Change and continuity in Southern African marriages

SPECIAL SECTION: Change and continuity in Southern African marriagesIntroduction
Marriage as an end or the end of marriage? Change and continuity in Southern African marriages

Marriage as an end or the end of marriage? Change and continuity in Southern African marriages

Julia Pauli & Rijk van Dijk

Pages 257-266

Marriage used to be widespread and common throughout Southern Africa. However, over the past decades marriage rates have substantially declined in the whole region. Marriage has changed from a universal rite of passage into a conspicuous celebration of middle class lifestyles. Bridewealth or lobola remains important and is supplemented by a plethora of new rituals and expenditures. Yet, despite marriage's recent turn towards exclusivity, the institution nevertheless continues to be an important frame of reference for most people. The contributions in this special issue explore reconfigurations of marriages and weddings in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia through the last decades. While there are numerous anthropological studies on marriage in Southern Africa for the period up to the 1980s, a remarkable paucity of studies has to be noted for the time since then. The ethnographic and comparative findings on Southern African weddings and marriages compiled in this special issue pick up an important anthropological legacy and stimulate future research and theorising.

Keywords: consumption rituals, marriage, middle class, Southern Africa, weddings


Part 1: The normative/ideational dimension: exploring lobola as ideology

Traditions of kinship, marriage and bridewealth in southern Africa

Adam Kuper

Pages 267-280

In the pre-colonial period, and in most parts of Southern Africa throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, marriage, the family and the homestead were embedded in economic, political and religious institutions. The household was the hub of social life, and its layout symbolically expressed the relationships between men, women, cattle and the ancestors. Economically, bridewealth paid in cattle linked the pastoral economy of men and the garden economy of women. Politically, marriages established, sustained and restructured allegiances. The paper concludes with some reflections on the transformations that this traditional structure has undergone in the course of the twentieth century.

Keywords: bridewealth, homestead, “house”, marriage, southern Africa


Is it enough to talk of marriage as a process? Legitimate co-habitation in Umlazi, South Africa

Mark Hunter

Pages 281-296

Some 65 years ago Radcliffe-Brown wrote that marriage is “not an event or a condition but a developing process.” This position became modified two decades later when John Comaroff and Simon Roberts demonstrated the ambiguity of the process of marriage in order to challenge the dominant “jural” view. This article argues that these insights still hold well, but that in an era of very low marriage rates in Southern Africa the processual approach is in need of revisiting. Based on research in Umlazi township, Durban, it explores the rise of legitimate co-habitation whereby relatively small amounts of bridewealth-related payments can enable a couple to live together. Such relations are located in what appears to be a growing social space between “full” marriage and ukukipita, a term suggesting illegitimate cohabitation. Instead of evaluating legitimate cohabitation in terms of whether or not it represents a road to marriage, the article stresses how it reconfigures gender and family relationships and enables access to land and housing. The article concludes that marriage remains a critical symbolic marker in all relationships, but that South Africans are finding innovative ways to cohabit.

Keywords: cohabitation, ilobolo, marriage, South Africa, township


The materiality of marriage payments

Hylton White

Pages 297-308

It is generally agreed that rates of marriage are declining in Southern Africa. It is also clear that for people who are wealthy enough to marry, the long-standing constitution of marriage as process is increasingly replaced by a making of marriage as event. What I wish to add to both of these broad assessments is something that this focus on the decline of marriage might risk overlooking, which is the proliferation of partial or unfinished but nonetheless deeply consequential unions: bonds of affinity that, in rural northern KwaZulu-Natal, as in many other parts of Southern Africa, are set in motion by histories of material prestation, including but not limited to marriage payments as such. Engaging with recent theoretical work by Michael Lambek, I explore this social consequentiality of marriage payments — finished or not — by focusing on the efficacy and the afterlives of the act of prestation itself. I suggest that these transactions constitute sensuous figurations of both kinship and affinity, in a process that draws its effects from the recognition of an act by a sensing audience, including, very importantly, the audience of the dead. This produces enchainments of marriage payments in social processes that outlive their performance, whether they are part of a concluded bond or not.

Keywords: affinity, kinship, KwaZulu-Natal, marriage, marriage payments, prestation, ritual


“Slow marriage,” “fast bogadi”: change and continuity in marriage in Botswana

Jacqueline Solway

Pages 309-322

Classic work on Tswana marriage emphasises that it is a process of becoming, involving a series of rituals and prestations characterised by a long period of socially productive ambiguity in which the status of the union, the spouses, their children and their broader families remain uncertain. Marriage was a “total social phenomenon” entailing the intermingling of the economic, social and political spheres and continual gift circulation, thereby fostering dense social networks. In the twenty-first century, relatively few people marry, marriage is largely a middle class phenomenon, and people marry in civil ceremonies such that marriage is virtually instantaneous. Associated rituals occur over one or two days and bridewealth [bogadi] is usually given at the time of marriage. This article examines what such a time contraction in the rituals and prestations means and what it might suggest about marriage, the person and kinship. I propose two ideal types to capture this evolving process, “slow marriage” to depict marriages in the past and “fast bogadi’ to characterize contemporary marriages in which the rituals and gifts exchanged between marrying families occur over a brief time period. I draw on the concept of “possessive individualism” to help understand changing notions of personhood.

Keywords: Botswana, bridewealth, kinship, marriage, possessive individualism, “the gift”



Africa after apartheid: South Africa, race, and nation in Tanzania

Heike Becker

Pages 323-324


Aids, politics, and music in South Africa

David B. Coplan

Pages 325-327