Traditional leaders say parliament should curb high ilobolo prices

Ron Derby

Ron Derby

ilobolo was once counted in herds of cattle but these days many South African men pay it in cash.

Because of the high inflation rate this old practice is open to financial abuse and leads many men to think that they are buying their wives.

High ilobolo has also driven some men to think their wives are commodities, and as a result they abuse them.

Despite these negatives, many still follow this old custom. Come December, many will be able to pay ilobolo and celebrate after saving for the entire year.

A typical sign of a ilobolo celebration is flashy German cars blitzing through dusty township streets after successful ilobolo negotiations.

But in the past the tradition of ilobolo involved a less expensive affair.

The groom's family gives a gift, typically cattle, to the family whose daughter was joining their household.

But today, when few urban families have room for pastures, the calculations have moved quickly to cash.

"It is a beautiful ceremony that has been bastardised by opportunistic people and inflation," said Amanda Gcabashe, a traditional healer.

Barry Dijoe, a young BaTswana professional who is about to embark on ilobolo negotiations, said some of the younger generation see the custom as expensive and unnecessary.

"But then you have got to look at the other side of the coin. It is a sign of giving thanks to her parents for raising the woman who you fell in love with," said Dijoe.

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 ilobolo 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 the University of the Witwatersrand, and secretary of the Movement for Rural Women, a non-profit organisation, said the ilobolo custom was central to the African identity.

"It is our African way of doing things and is still a viable practice," she said, but 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 ilobolo."

Cattle remain an important sign of wealth in modern South Africa and in rural areas ilobolo is still paid in the form of cows.

But for blacks living in cities, suburbs and urbanised townships the cattle are increasingly figurative.

Prices might 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 R100 to the current market price of R3000, 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 end up divorcing the bride's family keeps its bounty.

Thabo Seekane, who recently gave away his daughter, said determining ilobolo 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 predetermined 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 that ilobolo can be paid in instalments - over a lifetime in some cases.

But others demand full payment upfront in what critics said is a very expensive abuse of the age-old ceremony.

A Johannesburg businessman reportedly paid about R250000 for the hand of a daughter of King Goodwill Zwelithini.

Zwelithini himself has repeatedly dipped into the purse to pay ilobolo, a hazard of following the Zulu custom of taking more than one wife.

Dick Mhango, a spokesman for Nedbank, said the bank did not have any products specifically for ilobolo but it could be covered by an ordinary loan.

Wits' Mbatha said inflation might put marriage out of reach of men in areas where unemployment can be as high as 40percent.

"Rural women have asked the government to pass laws that would set a minimum and a maximum for ilobolo.

"It has become very difficult for their children to pay ilobolo," she said.

The National House of Traditional Leaders, the highest council of tribal and community elders, last year asked parliament to regulate ilobolo to curb the rocketing price demands.

"It should not be commercialised and that is the position we took," said Abraham Mzakhe Sithole, the chief executive of the house. - Reuters