Lobolo: Saving for the price of love

The rule of thumb when investing is to separate matters of money and affairs of the heart, but there’s one big exception to that: lobolo.

The practice of a groom paying the bride’s family in cash or cattle in the lead-up to the wedding inevitably brings the emotion of love firmly in line with your wallet.

This centuries-old custom is intended to bridge strong relations between the two families, but lobolo can put a strain on finances if not properly planned for. When saving, how much is “enough”? You want to show appreciation for your betrothed and to invoke kind feelings from your in-laws. But the determined amount is often large. Add that to other expenses such as the rings and the ceremonies themselves, and getting married can become an awfully expensive affair.

How much is enough?

There is very little formal data about what constitutes an “average” lobolo payment.

“There is likely to be considerable variation across South Africa,” said Professor Dori Posel, at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Economic and Business Sciences, who has conducted extensive research into lobolo. “The payment of 10 cows — plus one for the mother of the bride — was formalised only in the former colony of Natal, where this has been maintained as the typical payment in Zulu marriage. But even within Zulu marriages, there is no fixed monetary rate for a cow and this provides scope for a higher rate for the cattle to be negotiated.”

The Mail & Guardian took to Facebook and Twitter to ask our readers what they paid for lobolo. Among the 51 respondents, the smallest amount paid was R10 000 and the largest R100 000. The average amount paid was R61 540.

Although most respondents paid cash, a few paid with a hybrid of cash and cows — and one respondent had paid the traditional 11 live cattle.

A poll with 1 809 respondents run by a South African wedding website, The Wedding Anthem, found that most people would prefer to pay less.

Almost two-thirds of respondents (62%) said “a reasonable amount” for lobolo was R10 000 or less; 21% said between R10 000 and R25 000 was reasonable; 11.1% said a range between R25 000 and R50 000 was acceptable; and 5.8% were happy to spend more than R50 000.

How do you fund lobolo?

For some, love takes time — meaning the groom might have had years to plan and save. Other couples have a shorter courting period. So how do you fund lobolo? Would you be willing to go into debt to meet the lobolo requirements for the one you love? Most of our readers said no.

“If the woman decides to leave one day, she’ll leave me with debt,” said one respondent, who paid R60 000 for lobolo from his savings.

Another reader, who said he would not borrow to pay for lobolo, commented: “In my culture lobolo is a lifetime commitment. Even if you paid the whole amount, you will forever financially take care of your in-laws one way or another, for example paying for their burial, and [other] needs. All this requires one to work hard and not take short cuts.”

A reader who saved R50 000 said that borrowing money to cover the expense would “make no sense. This would mean my wife would have to assist in paying it back,” he said.

Said a fourth: “A man has to work to show himself worthy of a wife. Why start a new life in debt?”

There were some exceptions to this, though. One respondent said that he and his partner had decided it was worthwhile to pay a portion of lobolo from his credit card. “I wasted money living by myself and there were added expenses as we both had to travel to see each other. We calculated how we would save [by] living together from less travelling and cooking more often, as opposed to spending money on takeaways when I’m alone. The additional credit taken was beneficial in the long run.”

He added that this didn’t apply to everyone: “This is not a recommendation, though — people view budgets and finances differently and have different approaches.”

Historically, men received assistance from their father, said Posel. “Bridewealth payments were made in cattle, which were drawn from the herd of the man’s father. However, this has changed over the years.”

In a qualitative study involving 80 men and women in Kwazulu-Natal, Posel and her colleagues found that “almost all men paid, or were paying, for ilobolo without assistance from their fathers”.

One M&G respondent said that covering costs without help showed a readiness to marry. “This is a huge step of becoming a man — when you take responsibility of what you want without getting help from family members. It is a defining moment that separates men from boys.”

Three of the M&G respondents said family members had helped them to cover the costs of lobolo. One of them borrowed from his uncles with the intention of repaying it.

Even though you might have to scrimp and save to shoulder the costs of lobolo alone, chances are that your family will get some sort of reciprocal benefit from the setup.

“In Zulu marriages, a substantial amount of food (umbondo) and a number of gifts (umabo) are also given by the family of the bride to the family of the groom, which frequently are financed using part of the ilobolo payment,” said Posel.

What are you in for?

If you’re contemplating marriage, there are a few products on the market that provide humorous ways of gauging how much you can expect to pay for the lobolo of your future spouse. The Lobola Calculator app, which now sits at 110 000 downloads, uses details such as the age, height, weight, waist size, attractiveness — on a scale from “not at all” to “really hot” — as well as cooking skills, qualifications and level of employment, to calculate an estimate.

App developer Robert Matsaneng admits he has “no idea” what the average lobolo price is and used a small sample of family and friends to provide the figures on the app. He said it was intended more as a way of putting a product on the App Store that “represents South African culture”.

Another calculator is lobola.net. It also intends to be humorous, quizzing details such as one’s skin complexion and virginity.

The M&G created a fictional profile of a 28-year-old virgin woman with a degree, a job, no children and a rich family. The potential bride has a car and a model C education. The website congratulated her on being “one of the few virgins still gracing planet earth”. It warned her to “watch your back” because “you, my sister, you deserve R50 000”.

Jokes aside, though, Matsaneng said the tradition is worthwhile. “I think lobolo is a great practice — provided it is not unreasonable and not rushed. In the end it is about showing respect to your lady’s family and them in return respecting you.”

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Thalia Holmes
Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.

She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.

After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. 

The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. 

She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.     

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