/ 14 February 2022

Time to press the reset button on lobola?

Khulubuse Zuma's Wedding
Family formation is not simply a matter between two individuals who are in love; it instead is framed by culture. (Photo by Khaya Ngwenya/City Press/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

I work for a philanthropic organisation with a strong focus on early childhood development and ensuring that children are still on track by the time they reach school-going age. On track means children experience physiological health, cognitive ability and enjoy loving, attentive and responsive relations with their caregivers. In other words, children require enough stimulation and nutrition and a receptive support system in the form of caring and attentive family members.  

But family formation is not simply a matter between two individuals who are in love; it instead is framed by culture. There are times when cultures hamper rather than facilitate supportive families for children. 

In his book, From Third World to First, former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew reflects that on studying Singapore’s 1980 census, he realised that graduates were not marrying fellow graduates but opting to marry partners who were less educated, mainly at O-levels (the equivalent of matric in Singapore), or stayed unmarried. Yew believed this trend had the potential to impede the maximum benefit of Singaporeans by inhibiting the potential of future generations. 

He believed that, if a child is born to a family structure composed of a parent with an O-level and the other a graduate, the child has less of a chance at achieving academic excellence than a child with two graduate parents. He began to draft and implement policy to undo what he interpreted as a “lopsided marriage and procreation pattern”.

It is not Yew’s reasons that moves me, but that he believed it his responsibility (15 years into independence) to analyse trends in family formation and calibrate those to maximise the possibilities of academic excellence of future generations. Today Singapore is one of the youngest, most successful states in the world, in terms of per capita GDP, competitiveness, standard of living and educational attainment. Singapore is not devoid of serious problems, but its goal of producing strong academic citizens was achieved.  

I am learning from my own experience about how our behaviour may inhibit or promote values that influence the formation of families. I am a Xhosa man, 32 years old and in love with a Xhosa woman, who is 28. We intend to marry. We have no children. I have initiated lobola negotiations, the Nguni term for the tradition where the families of a betrothed couple negotiate how much will be given by the groom to the bride’s family. The use of lobola varies from one family to the next, but the premise is to facilitate relations between the two families. In some families it is used to pay for the wedding, for example.   

The 2021 Quarterly Labour Force Survey estimated that of the 10.3 million youth aged 25 to 34, 3.3 million individuals were not economically active. It further estimated three million young people were unemployed. According to the StatsSA Marginalised Group Indicator Report 2019, black African youth aged 25 and 34 constitute 80% of the total youth population. Just below half (3.75 million) are employed, 2.45 million are unemployed and 2.29 million are not economically active.

This data shows just less than 50% earn a steady income — a prerequisite for the groom to be able to pay lobola. I am fortunate because I have a hope that I can meet the demands of my partner’s family negotiators. I am one of the lucky South African youth to have been employed over a long, uninterrupted period.   

What of those aged 25 to 34, who are from lobola practising families who have not been as lucky as me; are they not falling in love, are they not yearning to form families? With record numbers of unemployment, should we not reflect on how our behaviour (through cultures and customs) inhibit or promote the formation of families? Are we maximising the possibilities for the establishment of loving connections for children?

From what we learn in Lee’s autobiography, does a practice like lobola help family formation or does it make it exclusive to those who can afford it?  

My aim is not to bash customs and traditions but rather to ask under what circumstances do we press the reset button and audit how well customs and traditions facilitate progress for us who are subjected to them?