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Tricky art of negotiating lobola

Have you seen the clever booze ad, the last line of which claims mergers and acquisitions in the olden days were not negotiated by lawyers? What a load of bull. We Africans — “African” in the Jimmy Manyi sense of the word — have been doing it forever, negotiating family mergers using cattle to pay.

I have just gone through a merger or acquisition — or both — of my own. It included “lawyers”, who probably did not realise they were lawyers, otherwise they would have charged me the tens of thousands lawyers charge an hour in legal fees.

I am talking about lobola negotiations — to seal that deal that links my fiancée, me and our respective families for good. What an exciting stage. And painful, as it left a gaping hole in my wallet.

I have always known that I would need to pay lobola. Being a Xhosa man there are two certainties: circumcision and lobola. I even started saving for lobola when I was 21 — but a couple of years later I blew the money when buying property came before saying “I do”.

Now, at 30, it is time to do the right thing. I know my dad has been itching for a while to play the role of “briefing attorney” for my lobola negotiations. I called him up and said: “Are you ready?” He rounded up two of his cousins, the “advocates” in this matter. We got in the car the following week, crossing the Kei bridge in the Eastern Cape to travel to Mthatha to meet the “opposing lawyers” — my fiancée’s dad and co.

I was not allowed into the house where my fiancée’s family and my “lawyers” discussed this “out-of-court settlement”. Being present is like contempt of court.

I drove my team to her parents’ house. It took three meetings for the two families to finally sign the deal. The first meeting, according to the briefing my “lawyers” gave me afterwards, was a good one. “It’s a smooth process,” said my dad’s cousin. Okay, tell me more, I said.

Her family had accepted our merger of equals proposition. But? They had not done due diligence and could not put cattle or a monetary value on the daughter.

We drove all the way to Mthatha, having prearranged this meeting and “these people” are not ready?

They are playing games, I felt. It is tradition for the bride’s family to make life hell for the groom’s family during negotiations, I have been told.

All I wanted to know was with how many thousands I would have to part. But these lawyers — known in isiXhosa as oonozakuzaku — deal in cattle. Her family states how many cattle they want for her — and also attach a monetary value to each cow. My lawyers’ duty is to knock down the number and the value of each cow.

I wanted an easy deal: a reasonable lobola, then my family and I would pay for the wedding. Well, my lawyers claimed that they suggested that to her family. Either my darling’s family was not too keen, or did not realise how sweet that deal would be for them.

But they played hard to get over those three meetings, according to my team. At some stage I thought that I would go to the house next door to find a wife. Or I would marry a white woman, whose dad would have the pain of funding a lavish wedding, all without lobola.

Finally, after three meetings, my deal was sealed in the most welcome and fulfilling of ways.

I sneaked into the final meeting. My lawyers are rebels — they break tradition, generally. They said I should walk in with them this time round to experience the process for myself. The other parties probed skilfully as though they did not know.

One of them asked of my legal team: “Gentlemen, how come there are four of you, when in the past meetings there were only three?” My dad’s cousin, knowing we would all be fined for this transgression, introduced me as their driver.

Everybody laughed.

The modern Xhosa man in me does not question the value of lobola. It is one of the pillars that should hold the two families — and especially the couple — strong.

Whenever I feel like throwing a tantrum during disagreements with my fiancée, it quickly comes to my mind that there is more than just my ego at stake here.

My lawyers worked hard for this deal. It is now for me to enjoy it. And I cannot go and spoil it now.

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