– racial and racist stereotypes about African societies long served as justification for the conquest of Africa and for white domination. What validity was there to the stereotypes? We need to examine African political structures for 2 reasons:
- we need to put Shaka and the rise of the Zulu in an African context;
- we need to examine the stereotype that African chieftaincy was despotic, blood-thirsty tyranny before the whites arrived and that the whites helped to ‘free’ Africans from this terrible rule.
– the chief was central to African political systems. In theory, the chief was an autocrat with total power over his people:
- the chief owned all land;
- he controlled the court system and his court was the highest and final court of appeal;
- as chief judge he could ‘eat people up’ (i.e., confiscate their property, especially cattle) and even had the power of life and death;
- he was the national religious leader;
- he was the wealthiest man and had the most wives in his society.
– in practice, most chiefs were much more like constitutional monarchs with many restraints and checks on their power. There were a few exceptions—especially Shaka and Zulu paramount chiefs; these were atypical (it’s a bit like saying that all European political leaders were like Hitler or Napoleon). However, most Europeans failed to recognise this and regarded chiefs as despotic autocrats whose will was law.
- Usurpation by competitors—custom and tradition decreed that only a member of the royal clan could be chief so no outsider could supplant a chief. However, with polygynous royal families, there were always brothers (including half-brothers) or uncles enough to make a plausible claim to the throne.
- Desertion to another chief
– neighbouring peoples were often similar culturally, linguistically, etc. so such a move was not too wrenching if one were dissatisfied.- chiefly power depended on the number of his followers and people; newcomers strengthened a chief and were usually welcomed.
– thus, an unpopular chief would find his power draining away even as his neighbouring rivals were being strengthened. He would begin to lose land and cattle to his rivals and would become even less popular and less respected.
- Assassination—the person of the chief was sacred as far as the majority of people, the commoners, were concerned, but relatives in the royal clan were not so restricted. This is what happened even to Shaka, as well as to his assassin and successor, Dingane.
- Deposition—this seems to have applied mostly to Sotho and Tswana
– in all societies, the heir to the previous chief was the eldest son of the Great Wife.- in some cases an unpopular chief could be deposed by downgrading the status of his mother. This could only arise if the status of Great Wife was not clearly defined (in many societies this status was clearly defined). By downgrading the status of his mother, it could be claimed that his succession was not legitimate and he would be deposed.
- Indunas or councilors– almost all decisions were in fact collective decisions as we shall see.
– as an heir came of age, his father would usually choose a number of older advisors or indunas to advise the heir; the latter would also choose some of his friends (usually young men who had gone through initiation—circumcision—with him), but as young people, their status and influence would normally be limited.
– also, when a succession took place, many of the powerful indunas of his father would be too powerful and influential to ignore so they would have to be included. In effect, the powerful families and men normally had to be given a voice.
– therefore, a young chief usually started his reign with a majority of older indunas; only if he lived long enough, would he gradually acquire a majority of advisors whom he had himself chosen and helped to positions of power and influence. But again the powerful could not be ignored.
- Legislative authority (power to make new laws and change old ones)
– few chiefs had any. The law was extensive and sophisticated, but it was based on custom and tradition. Chiefs too were subject to the law and were expected to maintain it. As we shall see, the ancestors in the ancestor cult were very much preoccupied with maintaining custom and tradition; they showed their displeasure when this was not done by allowing disease to affect the people, their animals and their crops. Chiefs who tried to change the law or failed to maintain custom and tradition would soon find his people becoming unhappy because every illness and problem would be attributed to this cause.- few chiefs were strong enough to tamper with custom and tradition. Shaka, for example, abolished circumcision of young men as part of the rite of passage to adulthood; he also made the regimental system more rigid and long-lasting (no marriage and long service). Under pressure of fighting the Zulu in the 1820s, the Mpondo chief made the same move. Among the Xhosa, such changes are very difficult to find; some attempts are known, but almost always they had to be abandoned.
– this ‘conservative’ bias in African society may be accounted for by two factors:
- old people are often concerned about and want to restrain young people and their desire for change; unlike our society where old people are largely dismissed as ‘old fogies’ and have little influence, age and old people were treated with great respect in African societies. The main thrust of the ancestor cult was to maintain custom and tradition as we’ll see when we talk about religion; the ancestor cult too can be seen as a mechanism for restraining young people and change.
- African societies were non-literate and maintaining continuity from generation to generation was likely a problem, more than it might be in a literate society where you have laws and other documents which spell out laws and legal relationships.
– of course, this did not mean the change did not take place. New situations and circumstances arise continuously. One way to handle this (it is a major means in the U. S. with a written constitution which provides a good deal of rigidity in dealing with new circumstances) is by reinterpreting old laws; this allows adaptation while maintaining the perception of continuity and stability.
- Judicial authority
– in theory, he was the chief justice; everyone had a right of appeal to the chief, including from the decisions of headmen or sub-chiefs. Thus, he was the final court of appeal.- in theory, it was the chief who made the decision. Court cases were handled very extensively. The chief, his indunas and anyone else who wanted to attend sat and listened to everyone involved in the case—complainant, the accused, witnesses and anyone having evidence or relevant information. Anyone attending could ask questions and cross examine all witnesses. When all the facts and evidence of the case had been heard, then discussions on the relevant law would examine all aspects. The chief normally did not participate in the questioning or the debates.
– there were a couple of ways that decisions would be rendered. In some societies, the chief and his indunas would retire to confer on the verdict and the chief would then return to announce ‘his’ decision, which would really be a collective decision of his council. Alternately, the chief would wait for a consensus to develop in the discussion; then he would rise to render ‘his’ verdict. As he was talking, he would listen for sounds of approval and agreement; if he heard only stony silence, he would normally begin to backtrack until he did hear sounds of agreement and satisfaction.
– finally, chiefs could in fact be overruled if they were so foolhardy as to ignore the general sentiment and opinion.
– it should be emphasized that knowledge of the law and ability to argue legal points were greatly respected. It was one of the ways in which men of humble birth could acquire a great deal of status and respect. Any adult male could participate in court proceedings; there was no barristers’ society to control entry.
- War and peace– such decisions were decided only in large council meetings with all adult males able to attend and participate in the debates. Also, diviners and war doctors were consulted to decide if the time or action was auspicious. Decisions were reached in the same way as judicial decisions—decisions were announced by the chief as ‘his’ decision but in practice decisions were usually collective decisions made with his council and in line with popular wishes. A chief who was an outstanding warrior would likely have more say. While the chief was official commander, leadership in battle might well be, and often was, in other hands.
- Chiefly power– the chief was regarded as ‘father’ of the people and that included more than just political and judicial functions. In fact, they often took the name of a chief, as the ancient Hebrews in the Bible— ‘Children of Israel’. “AmaXhosa” means ‘people’ or ‘children’ of Xhosa even though only members of the royal lineage were literal descendants of Xhosa. While the chief commemorated in this way was usually dead, living chiefs also could provide the name.
– the chief was supposed to show generosity, especially to those who were destitute (‘like a father’); thus, a chief needed many wives (they did agricultural work and thus provided food for hospitality) and large herds of cattle so that the latter could be lent to needy families.
– marriage alliances were a means of tying all the important families in the chieftaincy to the royal house—the chief would over the years accumulate many wives. He also arranged marriages for his sisters and daughters to other families.
– as agricultural producers, a large number of wives helped to build up the wealth and resources of the royal family.
– large cattle herds were very important as a means of attracting people to the chieftaincy.
– the chief also had important religious functions. He was chief priest of the national religion—the ancestor cult of the royal clan. He performed important ceremonies and rituals (such as, fertility ceremonies to start planting, thanksgiving ceremonies after harvest, performed sacrifices at times of disaster or crisis).
– it is important to note that in regard to the actual power and influence of the chief, there was a large spectrum. Vigorous, strong leaders could direct decision-making much more extensively than weak, and not very forceful men. Thus, at one extreme were chiefs who could make decisions which would be accepted and followed, especially if they proved themselves to be successful in attracting more followers, in getting more cattle and in getting more land. At the other extreme were weak men who were little more than puppets of their councils. The majority were somewhere in between the extremes.
– 2 tendencies were built into Nguni societies which facilitated this, especially in the structure and practice of royal households;
– first, was the structure of the polygynous family. [See the diagram of the theoretical structure. The diagram is like an organizational chart. In practice as the number of the chief’s wives and children increased, they might be scattered in a more than one homestead; however, the wives would be ranked on this basis.]. Each wife was given her own physical hut, but she also became an economic entity—a ‘house’. Land would be assigned to her for cultivation and cattle would be assigned to her ‘house’ for her and her children. What she produced in the fields and the cattle, plus their increase, could not be disposed of without her permission even though in a theoretical sense it all belonged to her husband.
– second, was the usual practice of marrying the Great Wife (who would produce the heir to the chieftaincy, her eldest son) late in life. The rationale was that it was not a good idea to have an heir who had reached maturity waiting around for many years before he could succeed to the chieftaincy. He was likely to become impatient and a focus for all those discontented or ambitious.
– the right-hand wife would be married early (not usually the first, which would be shortly after initiation and not politically important—‘the one who washed off the white clay’). The right-hand wife would be the daughter of an important, powerful family. The Great Wife was often the daughter of a neighbouring chief and her dowry was usually paid with contributions from the whole people as ‘she was the mother of the nation’.
– among the northern Nguni (Zulu) there was sometimes a 3rd section—left-hand house (they would be arranged theoretically around and below the Great House and its rafters. However, this section was not important politically and it was not the practice among the southern Nguni; we won’t talk about it further.
-other wives were placed and ranked under and within the Great House or the Right Hand House as ‘rafters’. They and their children were part of their respective sections and expected to support their leaders in the Great House and Right hand House respectively. Also, in the event that either the Great Wife or Right Hand Wife failed to produce a male heir or if their male children were obviously mentally or physically unfit, then a male from one of the respective ‘rafters’ would go to live in the Great or Right Hand House and become the heir in that section.
– there were recurring political effects of these practices. The heir of the Right Hand House was born fairly early as compared to the heir in the Great House and thus had many years to build up a following if he were politically ambitious. The heir of the Great House and therefore of the chieftaincy was much younger and fairly frequently was still a minor when the chief died. Thus, it would be necessary to have a regency until the heir came of age. Known examples of regents included a brother of the deceased chief (i.e., an uncle), the Right Hand House heir (i.e., an older brother) and even the Great Wife (i.e., the mother). In the first 2 cases, the regents might be unwilling to give up their position when the heir came of age; the regent might usurp the chieftaincy or (because there would almost always be many people who supported the legitimacy of the normal succession) a split would take place. Even with a regency of the Great Wife, who would not be so loath to give up power (African respect for parents would give her great influence with the chief anyway), a Right Hand son would have time to build a power base among those dissatisfied and not happy with control by a woman (politics was not regarded as an area of feminine involvement normally).
- Source of weakness—this has been the normal assessment. It is argued that the societies were always subdividing and producing a large number of small chieftaincies. This fragmentation was especially serious in resisting white intrusion; for example, the Xhosa were never able to present a united front and sometimes chieftaincies even joined with the whites. Shaka build the Zulu into such a formidable entity by reversing the process and amalgamating many of the northern Nguni polities into the Zulu Kingdom.
- Source of strength—this argument has been made by J. B. Peires in The House of Phalo. He argues that it was especially a source of strength before the coming of the whites; it assisted in the expansion of the Xhosa. Ambitious men in the royal clan were encouraged to break away with a few followers and go westward to incorporate Khoikhoi into their chiefdom. Even with the coming of the whites, he argues that the greatest military successes against the whites came as a result of adopting dispersed, guerrilla type tactics. The more centralised Zulu did less well than the Xhosa.
– some of the legal principles are worth noting:
- in general, family heads had prime responsibility and therefore there was a kind of collective responsibility and liability; e.g., in case of injury or death, the head of the family, not just the perpetrator, would be on trial. Fines had to be paid by the family.
- the penalties (usually fines) had to be paid to the chief. The rationale was that all the people belonged to the chief and the injury therefore was to the chief (but the chief would usually give part of the fine to the family of the injured party).
- this collective responsibility put strong incentives on the family to restrain more unruly members; the African family often had quite strong elements of leverage to bring to bear with members who were difficult. For example, young males usually needed assistance from their families with the cattle for bridewealth to get married.
- procedures were very open ended; the object was to get at the truth, although, except in a case of witchcraft, torture was not used; unlike some African societies farther north, those in South Africa did not use oathing or poisons ordeals.
- often the onus of proof would be on the accused party; certainly, this was so in witchcraft cases, but in others too.
- this reverse onus is shown in ‘spoor law’; if tracks or spoor of missing cattle were traced to the vicinity of your homestead, the onus was on you to prove that the spoor continued on past your homestead. Otherwise, you would be held responsible.
– Africans did not believe that things just happened; everything had a cause, frequently a supernatural cause. The supernatural involved enormous powers and it was regarded as heinous to use this for harmful purposes against other people.
– thus, whenever there was sickness or other aspects of things going badly (crops doing poorly, cattle dying or aborting their calves, etc. etc.), it was likely to be diagnosed as either the anger of the ancestors for failure to observe custom or the result of some evil-minded person using witchcraft.
– accusing her of witchcraft was one of the most common ways of driving away a wife who had become unpopular with the husband or his family. The other side was that when things were going badly, an outsider who was unpopular and disliked was most likely to be suspected of being the witch. (In Africa, the term could indicate a person of either sex.)
– also, charges of witchcraft were a major political tool; witchcraft against the chief or society was treason and charges of practicing witchcraft were used in similar ways as charges of treason in Tudor England. Rivals would use such charges to eliminate opponents. It was also a way to oppose a policy; you would charge the leading proponent of that policy with witchcraft and thus put him out of political action.
– charges of witchcraft was also a means for chiefs to enrich themselves and also get rid of potential rivals or powerful men. Rich men could be dangerous because they had power (wealth could be used to attract a large following); such men could be charged with witchcraft and much of their cattle ‘eaten up’ (i.e., confiscated as fines).
– during times of tension and difficulty, it was noted that witchcraft accusations went up dramatically. Also, punishing by death increased at the same time (in fact, in the 19th C, when reports of witchcraft charges and executions came in, whites began to warn that the danger of war was increasing). This was evidence of crisis in African society.
– it is very important to remember always that Africans believe that everything happens for a reason rather than as a result of chance or coincidence; therefore, in virtually everything where there is no obvious cause (or even if there is some ostensible cause), they look for some sort of supernatural explanation or cause. Supernatural forces are all around and continually impinging upon or threatening the course of one’s life. Thus, a crucial aspect of existence is to manage and control the effects of the supernatural forces as much as possible. Of course, Africans could be skeptical also, but with so much inexplicable, most people didn’t want to take a chance.
– also, Africans do not distinguish or separate the spiritual and material worlds. The two are perceived to be inextricably interwoven. Thus, supernatural forces are perceived to be as real and as inescapable as material elements such as wind, rain and sun.
[A website with extensive articles on Traditional African Religion.]
there are various levels or elements of the supernatural:
– this involves supernatural powers or forces in nature and objects in the environment; some are spirits which are not worshiped but do have to be propitiated of mollified (in streams & rivers, in trees, etc.— e.g., Xhosa would always throw a pebble and say some words of respect before crossing a river because flash floods could cause the unwary to drown).
– as Xhosa supplanted the Khoikhoi and others, they always gave a number of gifts and held ritual ceremonies to appease the spirits of the dead who had lived there previously.
– there was a wide range of belief in magic and ‘medicines’ . These ranged from simple herbal remedies (a number of which have been found to have therapeutic value) to more powerful aspects of magic. These include plants, exotic animal parts, and even human parts (fingernails, hair, etc.). These latter could be used in working magic on someone else. Medicine and magic can be used for good or evil purposes, although the latter is witchcraft and heinous.
– these ‘medicines’ can be used for protection against supernatural forces (most Africans would wear a small bag of these medicines to ward off evil forces or to achieve one’s wishes (to get pregnant—a serious issue for a woman in African society—or to win the affection of a member of the opposite sex). If one were sick, then a doctor would be called in to prescribe.
– various practitioners (doctors) manipulate and use these powers or magic (see traditional healers however, only the first 2 classes existed before the coming of whites). these powers can be used for good or evil (good medicine or magic and bad medicine or magic—the latter is witchcraft):
- Herbalists—these people have knowledge of plants and materials which have medicinal properties; this is the lowest level. Some of these people are very knowledgeable about the physiological effects of large numbers of herbs. Nor do all of their remedies rely on psychosomatic effects; sometimes, this knowledge has been tapped by medical researchers looking for new drugs and uses.
- Diviners or Doctors (traditionally dubbed ‘witch doctors’ by whites)
– their special function is to diagnose sources of sickness and evil; then, they prescribe remedies or cures. Often, the diagnosis may be that the ancestors are unhappy because the living family members are not performing customs and adhering to traditions. Thus, the ancestors have to be appeased by sacrifices and by performance of custom.- diviners are also used to uncover or “smell out” black magic—witchcraft—and the perpetrators (‘witches’). In this case, counter magic (medicine) may be used against the witchcraft and action taken against the ‘witch’ if the identity can be determined.
- War Doctors
– they specialised in determining whether proposed military actions were propitious and in doctoring warriors before battle to protect them from harm and to give them victory.
- Rainmakers or Doctors
– in much of South Africa where droughts are frequent, doctors who specialized in bringing rain were highly regarded (and well paid).
– diviners are usually ‘called’ to the vocation by one or more supernatural experiences—spirit possession, dreams, epileptic seizures, etc.; once the calling has been established, the individual (it can be either man or woman) becomes an apprentice to and undergoes training with an established doctor. These practitioners were paid for their services and the most successful could do very well.
– the past (i.e., dead) members of the family have a continuing interest in and have powers to affect the the lives of the living family members. While ancestors look out for and provide protections for living family members, they were also concerned that living members pay sufficient respect to ancestors, including performance of rites and ceremonies, providing gifts of food and drink, etc. Probably the most important concern of the ancestors was that traditions be observed and maintained. If angry and dissatisfied, the ancestors could allow bad things to happen (illness, disease, problems with livestock and crops, etc.) or might even bring them on.
– keeping the ancestors happy required ongoing observance of customs and ceremonies; if illness or other bad things happened, failure to observe custom was frequently diagnosed as the cause and required special ceremonies and sacrifices to appease the ancestors.
– also, there was frequent recognition of the ancestors at significant events and ceremonies:
– the health and welfare of the chief and other members of the royal family affect the well being of all the people and extended to social and economic aspects of general society.
– often the planting ceremonies in the spring and harvest rites in the autumn would be part of the cult of the royal clan because weather, locusts etc. affected all of society and thus were more at the level of the ancestors of the royal clan.
– among the Xhosa, there was the story of and belief in a creator god, but he went away and had little effect on the living.
– the San and through them the Khoikhoi had a much more developed sense of 2 deities (one was god of sun, day and good; the other was god of night and evil). For the missionaries, these provided excellent analogues for God and the Devil.
– some of these conceptions may have been influencing the Xhosa before whites came. This is not certain because the early missionaries used Khoikhoi converts as translators and the use of these 2 deities as analogues infiltrated to the Xhosa. For example, when asked about their high god or creator, the name the missionaries were given was ‘uThixo’. However, this was not a Xhosa root word. The Xhosa name for their creator god was ‘uDawu’. Nevertheless, uThixo has stuck. Ntsikana, an early convert to Christianity wrote his famous hymn “uThixo e Afrika”. In Xhosa translations of the Bible, God is translated uTixo.
African Societies—social aspects
– we want to examine some of the social aspects of African life. We shall look briefly at the life stages as Africans arranged them. We can do something of the same thing for our society but the diversity of our society plus the huge role that formal education plays in our early years mean that some of the transitions are not as clearly marked and not everyone follows the same path. The life stages for Africans were more uniform.
– the major preoccupation of the rest of this lecture is the status and role of women in traditional African society. This has been and continues to be a major area of debate. As you will see, the issues are complex.
– Africans normally conceptualised their lives as a series of relatively clear and different stages. This is like the famous speech in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage…” Africans too see clear stages and each transition is usually marked by rituals and rites of passage.
- Infant—from birth until about 1 year. At this stage, the infant is not considered a full person; there would not be an official mourning period if he/she died, although of course there would certainly be private grieving by the mother and the family. Official mourning involved a number of avoidances and restrictions.
- Child—this is a care-free period with few restraints or discipline until about 5 years or so. There is little difference in treatment of boys or girls.
- Boy & girl—this is the stage at which sexual differentiation and education begins for future roles as adults; boys become herds and spend most of their days with the older boys looking after cattle while girls assist their mothers, tend the younger children, work in the fields,fetch water, etc. gradually being expected to do more as they grew older.
- Initiation into adulthood for both sexes—ukwaluka (circumcision) for boys and intonjane for girls. Traditionally, this would take place for boys about 16-18 years, and for girls ideally it should take place at 1st menstruation although in practice it might be later, even after marriage.- it involved protracted and extensive set of ceremonies, a period of seclusion, instruction, and in the case of the boys, a vivid physical experience (not only the operation itself, but also quite a bit of training and toughening to become warriors). For boys, it could last for up to a year and for girls about a month.
– among the Sotho-Tswana, there was more a group approach of coordinated initiation and even an age-regiment approach, although the latter was not maintained throughout life as in some societies.
– among the Nguni (certainly the southern Nguni), initiation was more localised; a number of boys in a neighbourhood were done together, but there was no coordination over the entire society. It was an honour for a commoner boy to go through it with a chief’s son; when a chief’s son (especially the heir, was approaching initiation), parents of other boys would hold off and many initiations would be held simultaneously. Important families tried to get their sons into the same lodge or ‘school’ as the heir as it was recognised that companions through the ordeal remained close for the rest of their lives and this could make a career. There was not too much overt military training, but the youths were subjected to sparse food and lodging and did some physical exercises, running and dancing. These were believed to toughen the boys.
– among the Sotho-Tswana, girls’ initiations were done in groups (similar to age regiments) and there was some parallelism with the boys. However, the process was not so long and there was no physical operation. Female circumcision (clitoridectomy etc.) was not practised by any of the peoples in South Africa.
– among the Nguni, girls’ initiation was more individual, partly because in theory it was to take place at first menses. In practice, it was often delayed (even until after marriage) and 2 or 3 girls might go through it together. Costs may have been a factor and fathers were said to dislike it. It has now virtually disappeared.
– the purpose and emphasis of intonjane was the strengthening of the woman for the rigours ahead, especially child-bearing. This last was her most important role and it was necessary to do everything possible to enable her to do this successfully—to produce healthy children and to survive herself.
– initiation produced a metamorphosis into adulthood and full membership in family and society. The young people became officially eligible for marriage, although this was usually some years off. However, they did begin to ‘sweetheart’ although this courtship was not considered a prelude to engagement and marriage.
- Marriage—men often had to wait a number of years before they could marry. Thus, they were often well into their 20s. Young women on the other hand usually married at 15-18 years.- marriage brought new responsibilities and new standards of decorum. Only at this stage would a man be paid much attention to at ‘indabas’—councils or public meetings. He would also be expected to begin to show more gravity and seriousness, by attending judicial proceedings, by not hanging out with the gang of unmarried men who were sweethearting and sometimes getting into trouble.
– as the young couple would usually live with the husband’s family, the young bride had to be integrated into a new family and she had many responsibilities (we’ll discuss these later). A woman, especially after giving birth, became ‘umfana’—the highest status. She would get her own hut, her own land, and usually her own cattle; her ‘house’ was established. She was subject to many, stringent taboos which relaxed only slowly as she bore children and became slowly integrated into her husband’s family.
- Middle age or elder
– men who have shown competence, especially in law, in eloquence and judgment and/or if they have wealth gain great prestige and status. Age is highly respected and most authority and decision-making is controlled by old people (some scholars have even used the term gerontocracy to describe African societies, but that goes too far).- for women, when their eldest daughter has children or when she reaches menopause, she is finally freed of many long standing taboos and restraints. She has more choices of what to do. She can, e.g., return to her family (although her children stay) or she can remain with the husband’s family. Her most advantageous option is to live with an adult son who has his own homestead; he would never do anything important (or even relatively trivial) without consulting her. She is treated with great deference by her son’s wife or wives and anyone else who lives at the homestead.
– the missionaries were especially responsible for much misunderstanding and distortion; however, feminists not infrequently have difficulty reconciling aspects of African customs with their views of what the relations between the sexes should be.
– the traditional missionary view was that women were little better than slaves or chattels who were bought and sold for cattle. They were sold, it was said by fathers or brothers, often to the highest bidder.
– for the buyers, women were a source of profit (because a woman worked hard as an agricultural labourer as well as domestic drudge) and sensual pleasure (especially when she was married to an old, rich man).
- Division of labour between the sexes was very rigid; this assigned most of the work in agriculture to women on top of demanding domestic duties—getting water, getting wood, cooking, looking after children, etc.- men’s tasks included looking after cattle (boys and young men normally did this), hunting (this disappeared as white hunters depleted game) and judicial/political matters. The most onerous recurring tasks (milking) took only a period early in the morning and in the evening, leaving little to do during the middle of the day. Missionaries regarded this as very unequal and inequitable.
- Polygyny—a male with more than 1 wife.- this was not as widespread as might be supposed. Most men had at most, 1 wife; the requirement to make the large transfer of wealth in lobola (bridewealth) meant that it was difficult for many men to have 1 wife let alone more than 1.
– of the minority who did have more than 1, most had only 2; the usual way that this came about was that later in life, often at the instigation and with the assistance of the 1st wife (she might contribute some of the cattle of her house), a man might marry a 2nd wife. The 1st wife wanted the assistance of a young, second wife.
– only a very tiny minority had more than 2 wives. Normally, these would be acquired as he got older. This was in fact one of the factors that roused the ire of the missionaries—i.e., very old men marrying very young girls (15 or 16 years old).
- Lobola (bridewealth)—a transfer of wealth from the bridegroom and/or his family to the family of the bride. In South Africa, lobola was always calculated in cattle (even if payment was made in some other medium—e.g., after the introduction of money, it might be used). The norm was 6-10 cattle.- note that the flow of wealth was in the opposite direction from dowry in most other cultures; this is significant because daughters are an economic asset rather than a liability as happens elsewhere! We shall return to discuss the nature of lobola after we talk about marriage types and formalities.
- a groom’s family was looking for a strong, healthy woman who was likely to bear healthy children and be able to do the work expected of a wife. They were also going to bring the woman into the close relationship of the family so they wanted to know her reputation and temperament. Was she easy to get along with? Was she likely to be compatible with members of the family?
- the bride’s family wanted to know about the groom and his family. Could they provide for her? What was their reputation? Were they likely to treat her well?
– ‘sweethearting’ was not normally seen as a prelude to engagement and marriage. The young people were allowed a good deal of latitude to engage in sexual activities. However, especially in Nguni societies, getting pregnant before marriage was a serious matter. A girl might become unmarriageable; at least, the amount of lobola would be reduced. As a result, mothers examined their daughters regularly to see that they were not having sexual intercourse with penetration. On the other hand, the man responsible for impregnating the girl is the one at fault from a legal point of view. The girl’s family could prosecute and the man would be fined a number of cattle; again, remember that his family would have to pay the fine. Thus, both families were concerned that the young people were observing the limits.
- Regular—this might also be considered the ideal. It was a protracted process.- a normal marriage involved research into the prospective family and individuals. There had to be search for impediments (incest constraints means that there would have to be checks to determine if there were kinship relationships which would prohibit a marriage).
– negotiations would be initiated in a round about way, often via 3rd parties. There would be visits back and forth, gifts, and hospitality; it could take months. Either family could initiate the process.
What role did the prospective groom and bride have in arranging a marriage?
- Groom—unless he were an older, established man (and certainly it was case for young men) negotiations and decisions were in the hands of the elders in family. Young men were expected to go along with whatever arrangements were made (few young men would have the resources to arrange a marriage for themselves so the assistance of the family was essential).- however, there were constraints on the family: If the young man was unhappy with his wife and failed to treat her properly, she could return to her family, and all or much of the lobola would be lost. Thus, families would not normally try to force a man to marry a woman he disliked. Also, in practice, they might even ask him for his preference, and if they could not find a strong reason to oppose that choice, they might try to arrange it.
- bride—young girls were even more expected to be obedient to their fathers and families and have even less say than young men. In fact, very strong pressure might be brought to bear on a woman to accept what was arranged for her; this might even include beatings.- there were constraints here too:
- Affection—fathers were fond of their daughters; if she cried and pleaded enough, the father would often give way.
- A girl’s mother had to give her permission; thus, if a girl could persuade her mother, a proposed match could be vetoed.
- The lobola problem—if a girl was unhappy, she could sabotage the marriage. If it were her fault that the marriage failed, then the lobola might have to be returned and this could create a great deal of trouble.
– it is said that if a girl were absolutely opposed to a marriage and was determined enough, she could in fact usually avoid it.
- Elopement/abduction– there were shortcuts which cut out many of the preliminaries. Elopement would take place when the girl went with her prospective husband to his family’s homestead. Immediately, emissaries would be sent to initiate negotiations. Once things had been precipitated in this way, it would give great offence to refuse such a marriage. Once an agreement was reached, the girl would return home, but the marriage ceremonies and the girl’s move to the groom’s family homestead would be completed relatively quickly.
– in abduction, the groom and some of his friends/family members would abduct the girl and take her to his family’s homestead. Often the ‘abduction’ would be arranged with the assistance of the girl’s father (it would reduce expenses). As above, only very serious objections would allow either family to refuse to carry out the marriage.
- ‘Sadie Hawkins’ solution– marriage was the highest status for any woman, but what about women who never received any offers? This was a means for such women who wanted to be married to force it.
– she would go outside of a rich man’s homestead, sit down; when asked what she wanted, she would refuse to speak. Eventually, the members of the household would understand what she wanted and invite her in. It was difficult for a rich man to refuse as everyone would regard it as mean and stingy. Arrangements would follow the pattern as in (2) above, except that the lobola was less.
– the husband need never have too much to do with her. If she had lovers, the children would be regarded as his anyway. However, she was entitled to have a hut and her own ‘house’.
– the disparity was increased because there was usually a substantial difference between the age of marriage for men and for women (i.e., 25 years and older men were marrying 16 year old women). In Catholic countries in Europe, religious orders provided an alternative for women to attain high status; however, in Protestant countries, there were virtually no alternatives for middle and upper class women. The lot of women who remained spinsters was often not a very happy one; they were often ridiculed and forced to live as dependents on relatives. Unlike Europe, polygyny allowed all women the opportunity to attain the highest status open to them.
– most women would prefer to be ‘great wife’ (i.e., the first married and the highest status), but there were advantages to polygyny. When there was more than 1 wife, there was more sharing of burdens and responsibilities. The advantages of a division of labour could be realised. Being part of a large, polygynous household provided more security plus it was only possible for wealthy men (i.e., even if a wealthy man’s resources had to be shared by more than one wife, each wife might well end up with more than if she were the only wife of a poor man). Finally, there’s an old expression from Europe that applies to Africa as well—“Better an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave.”
– the advantages of polygyny are most obvious in a subsistence economy. Every woman was an important producer and a polygynous family thus had greater resources and security. Also, children begin to contribute economically relatively early. Thus, a large household with many children may be an advantage.
– however, in a consumer, cash economy with rising standards of living to be maintained, with greatly increased educational requirements for children (i.e., their period of dependence and not contributing being greatly increased) and with more depending upon the male head of family earning an income, polygyny quickly becomes counter-productive and impossible for most. Moreover, wives feel more competition with other wives to get the husband’s resources for themselves and their children. In other words, a woman perceives few if any advantages for her husband to acquire more wives and lots of disadvantages; thus, they are much more likely to favour and demand monogamy.
– if a woman were very young and married only a short time, then a 2nd marriage might be arranged for her.
– normally, a woman would return to live with her family, but she might also become an idiKhazi; such women took lovers, but none of the lovers had any responsibility for her or for her children (the lovers would probably make presents). Such single parent women were much freer than young wives who had many constraints and taboos to observe for many years. There was not a great deal of negative stigma attached to such women (no scarlet letter) and her children would certainly not be stigmatised, unlike western societies until recently. The children of such women were considered part of the woman’s family and a welcome asset.
– children born while married were considered to belong to the husband’s family (in this case, few or no cattle would be returned). If the children were young when the marriage ended, they would normally go with the mother, but when they grew up, the men would usually return to the father’s family (that is where their right of inheritance was—African societies in S. Africa were patrilineal). A daughter might not return to live with the father, but the father would likely insist on being involved in her marriage and would receive most of the lobola cattle.
– on the death of a husband, a woman had several options:
- she could remain with the husband’s family and take lovers (the levirate was not a customary right in South Africa but it could be a brother), but the children would be regarded as those of the dead husband.
- she could return to her family.
- she could stay with a son, especially if he had established his own homestead.
– on the death of a wife, much depended upon whether or not there were children. If there were, then no lobola was repaid; if there were not and she was still young, then the husband could demand return of the lobola or ask for a second wife, usually a sister.
– women controlled the results of their labour; they were expected to contribute to the husband and to the household and there were strong social pressures to be generous, but her produce could not be taken from her. Similarly, cattle belonging to her house could not be disposed of without her permission.
– lobola was what legitimised a marriage both in law (“Was lobola paid?”) and in attitudes. Missionaries who tried to abolish it found that men who did not pay lobola might not really consider themselves married and were more likely to abandon their wives.
– for women, lobola gave a feeling of value and worth.
– in ideal circumstances, lobola should be paid at the beginning of the marriage, but it very often was not. It frequently was paid in instalments—1 or 2 at the beginning, another 1 or 2 at the birth of a child, etc. It might not be completed until lobola was received for the eldest daughter. This involved a good deal of persistence (and even hounding) on the part of the woman’s family.
– alternately, a man might borrow from his relatives (uncles etc.) and then repay them over time or with lobola from one of the woman’s daughters.
– a number of explanations and interpretations of lobola have been offered:
- Insurance aspects—it could be seen as a good behaviour bond which was forfeited if the husband treated her badly.- a woman could demand assistance from those who had benefited (fathers, brothers, etc.). Most family would help anyway, but this claim was enforceable in the chief’s court.
- Exclusive sexual rights
– lobola did imply this, but it was frequently evaded. It was not uncommon for wives to have lovers and often the husband’s mother might help to conceal it (this is where female solidarity was invoked). Of course, there was a double standard as there were no restrictions on men.- a man who caught his wife might get away with beating her (almost the only case), although he could not injure her; his main recourse was to sue the lover. In fact, some men even encouraged their wives, pointing out candidates in order to charge the lovers and get cattle.
– adultery was not a cause of divorce as children were the husband’s anyway.
- Right to labour of the woman
– this explanation has been given by some anthropologists and was the explanation most often given by Africans themselves. Just as a woman was becoming an adult and thus a full-fledged producer, she was married and went off to join her husband’s family; therefore, lobola was compensation for the loss of her labour and her contributions. As Africans often expressed it, as compensation for all the trouble and expense of raising the woman. The husband’s family were getting the benefits without having incurred the costs.
- Child-bearing capacity
– this is the explanation favoured by most anthropologists. In view of the importance of children and the strong desire to perpetuate the family by providing new members, a woman’s child-bearing capacity was very valuable and highly prized. Lobola was compensation to the bride’s family for the loss of her child-bearing, reproductive capacity; it was important also in that it provided a means to secure a replacement for her.- it is supported by a couple of other facts. If there were children, lobola was not returned either when a wife died or there was a divorce. The children belonged to the husband and his family and were considered ample return for lobola. Also, if a woman failed to produce a child, the husband’s family could demand a return of the lobola or a replacement wife (often a sister) be sent.
- Glue for African marriage
– this was also an important function. Payment of lobola gave both families a stake in the marriage and its success. breakdowns and divorce created endless tangles and difficulties, tracing cows over several years, plus their increase or death, etc. These were the most complex and difficult court cases to resolve.- thus family members on both sides would have an interest in maintaining the marriage; the husband’s family would work to control his behaviour and treatment of the wife; the wife’s family would try to persuade her to stay or to return if they thought she was frivolous and likely to be blamed for a breakdown.
– this was an aspect that the missionaries were ultimately forced to recognise; men who had not paid lobola often did not regard their obligations as seriously and were more likely to desert; by the end of the 19th C, many missionaries were having 2nd thoughts about trying to abolish lobola.
- Morality check
– families were concerned that a girl not become pregnant before marriage and mothers kept a close eye on their daughters. Late in the 19th C some missionaries came to see this as a beneficial effect of lobola when pregnancies among unmarried girls was rising among the church families.
– one other aspect which is often overlooked but which needs to be included is the demands on the womanÕs family. A young bride is expected to arrive in her new home with her husband’s family fully equipped with pots, utensils, blankets, etc. as well as gifts for all the important members of her husband’s family. Also, if these items break or get worn out, she is expected to return to her family to get replacements. Also, well to do parents often send one or two cows to begin the assets for her ‘house’. This equivalent of a trousseau is heavy burden on the woman’s family and in some cases can come close to equalling the lobola value. This was one defence of lobola that I found in my own research; lobola was justified and necessary because of the heavy expenses carried by a woman’s father and brothers. This has become even more onerous in a modern context with the proliferation of modern appliances.
– lobola is still widespread in South Africa(other areas of Africa also) and a matter of considerable debate; there are quite a number of websites which discuss lobola.
– from a feminist perspective, this is not satisfactory, but if you compare it to 19th C Europe, it was not inferior; women there definitely had 2nd class legal status also (married women couldn’t own property on their own and everything went to the husband who could do with it what he liked; women could not sit on juries and didn’t have the vote; if a woman left her husband, she would usually lose the children; their evidence had less weight than that of men, judges and all officials were men, etc.)
– however, some great wives of chiefs did have power: some acted as regents until sons could become chiefs (more than one case in South Africa); if a chief were away when visitors arrived, his great wife would provide hospitality and would stand in until he could arrive;
– in the Swazi kingdom, the ‘Great She Elephant’ had very important judicial and political power as a counterweight to the king. Ruling queens or empresses were not unknown in Europe either.
– women in England did not achieve a similar status until the Married Women’s Property Act in the 1880s.
- married life for African women was very rigorous and women were expected to work very hard; there were many irksome constraints socially on wives, especially in the early years.
- however, the lot of working class women in Britain at the same time was often very poor; comparisons with African women are perhaps more appropriate and not at all so unfavourable for African societies. Working class women in Britain often had to do the household chores (and the division of labour between the sexes was as rigid as in Africa) and as well work outside the house in factories, as servants, in the fields, etc. There were few protections and wife-battering was very common and accepted. In a debate in the 1890s, a 3rd generation missionary defending lobola argued that it should be introduced to Britain as a means of saving women there from much abuse. Another missionary complained about the poor husbands in Africa who had to kowtow to their wives or they would run home complaining of being treated badly and the poor husband had to go grovelling with presents to his in-laws to get her to come back. This complaint that African wives were too free and had too much power, of course, was a contradiction of the more usual claim that they were little more than chattels bought and sold for cattle.
- in Africa, it was considered a disgrace if a man got his wife pregnant before she had finished nursing a previous child, which usually continued for about 2 years. It was regarded as unhealthy and endangering both women and children to have pregnancies oftener. Thus, births were spaced about 3 years apart. In Europe in the working classes especially, it was common for a woman to have one pregnancy after another until she died, exhausted and worn out. One missionary in discussing polygyny claimed that it wasn’t even ‘efficient’ in producing children; many men in Europe with only one wife produced more children than African polygynists with 2 or 3!
- in regard to social and physical constraints, even middle and upper class women in Britain were closely hemmed in. Corsets, hooped skirts and bustles literally tied women up; social taboos prevented them from getting much exercise (this was a major focus of the female emancipation movement in the last 30 years of the 19th C—to gain freedom to ride bicycles, play tennis etc.); there were long confinements during pregnancies when women were supposed to withdraw from most social activities.
– some scholars, especially from a Marxist perspective, have evaluated lobola differently; they have argued that, given the great disparities of wealth, lobola enabled a small number of men to maintain a disproportionate dominance and control of both the productive and reproductive capabilities of women; thus, they argue that bridewealth and polygyny were precapitalist forms of exploitation. They also argue that it resulted in exploiting poor,young men. With their access to wives limited, the poor young men tied themselves to rich men as clients in order to acquire cattle for lobola.
– the introduction of a market economy is said to have altered both the context and the inherent character of lobola. The substitution of cash as the primary means of exchange has affected lobola by making it increasingly a cash transaction. Even if this does not necessarily mean that the transaction is any more a ‘sale’ than when concluded in cattle, it is said to make it more mercenary.
– on the other hand, a market economy did provide alternate means for young men to gain lobola themselves— i.e., going off to work for wages; this gave greater freedom for young people from subordination to elders; this can be seen as either positive or negative depending on your point of view. Older people complained of this.
– nevertheless, frequently, in order to marry earlier, young men borrow the money; this means that the young couple start their marriage with a heavy mortgage. When children come and have to be provided with higher levels of consumption and provided for in order to receive an education, that burden becomes even more onerous. As more Africans have become assimilated into the market economy, this has increasingly become a focus of concern and criticism.
– nevertheless, differences in standards of living were small: a rich man, even the chief, slept in the same kind of hut, slept on a reed mat on the ground, ate the same food, wore the same clothes (some skins etc. were reserved for chiefs only, but this was more ceremonial than producing a different standard of living) etc. as poor ones.
– the profusion of kinship terms is another indication of the importance of kinship ties. (It is said that Inuit have many terms to describe and differentiate between different kinds of snow and ice because it’s important, even critical to their lives). In Africa, it is one of the early requirements of children that they learn the large number of kinship terms and be able to differentiate all the kinship relationships. For example, there are different terms for: father’s older brothers, father’s younger brothers, mother’s brothers, etc.; they are not all just ‘uncles’ as we would label them.
– privacy of individuals such as we demand was virtually unknown in African societies. Certainly, the privacy of the nuclear family did not exist. Young married people normally lived in the homestead with his family. There were advantages to this. Child abuse probably could not exist in this context. Parents of young children were usually not independent; the elders were there and well aware of everything that was happening. Children who were not getting along with their parents could get help and even live with grandmothers or other relatives. Grandmothers especially had great latitude in ‘spoiling’ their grandchildren.