In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Practice of Lobola in Contemporary South African Society
  • Glynis Parker (bio)


In some African countries, for example, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho, the tradition of paying Lobola for a wife is common practice. According to this tradition, marriage is a contract between families and not just individuals, so the transfer of cattle from the relatives of the bridegroom to those of the bride serves to legitimize the marriage and to ensure certain rights. The most important of these rights is that the children of the marriage would legally belong to the father’s lineage group.


Lobola is still practiced in South Africa today although problems surround the practice and changes are occurring. Some of these are: Firstly, cattle are largely being replaced by money as “families living in a city might not have the physical capacity to receive cattle.”1 This change to the use of money instead of cattle has led to the perception that paying for the bride now makes her the property of the groom, which may make her vulnerable to abuse by both her husband and in-laws.

Secondly, there is a connection between Lobola and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV and Aids. “The Lobola tradition is also known as the ‘Customary Law of Marriage’ (South Africa; Act 120 Justice Department, 2000), which permits the husband to marry up to four wives.”2 These spouses are seen as concurrent multi-partners, so this practice can lead to the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases amongst the different wives and the husband. Thirdly, it may result in delay in [End Page 175] young couples getting married, owing to them being unable to raise the Lobola as a result of the unrealistic prices demanded by the bride’s family. Posel says about Zulu society in South Africa: “between the high cost of ilobolo and respect for ilobolo as a custom – [this] contributes to the very low marriage rates observed among Zulu people today.”3

The negative depictions of Lobola that have been discussed above are paralleled by a positive one. Lobola is an age-old, African custom and some people feel that abandoning this custom will be another step towards the loss of everything African. Lobola is seen by many people as socially beneficial because it is the bringing together of families as well as an acknowledgement by the bridegroom and his family of this precious gift, the bride. There is the belief held by both men and women that the payment of Lobola “creates a greater value and strength in their marriage; if Lobola is not paid, the marriage will not last.”4

Against this background it can be seen that Lobola is a contentious issue. There are two problem areas surrounding Lobola that are of great interest: Firstly, the place of traditional practices in the new South Africa and, secondly, women’s rights. Questions that come to the fore regarding women’s rights are, for example: If a bride is paid for (in cattle or money) is this dehumanizing women and relegating them to the status of a commodity? Is Lobola in conflict with gender equality, for which many women are fighting in South Africa?

The aim of this article is to report the findings of a small research project that was conducted to help cast light on these two problem areas. To reach this aim, the remainder of the article is structured as follows: A conceptual-theoretical framework will be outlined in the next section, followed by a description of the empirical research design, the findings of the project, a discussion of the findings, and finally some recommendations and a conclusion.


The study entailed understanding the practice of Lobola against the backdrop of Ubuntu and feminism as the theoretical framework. Ubuntu is an African philosophy and way of life, which expresses respect and compassion for others.

Understanding marriage and Lobola in the light of Ubuntu

In African traditional culture, marriage is a central institution that needs to be understood in relation to the individual and the group. Kinship is an important aspect of African traditional...