Let’s Talk About Lobola

Photography by Imraan Christian and Art Direction by Chloe Andrea Welgemoed

Traditional wedding celebrations are about two African families coming together and celebrating the union of their children. This celebration is accompanied by cultural and traditional practices that are embraced and celebrated by both families.

Leading up to the traditional wedding is the negotiation process of Lobola.

In this essay, lecturer of African languages at UKZN (University of Kwa-Zulu Natal) and cultural expert Gugu Mkhize shares some insights about lobola, while Law Academic and Advocate Rethabile Seema sheds light on the legality of lobola. In addition, traditionally married couple, Dineo and Brendon Van Wyk share some insights on their lobola experience with us

History of Lobola

Lobola (also known as Bogadi, Magadi, Mahadi, Bohali, Lumalo or Ikhasi - depending on which culture we refer to) is an African tradition that has been in existence for centuries, and it is practiced in all South African cultures. Different cultures have their own customs in how they practice lobola, for example; in the Tswana culture, the ‘Rakgadi’ (the bride’s father’s sister) leads the delegation. Whilst in the Zulu culture, women are historically not allowed to lead the process but this does not mean that their voices are completely excluded.

Mkhize briefly defines lobola as a cultural practice that is done to create a relationship amongst two families:

‘’It is a token of appreciation from the groom’s family to the bride’s family. In the olden days the groom’s family would give the bride’s family anything that was of value to them such as a spear or hoe,’’ Mkhize explains.

Different cultures across South Africa believed that animals are also spiritual beings. The gifting of a cow to the bride’s family signified the spiritual connection forming between the two families. It was not seen as an economic way of benefiting, but rather a spiritual acknowledgement and affirming of two families coming together. Historically the Nguni tribe placed importance on the practice as they saw it as a continuation of their lineage. Sadly, colonialism has played a significant role in changing the way lobola was practiced, which in turn has influenced its current perception and practice.

‘’When Natal was under British rule and led by Sir Theophilus Shepstone, he enacted a rule that rationed the number of lobola cows which stipulated that 11 cows for an ordinary man, 16 for headman and more for Chiefs and Kings,’’ says Mkhize.

The language and focus around lobola today has evolved. People now focus on asking ‘’what is the lobola price?’’ as opposed to ‘’what can I offer as a token of my appreciation?’’ The former is heavily influenced by the education and job status of the bride, her family’s societal status, amongst other things.

The Legality of Lobola

Advocate Seema points out that lobola is part of the process of getting married under customary law. For customs and traditions to become law, they must be:

  • Known to the community;

  • Followed by the community; and

  • Enforceable (able to be carried out).

The relationship between customary law and lobola is founded in customary marriages. Adv. Seema says ‘’lobola itself does not constitute a marriage, but rather a part of the process of getting married under customary law. The Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998 (the Act) (RCMA) defines lobola as property in cash or in-kind which a prospective husband or the head of his family undertakes to give to the head of the prospective wife’s family in consideration of a customary marriage.”

While lobola itself is not marriage in legal terms, there is no doubt that lobola is one of the essential requirements in terms of section 3(1)(b) of the Act.

Does Lobola Constitute A Legal Contract/Customary Marriage?

Adv. Seema says the short answer to this question is no.

‘’Lobola alone cannot and does not constitute a legal contract/customary marriage,’’ she adds.

Seema also shares the following prerequisites to qualify a marriage under customary law:

  • Spouses must be 18 years and older.

  • Spouses must consent to be married under customary law.

  • The marriage must be entered into or celebrated under customary law.

There have been many instances where lobola has been paid (either in part or in full), then the relationship between the couple ends either due to a break up or death of one party (or various disputes arising with regards to whether or not the marriage process was still in progress or concluded). To avoid any confusions and potential disputes about what the intentions, requirements and wishes of the families are, families are encouraged to enter into a formal and legally binding lobola agreement to document their wishes.

Legal Wise has a free downloadable Lobola template which can be found here. Of course the families can add addenda to the template for any specific additional conditions and activities they may want to attach to their agreement.

Lobola In This Day And Age.

Mkhize states that lobola is a family affair – if the family views their children as an investment, then the whole process will be driven by economic gains and losses.

Dineo and Brandon Van Wyk were married traditionally in 2017.

‘’The lobola process was important to us because we believe that it is foundational in building the relationship between our two families. It was also important for us because we wanted to embrace our culture as black people and we believe that it connects us spiritually with our ancestors,’’ shares Dineo.

The practice of lobola is challenging for some couples because of the financial demands from the bride’s family. Men who observe the importance of lobola find solutions to defeat the challenges. Some of those challenges include the view that lobola is a product of patriarchy and therefore commodifies women. As there is monetary value placed on lobola, it almost seems like paying lobola is buying the bride as if she is property.

The question of why men should be the ones who pay lobola then rises. Perhaps what we need to do is explore more of our historical African cultures to understand the perception of women, as opposed to the westernised definitions and norms.

Other challenges include women who help their prospective husbands raise money for their lobola. Culturally, the man’s family is supposed to offer/pay lobola, however, the exorbitant prices that some families demand for their daughter’s lobola makes it difficult for men to pay it by themselves.

Mkhize says that some of the ‘challenges of lobola started because there was nobody who was regulating cow values in this regard. Families were then left on their own to call prices for their own cows’.

‘’I started saving money for two years, and during that two years I sent my family to Dineo’s family to ask for her hand in marriage; we call it go kgopela sego sa meetsi. Then I knew from there how much they wanted so I started planning my finances,’’ says Brendon.

Mkhize highlights that refunding of lobola isn’t culturally appropriate. However, culture evolves with time, so if people deem it necessary to refund lobola, then they will.

‘’If the whole process was initiated as a business transaction on contractual basis, then when there is breach of contract, the law must take its course,’’ concludes Mkhize.