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?
The lobola tradition itself is okay and should be maintained. The problem is families that think of it as a business transaction hence putting of many people contemplating marriage.— peach perfect (@katendelily) July 2, 2018
We should move away from it, when the lobola is paid, in some circles its like you're now buying the person and this gives or makes the husband feel as though the wife is his property and will do whatever he pleases with her.— Chacha7 (@ChandaMwansa88) July 2, 2018
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.
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.
"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.
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:
Watch two women talk about what lobola means to them below:
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