who is about to embark on lobola negotiations, said some of the younger generation see lobola as expensive and unnecessary.
“But then you’ve got to look at the other side of the coin, it is a sign of giving thanks to her parents for raising the woman that you fell in love with,” Dijoe said.
Nevertheless, he was preparing for some tough haggling.
“Unfortunately, it has become a financial transaction, some people just forget the aspect of love and the fact that we are beginning a life together,” he said.
The lobola negotiation is usually steered by the bride’s family, who often remind their prospective son-in-law that it took time and money to raise the woman he intends to marry.
Likhapa Mbatha from the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand and secretary for the Movement for Rural Women, a non-profit organisation, says the lobola custom is central to the African identity.
“It is our African way of doing things and still a viable practice,” she said, although she added that some men wind up with a false sense of ownership after the transaction.
“Some men abuse their wives and do so on the basis that they paid lobola.”
Cattle remain an important sign of wealth in modern South Africa, and in rural areas lobola is often still paid in the form of cows sent from one family’s field to another.
But for black South Africans living in cities and urbanised townships, as well as the increasing number who live in leafy suburbs once designated as “white” under apartheid, the cattle are increasingly figurative.
Prices may still be set in cows, but the payment is strictly in cash.
The two sides must first set a price for a single cow — which could range from a symbolic 100 rand ($14) to the current market price of 3,000 rand ($420) — and then multiply it by the number of cows the new bride is deemed to be worth.
This can add up to serious money. And even if the couple ends up divorcing, the bride’s family keeps its bounty.
Thabo Seekane, who recently gave away his daughter, said determining lobola in the old days would not involve current considerations such as the prospective bride’s education level or physical attractiveness.
“It was something that was pre-determined, years in advance by the family,” he said. “The problem with today is the conversion of cattle into cash. This conversion becomes a personal thing and very subjective.”
With prices rising, some families have agreed lobola can be paid in instalments — over a lifetime in some cases. But others demand full payment upfront in what critics say is a very expensive abuse of the age-old ceremony.
Several years ago, a Johannesburg businessman reportedly paid some 250,000 rand ($35,100) for the hand of a daughter of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini.
Zwelithini himself has repeatedly dipped into the purse to pay lobola, a hazard of following the Zulu custom of taking more than one wife.
Dick Mhango, a spokesman for South African bank Nedbank, said the lender does not have any specific products for lobola, but a dowry could be covered under a general loan.
While in rural regions many women still support lobola, Mbatha of the University of the Witwatersrand said they are growing worried that inflation might put marriage out of reach in areas where unemployment can be as high as 40 per cent.
“Rural woman have asked government to pass laws, which will set a minimum and a maximum price to lobola ... it has become very difficult for their children to pay lobola,” she said.
South Africa’s National House of Traditional Leaders, its highest council of tribal and community elders, last year asked parliament to regulate lobola to curb rocketing price demands.
“It should not be commercialised and that is the position we took,” said Abraham Mzakhe Sithole, the head of the chamber.

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