The White Wedding: Affect and Economy in South Africa in the Early Twentieth Century

By Erlank, Natasha | African Studies Review, September 2014 | Go to article overview

The White Wedding: Affect and Economy in South Africa in the Early Twentieth Century


Erlank, Natasha, African Studies Review


Abstract: Discussions of church weddings are not standard in accounts of African marriage in South Africa in the early twentieth century. However, from the 1890s onward, church weddings were becoming more common, and by the 1930s more Africans married in church than elsewhere. Indeed, these wedding ceremonies provide insight into how black families experienced and created their own social status in a context in which white South Africans viewed black weddings as a symbol of racial misappropriation. Via weddings and their associated commodification, families held on to and proclaimed the value of family life, and importantly, broader social networks as well as status-based associational life in an era of familial disintegration. At the same time weddings were often a double-edged indicator of status through their reference to sexual purity by means of white frocks.

Résumé: Les discussions sur les mariages religieux ne sont pas standard dans les comptes-rendus de mariages africains en Afrique du Sud au début du XXe siècle. Cependant, depuis les années 1890, les mariages religieux sont de plus en plus communs, et depuis les années 1930 plus d'Africains se sont mariés à l'église qu'ailleurs. En effet, ces cérémonies de mariage donnent un aperçu de la façon dont les familles noires ont connu et ont créé leur propre statut social dans un contexte dans lequel les Sud-Africains blancs considéraient les mariages entre noirs comme un symbole de misappropriation raciale. Via ces mariages et leur consommation associée, les familles perpétuaient leurs valeurs sur la vie de de famille, ainsi que les réseaux sociaux plus larges et la vie associative fondée sur un statut dans une ère de désintégration familiale. En même temps ces mariages étaient souvent un indicateur à double tranchant à travers leur référence à la pureté sexuelle par le biais du port de robes blanches.

Key Words: South Africa; history; gender; Christianity; weddings; African tradition

In the novel Wrath of the Ancestors by Archibald Campbell Jordan, first published in Xhosa in 1940, Chief Zwelinzima marries his mission-school love in a ceremony replete with symbols of modernity, including a tea with the nuns at St. Cuthbert's, an Anglican mission station in the Eastern Cape, and later a grand dance.

So grand a wedding . . . had never been seen in Mpondomiseland before and was never likely to be seen again. In accordance with an old custom, the wedding-feast was held at the bridegroom's home. The bridal party came from Mjika accompanied by a huge band of young horsemen. . . . The marriage ceremony was held at St. Cuthbert's church which was filled to overflowing with crowds of people-White as well as Black-who had come in cars and on horseback. As for Mphuthumi, he had his hands full that day. In the mkhwelo he was standard bearer, while after the marriage ceremony, when the register was being signed, it was his business to conduct the school choir singing an anthem. And of course he was best man, since Nomvuyo was chief bridesmaid. ... As soon as the marriage ceremony was over, the bridal party went to St. Mary's Hostel where they had been invited to tea by Sister Monica. .. . There were so many wedding presents that the bridal couple did not know what to do with them. Piles of congratulatory telegrams-some in English, some in Xhosa-were received at the Royal Place from well-wishers from all walks of life. . .. The messages that many of them contained added to the jollity of the occasion because they were from old school friends at Fort Hare, Lovedale, and St. Matthew's. The day's celebrations were rounded off with a grand dance at St. Cuthbert's. (1980 [1940]:55-56)

Despite the contemporary features, however, parts of the ceremony call to mind practices that had their roots in customs that preceded European colonization. Evocative in many different ways, the description of the wedding is also a cue to the centrality of the church wedding in black South African Christian communities by the early twentieth century. …

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