Academic journal article African Studies Review

African Marriage Regulation and the Remaking of Gendered Authority in Colonial Natal, 1843-1875

Academic journal article African Studies Review

African Marriage Regulation and the Remaking of Gendered Authority in Colonial Natal, 1843-1875

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article examines the gendered relationships of authority that are at the heart of the processes of customary marriage in South Africa, as well as the ways in which colonial political intervention worked to effect social change in nineteenth-century colonial Natal. This analysis reinforces the established historiographical understanding that instigating generational shifts in authority was important to Natal Native Policy, unlike customary regulation elsewhere in colonial Africa in which colonial law worked to shore up the authority of senior men. However, it seeks to underline that while negotiations of colonial power began to shift authority from older to younger men by manipulating Native marriage, and in particular the practice of lobola, the effects of such policies produced profound shifts in the experience and articulation of gendered relationships of marriage and colonial authority. The imbrication of changes in gender and generational norms ultimately reveals the contradictions in both colonial claims of liberal gender reform and African claims that colonial policy provoked the usurpation of male traditional authority.

Résumé: Cet article examine les relations d'autorité entre les hommes et les femmes qui sont au coeur des processus du mariage coutumier en Afrique du Sud, ainsi que la façon dont l'intervention politique coloniale a travaillé pour le changement social dans le Natal colonial du XIXe siècle. Cette analyse renforce la compréhension historiographique établie que l'incitation au changement générationnel de la prise d'autorité a été importante pour la politique indigène du Natal, contrairement à la réglementation d'usage ailleurs en Afrique coloniale, où le droit colonial consolidait l'autorité des hommes âgés. Cependant, nous voulons souligner que, bien que les négociations du pouvoir colonial ont commencé à donner plus d'autorité aux hommes jeunes en manipulant le mariage indigène, et en particulier la pratique de la lobola, les effets de ces politiques ont produit de profonds changements dans l'expérience et l'articulation des relations entre les sexes au sein du mariage et de l'autorité coloniale. L'imbrication des changements dans les normes sur les relations entre les sexes et les générations révèle en fin de compte les contradictions à la fois dans les revendications coloniales de la réforme libérale sur l'égalité des sexes, et dans les revendications africaines indiquant que la politique coloniale aurait provoqué l'usurpation de l'autorité traditionnelle des hommes.

Key Words: Marriage; lobola, native policy; Shepstone; Zulu; Indirect Rule; colonial Natal

In a notorious case in 1863, a young Zulu woman named Nomasondo was tortured for running away from her husband, an older man by the name of Nhlabathi, to her unnamed lover. The incident was reported extensively in the colonial press, alongside the kinds of trenchant criticism of the policies of the colony's Native administration that had become commonplace by the 1860s. Nhlabathi was charged with rape, and John Bird, the magistrate who adjudicated the case, convicted the defendants on basis of the girl's evidence and imposed a heavy fine upon Nhlabathi and his co-accused. The penalties imposed were so severe that they required the procedural intervention of the lieutenant-governor, who referred the case to Theophilus Shepstone, the Diplomatic Agent to the Native Tribes of South Africa and the colony's first Secretary for Native Affairs. Nomasondo had been the sole witness in the case, and Shepstone found reason to doubt her evidence. The fact that she had a lover whom she subsequently married after the annulment of her marriage to Nhlabathi convinced him to overturn the magistrate's sentence (NAB SNA 1/3/13, 1863).

This case has appeared repeatedly in the historiography of colonial Native administration in this region over the past decades (see Welsh 1971; Guy 2013). Invariably, incidents such as this one, which highlight struggles in intimate relationships and the manner in which households came to be established and extended in African society, have served primarily to demonstrate the nature of bitter disputes between colonial elites of different political persuasions. …

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