Very Long Engagements: Legal Consciousness and the Persistent Authority of Bridewealth in a South African Community
The most important practice through which marriages are constituted in many African communities in South Africa today is ilobolo, often translated as bridewealth. Meanwhile, marriage rates in such communities are sharply declining, and many locals view ilobolo as a key contributor to this collapse. Through intensive ethnographic research in a quasi-rural KwaZulu-Natal community, this article explores the puzzle of how ilobolo maintains its authority over marriage even as many today see it as preventing more marriages than it produces. Drawing on the concepts of legal consciousness scholarship, I argue that the contemporary practice of ilobolo often enacts multiple, even contradictory understandings of marriage. But rather than undermining support for ilobolo, these diverse meanings actually help shore up its support by providing multiple legitimating narratives of the practice suited to varying social positions in a context of ideological, legal, political, and economic change. In particular, I argue that orthodox "affinal" understandings framing ilobolo as a practice for bringing two extended families together in marriage are increasingly supplemented by less explicitly recognized "conjugal" understandings framing ilobolo as a practice that helps produce marriage as a dyadic, intimate, and even egalitarian union of two individuals.