Debates around cultural practices like lobola will always become a spectacle if they don't address its relevance to the people who practise it.
A few years ago, probably two by my estimates, word got around in little old Mahikeng that there were mumblings by the traditional council and chieftaincy of the town, the Barolong, wanting to reintroduce the cultural practice of reed dancing.
It seems that there was a bit of cultural envy going on as some of the reasons that were cited included how it used to be part of the Setswana culture and that in light of other cultures such as the BaZulu and BaSwati still practicing it among others, it was necessary to revive it so that it may help fortify the overall culture of the group especially in these "dark days" of westernisation.
Mahikeng like the rest of the North West province, of which it is the capital, is home to a portion of the Setswana language group of South Africa. That this group is more than three times the size of that living in Botswana should not deter us with ideas of annexation at this moment - that is not the topic at hand.
The issue of reintroducing certain cultural practices such as the reed dance was the misguided and romantic belief that by bringing back practices that had long since been abandoned that would somehow infuse the community with a strong sense of cultural identity.
As it turns out, few people in the community paid any heed to the call. They did not see its relevance in their present lives and understanding of who they were as a people.
Their decision was however not owing to the ramblings of a few intellectuals on the evolution of culture or flirtatious mentions of possible constitutional issues. They reached their decision through the understanding that something that they had let go off as a people at a particular point in time did not warrant a re-visitation as it served no purpose anymore.
I found myself thinking about this anecdote after listening to a radio talkshow last week.
The topic of discussion was the traditional marriage practice of lobola. It was argued and suggested, as could've been expected, that this African cultural practice was perhaps ready to be put to rest given how Africans have become westernised in any event as well as its hazardous implications that it both subjugates and treats women as commodities, to be bartered for a price between families.
The debate that ensued was also to be expected.
There were those who defended the practice and those who were against it. The practice was painted as just another form of patriarchal manifestation which gives the woman involved in it no voice save but to accept the conditions that are imposed. As I listened, I went from interested, to embarrassed and finally just plain annoyed.
I was interested in that I believe that it is a good thing to debate the relevance of certain social and cultural practices. I was embarrassed because the men who called in with the good intention of defending a great cultural principle, resorted to chest-beating about how they are the man of the house, they cannot drive cars or live in houses bought by their women or accept that these women can provide more than they can. Essentially, they did not regard women as their equals – although they did not say it, it was implied.
I was annoyed however, apart from the foolish men who called in, by the suspicious shade that the debate had progressively taken in my view. At no point was there any clarity on whether lobola, what my mother tongue would dictate I refer to as magadi, was practiced or understood in the same way by all the African and South African indigenous cultures or whether it was a practice that required reform given that we live in a constitutionally democratic country.
There was nothing close to any nuance about how some cultures have adapted the practice in light of increasingly urbanised living spaces or how it largely depends on the families and cultures that practice it.
If memory serves me correctly, there has even been a constitutional decision around the very idea of representation during this practice and the decision was commendably counter-majoritarian.
Unfortunately debates like this are always prone to becoming spectacle. Nothing is said about the greater rubric of living with culture and improving on its smaller parts. Nothing is said about the relevance of a culture to the people who practice it, only the ceaseless and often ill-informed rhetoric that they let it go.