What is it about?

This article asks how bridewealth persists in contemporary South Africa--where it is called lobola--even though many people blame it for falling marriage rates. Using interviews I conducted while living in an isiZulu-speaking village, I argue that lobola means many different things to people, and this helps it maintain legitimacy. In particular, I argue that young women associate lobola with love, and also treat extended lobola processes as a chance to evaluate whether their fiancé will be a good husband. Young women develop new practices that channel these values into lobola, subtly changing the way it is done while also helping it to persist.

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Why is it important?

The article analyzes how cultural practices both persist and change under different legal regimes. One important example of a new legal regime in this article is the gender equality guarantees in South Africa's post-apartheid constitution. These are very important to many of the women I interviewed, who hoped to find "50/50," egalitarian marriages. Women try to use lobola processes to pursue these dreams for equality, as well as romantic love. They do this primarily by trying to influence lobola negotiations through "whispering" behind the scenes, and by using lengthy lobola processes to evaluate how their fiancé acts toward them. The article thus shows how broader legal principles in government law can influence customary law by shaping the actions of everyday people.


This article comes from my broader research project on marriage in South Africa after the formal end of apartheid. South Africa is the only country in the world that has recently expanded marriage laws for two types of marriage: same-sex marriage, and customary African marriage. This article is the main place where I present the customary side of that research. It won the Law & Society Association Article Prize in 2019.

Michael W. Yarbrough
City University of New York System

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Very Long Engagements: The Persistent Authority of Bridewealth in a Post-Apartheid South African Community, Law & Social Inquiry, January 2017, Wiley,
DOI: 10.1111/lsi.12275.
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