Thapelo Mokoatsi

[intro]The ancient tradition of lobola remains an integral part of our lives. There is now an app to calculate it. Lobola is big. Big enough to be included in the State of the Nation adress or the Budget Speech, say the young people who compiled this report. Additional research and interviews by Linda Fekisi, Palesa Morei and Lerato Molisana.[/intro]

You have to face up to the reality of lobola at some point in your life. Now that we are in our mid-twenties, my friends and I, we think about it more than we did our teens.

We’ve started examining all aspects of this age old tradition. The cultural and financial elements as well as the commercialisation. How much more commercial than a digital resource to tell me how much my future wife is worth. More about that later.

If I had penned a letter on the subject to the president, following the State of the Nation address, it would go something like this;

“Dear Mr President

I listened eagerly to your speech, before and after the commotion in parliament, in eager anticipation of assistance on a matter that gives me sleepless nights. Sadly, you said nothing about it.

I am a 25 year old black young man who may be faced with the prospect of getting married one of these days but there is a single stumbling block standing in my way: Lobola.

I had hoped that since you have much experience in this matter, you would help a brother out.”

But that may not have been a good idea since the president must have a lot of other things on his mind.
Lobola, that is practised across Southern Africa, refers to the bride price but is less about the money than about the unity of the bride and groom’s families.

“It’s basically to symbolise a union or the coming together of the two families. The money has absolutely nothing to do with it. It’s this new generation that makes it all about the money,” said Nompumelelo Mdumela, a post-graduate student at the University of the Free State (UFS).

In her Tsonga culture, lobola is referred to as ‘lovola’ and the coming together of two families is called ‘Ku aka vuxaka’. It means building a relationship.

According to Ziyanda Macala, a Xhosa speaking graduate at the UFS, it’s also seen as a means for the groom to thank his bride’s parents for raising her well.

“The bride’s family uses it to buy new furniture for the bride and the groom,” she said. It is further used for clothes the bride will wear when she gets to the groom’s house as a new daughter-in-law (makoti). They also have to buy her appliances for use in her new home:

“When I get there, I shouldn’t be asking for a spoon, I should be covered.”

The bride’s family has to buy presents for the the groom’s parents, especially for the mother-in-law. This is how a relationship is started between the two families.

In Sesotho, ‘lobola’ is referred to as ‘mahadi’. Sesotho culture differs slightly from the others in that a minimum amount is stipulated by the bride’s family. Then the groom will be allowed to take his bride and pay off the rest later. In other cultures the full amount has to be paid off before the groom can take his bride.

Phathutshedzo Nkumeleni, a 28 year old single man, provided a Venda perspective of lobola.

“Lobola is called tshelede ya mamalo. It is also determined by whether a woman is a virgin or not. In the olden days the standard measure of cows used to be 10 and if a woman has a child, they will reduce it by two or three cows during the roundtable discussion,” he said. Women will also play a role in ensuring success of the negotiations.

“To determine whether a girl is a virgin or not aunties of both the bride and the groom will check the girl. If they find out that now she is a ‘woman’ and I have slept with her before marrying her, my parents will have to pay lobola because she is now a woman not a girl anymore. But nowadays I don’t know if it is still practised,” he added.

Sometimes people introduce their own rules into the process. There are cases where the parents of the bride want to set an amount without considering the traditional customs that govern lobola. This could mean that the young man can’t afford what’s being asked and it makes it difficult to complete the process.

If I want to get engaged to my girlfriend, there are many factors to consider. We are governed by the principle that a man must take care of his family. More than this, our financial security is sometimes used to determine manhood. My girlfriend may have an understanding for my financial position and try and persuade her parents that we will be able to manage together. Even if the parents understand, they then have to persuade the extended family, and so on. It sometimes comes down to this: ‘If you don’t have money, you are not regarded as man enough’.

To prove you are ‘man enough’ you have to save up for up to five years or more. Then the pressure is on. The family may accuse you of delays or your partner may even suggest she is being ‘lay-byed’.

A friend has faced similar challenges. He is 30, has a girlfriend and earns an honest income. Yet he struggles with the demands of lobola. He said:

“Lobola is a token of appreciation. I will pay a ridiculous amount of money only because I love my girlfriend and I want to marry her. I am doing this out of the respect of her family and my family. But in my opinion it is an insult to pay the full amount which could be up to R60 000,” he said.

He said people have partially lost the context of lobola, especially when it comes to understanding that it was meant to bring families together.

Lobola Calculator

Just when I thought that things could not get any worse, along came an app. Just another thing to nibble away at my already empty pockets.

Online many young women in my circles began sharing their ‘worth’ on social media. Mind you, most of them quoted figures that were not even close to what I made in a year. Is there still hope?

But my apprehensions about the app were laid to rest after engaging with its developer, Robert Matsaneng.
Matsaneng said that he created the app because he wanted something in the Andriod play store, on the international market, that represented the South African culture. The inspiration kicked in when his own friend was about to tie the knot.

When asked if his intention was to replace senior relatives in the traditional lobola negotiations, he disagreed:
“I don’t recommend the app to be used during real negotiations mainly because it serves as entertainment. It can be used as an ice breaker though because it was created purely for fun.”

I spoke to people who tried the app.

Joy Khakhane, a website and content manager, tried the app because of its popularity and to support the work of South African developers.

“The app said I’m worth R82 500. That’s way too much. I don’t expect my guy to pay that much. I have never even come close to that amount alone. Unless he’s a millionaire. Other than that lobola should not even go above R50 000. I think,” she said.

Candidate attorney, Mmabatho Tsimane, tried the app out of curiosity of ‘knowing her worth’.

Despite her Tswana roots, she doesn’t believe in the conventional lobola practice.

“I don’t really believe in it because the whole process is being commercialised. The only reason it’s being paid is for the parents to recognise your guy. So even if lobola is not paid for me it won’t be much of a problem. If it’s paid it will just be my partner and I conforming,” she said.

According to the app calculator, she was worth R 82 000 but she expects her actual lobola to be less.

City Press news editor, Natasha Joseph, is also amongst those who tried the app.

“I was able to discover that I was worth 12 cows, which the app valued at around R88 000. I shared it on Facebook and then spent the day gloating because nobody else on my friend list was worth more. It was all in good fun and it got my friends of all races talking,” she said.

Her experiences of the app were met with humour in her friendship circles.

“My black mates teased me because, well, if the process was as simple as typing in some statistics on your cell phone and then handing the results over to your prospective husband or wife’s family, thousands of years of tradition would go down the drain.

“Some people scolded me and the app for being flippant about an important cultural practise. Others said they believed lobola was outdated and sexist. It was a great discussion-starter. And, in a country where white people particularly make little effort to understand other people’s ideas, beliefs and traditions, that’s something we shouldn’t underestimate. Plus, it was a great ego-booster to be worth 12 cows,” she added.

The top figure that Matsaneng came across was R 96 000 and the lowest amount was R 5 000.

As Finance Minister, Nhlanhla Nene, prepares to unveil the country’s budget next week, we will all do well to examine our own personal finances and factor in the cost of lobola in our excel spread sheets.