Change and continuity in Southern African marriages
SPECIAL SECTION: 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

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”


Part 2: The material dimension: exploring marriage as consumption

Not marrying in South Africa: consumption, aspiration and the new middle class

Deborah James
Pages: 1-14

This article explores how marriage, or its absence, features in relation to the aspirations and obligations of members of South Africa’s new black middle class. In a context where the state and credit have played key roles in the newly financialised arrangements of neoliberalism, it considers how ties that are both conflictual and intimate — bonds that simultaneously distance people from, while creating increasingly intimate connections to, both kinsmen and (prospective) affines — operate within this novel space. “Middle classers” are set apart from their less fortunate relatives, even as they continue to have to support and remain intimate with them; divided from partners who expect them to conform to conservative female roles, while they continue to hold positive views about marital exchanges (and payments) more generally.

Keywords: competition, democratic transition, marriage, middle class, status


The struggle for marriage: elite and non-elite weddings in rural Namibia

Julia Pauli & Francois Dawids
Pages: 15-28

Namibian weddings have become lavish and expensive rituals. Recent studies have discussed how these marriage transformations are linked to late capitalism and the spread of modernisation ideologies. Much of this research concludes that marriage has become a middle class institution, rather detached from the lives of the unmarried, poor majority of Namibians. However, this overly dichotomous construction of the current situation fails to include non-affluent couples who marry against their economic odds. In this article, we want to shed light on this group and their weddings, locally classified as “struggle marriages.” We scrutinise how marriages are accomplished. Special attention is given to the role of kin in marriage negotiations and practices. Our argument is based on 18 months of collaborative ethnography in the rural area of Fransfontein in southern Kunene region, north-west Namibia, between 2003 and 2006. While anthropologist Julia Pauli was living in the community, the other author of this paper, Francois Dawids, got married. In this paper, we use his wedding as a starting point and extend our observations and reflections with additional cases and further ethnographic information.

Keywords: kinship, inequalities, marriage, middle class, Namibia, weddings


The tent versus lobola: marriage, monetary intimacies and the new face of responsibility in Botswana

Rijk van Dijk
Pages: 29-41

While it has become common knowledge that in many parts of Africa — including Botswana — weddings and marital arrangements in general have increasingly become subject to consumerist desires of style and glamour, much less is known about how such expectations of public display intersect with changing ideas concerning the intimate. Weddings have not only become costlier than before, and much more crucial in the marking of class, status and prestige, they have also given way to shifts in the responsibilities concerning marital arrangements, in the provisioning of resources and in the taking charge of the glamorous styling of these events. Studying such marital arrangements in Molepolole, Botswana, reveals that these shifts are creating a new sense of joint responsibility among young couples in terms of their role in providing such (re)sources. They are also producing a new dimension in their formation of relational intimacies; that is, making their financial affairs part of the intimacy of their relationship not meant for scrutiny and inspection by family elders. Engaging an anthropological understanding of the ways in which money can be related to intimacies, this contribution aims to understand how taking responsibility for finances becomes an intimate matter in the wedding process.

Keywords: Botswana, intimacy, marital arrangements, responsibility, wedding tents

Part 3: The power dimension: exploring marriage and crisis
Marriage, kinship and childcare in the aftermath of AIDS: rethinking “orphanhood” in the South African lowveld

Isak Niehaus
Pages: 42-55

In this article I consider the significance of marriage from the vantage point of children’s affiliation to domestic units during the era of South Africa’s AIDS pandemic. Drawing on multi-temporal fieldwork in Impalahoek, a village in the Bushbuckridge municipality of the South African lowveld, I suggest that AIDS-related diseases and deaths have led to the further erosion of marriage and to the greater absence of fathers in the lives of children. However, these changes have not precipitated a crisis in childcare. A survey of 22 households shows that orphaned children are generally cared for by related adults, such as matrikin and older female siblings. These arrangements are a product of a long history of improvisations, necessitated by experiences of oscillating labour migration. Moreover, they are facilitated by a diffusion of parental obligations, which is a central tenet of Northern Sotho and Shangaan models of kinship. I argue that in an economy of high unemployment and dependence upon state-instituted social security systems, marriage does not appear to be decisive to children’s welfare.

Keywords: Bushbuckridge, childcare, HIV/AIDS, kinship, marriage, orphans, social grants, South Africa

Rights, violence and the marriage of confusion: re-emerging bride abduction in South Africa

W.J. (Jaco) Smit
Pages: 56-68

During the last few decades, South(ern) Africa has witnessed a steady decline in marriage. While the paths people take to get married are diversifying due to various challenges — mainly a changing economy and high bride wealth demands — certain formative steps in the marriage process seem to gain importance. In particular, what a marriage is and how it is constituted retains its high cultural value irrespective of the ways in which it changes and declines. Within this context, from more or less the year 2009 onwards, there have been allegations that bride abduction [ukuthwala] practices in South Africa are becoming more popular and violent than its historical counterpart. If these allegations are true, it contradicts the general trend of marriage decline, and questions the institution of marriage as a process of fixed formative steps. By asking the open ended question, “How should we understand ukuthwala-related violence?,” this paper seeks to determine whether ukuthwala conforms to the general marriage trend, or whether it indicates a new development in the evolution of marriage in South(ern) Africa.

Keywords: abduction marriage, human rights, marital violence, South Africa, ukuthwala