Academic journal article African Studies Review

Marriage and Bridewealth (Ilobolo) in Contemporary Zulu Society

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Marriage and Bridewealth (Ilobolo) in Contemporary Zulu Society

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article investigates links between ilobolo (bridewealth) practices and marriage outcomes in contemporary Zulu society. It presents quantitative data showing very low marriage rates among Zulu adults, as well as interview evidence suggesting that the majority of Zulu adults identify ilobolo as a constraint to marriage. However, the interview evidence also suggests that ilobolo remains widely valued as a Zulu tradition and continues to be an integral and defining feature of a Zulu marriage. The article concludes that this tension-between the high cost of ilobolo and respect for ilobolo as a custom-contributes to the very low marriage rates observed among Zulu people today.

Résumé: Cet article examine les liens entre les pratiques de Vilóbolo (la dot de mariage) et leurs conséquences sur le mariage dans la société Zulu contemporaine. Il présente des données quantitatives montrant de très faibles taux de mariage chez les adultes Zulu, ainsi que des résultats d'entretiens qui suggèrent que la majorité des adultes Zulu considèrent 1' ilobolo comme une contrainte au mariage. Toutefois, les résultats d'entretiens suggèrent également que la pratique de Y ilobolo reste largement appréciée comme une tradition zoulou et continue d'être un élément intégral et la définition d'un mariage zoulou. L'article conclut que cette tension entre le coût élevé de la pratique de Y ilobolo et le respect de celle-ci comme coutume contribue aux taux de nuptialité très faibles observés chez les Zoulous aujourd'hui.

Key Words: Marriage; bridewealth; ilobolo; marriage aspirations; South Africa; Zulu


Many studies have documented changes in marriage patterns among Africans in South Africa in recent decades, specifically an increase in age at first marriage and a decline in marriage rates (see Garenne et al. 2001; Hunter 2006; Kalule-Sabiti et al. 2007; Hosegood et al. 2009; Poseí & Casale 2013). These trends are particularly pronounced among isiZulu-speakers who live mostly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. In this article we investigate links between a distinguishing feature of African marriage, the custom of bridewealth, and these marriage outcomes, drawing from both quantitative and qualitative data. We focus specifically on the practice of bridewealth in contemporary Zulu society.

The custom involving the provision of marriage payments, in cattle or cash, from the groom's family to the parents of the bride is widely practiced in southern Africa and has various names among African language speakers: ilobolo in Zulu, mora in Shona, and bohali in Sesotho. Historically the practice was an essential part of marriage negotiations and the wedding itself, and was known to retain significance for the duration of the marriage. Evans-Prichard (1931:36) suggested the term "bridewealth" in order to avoid the implication that ilobolo was a matter of wife purchase and to recognize that the practice served to transfer wealth between families and generations. This term has become widely accepted, and we employ it interchangeably with the isiZulu term ilobolo.

Structural similarities exist among different bridewealth systems, but each ethnic group has its own culturally idiosyncratic practices specific to local conditions (see Kuper 1982; Gluckman 1950; Vilakazi 1962; Guy 1990). In South Africa, it was only in the former colony of Natal (now incorporated into the province of KwaZulu-Natal and home to the majority of Zulu people in South Africa) that the payment of ilobolo was formalized. The payment, as determined by the Natal Secretary for Native Affairs Theophilus Shepstone in 1869, was ten cattle for the daughters of commoners (plus the ingquthu beast for the mother), fifteen for the daughters of brothers and sons of a hereditary chief, twenty for the daughters of an appointed chief, and no limit for the daughters of a hereditary chief (Welsh 1971:83).! The payment of ilobolo was later codified when the first version of the Natal Code of Zulu Law was promulgated in 1878 and later revised in 1891 (South African Law Commission 1997). …

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