Home History 322 lecture list Wallace G. Mills Hist. 322 4 African Societies

African Societies

African Societies before European Intrusion
- we want to examine some aspects of African societies, especially the nature of African kingship and chieftancy which has frequently been subject to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. African kingship was often depicted as bloody tyranny and despotism. Shaka provided a prime example to support this stereotype. We shall be examining the creation of the Zulu Kingdom in Lecture 5; we shall also be examining Moshoeshoe (pronounced mo-shwe-shwe) who exemplifies traditional African kingship, although he too was unusal—a genius and incredible human being.

- 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:
  1. we need to put Shaka and the rise of the Zulu in an African context;
  2. 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.
Political System—chieftaincy
- it is very important to make a distinction between theory and practice. We can think of the Canadian political system. In theory, the Crown is all powerful; all appointments (and dismissals) to government, to the military, to the judiciary, etc. are made by the Crown (or in Canada by the governor-general). In practice, as a constitutional monarchy, the Crown has very little real power as all major decisions are made by a cabinet of ministers who, while they are appointed by the Crown, are answerable to parliament. Even major speeches by the Crown (governor-general) have to be approved ahead of time by the prime minister.

- the chief was central to African political systems. In theory, the chief was an autocrat with total power over his people:
- 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.
Restraints on a chief
- a chief who was unpopular could quickly lose his people and his position:
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.
Powers of a chief:
Tendency to divide
- the underlying basis for this ‘fissiparous’ tendency seems to be the desire of the people to feel close to the chief; as a polity grew larger, some of the people were inevitably feeling more remote and neglected. They were more ready to give their loyalty to an alternative leader.

- 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).
Assessments of this ‘fissiparous’ tendency
Law in African societies
- although it was often argued by ignorant whites that there was little law except the despotic will of chiefs, there was in African societies a sophisticated conception and system of law; and as we noted already, in most cases the chief too was subject to the law.

- some of the legal principles are worth noting:
- this was the most serious crime in African society. It involved the use of powerful medicines, magic and the supernatural for harmful ends. It is like poison among us. It was so insidious because the victim would have no idea of what or who was causing the problem.

- 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.
Religion and the supernatural
- in this discussion, we mean ‘religion’ in the broadest sense to include all aspects of the supernatural. In addition, we shall include aspects which we usually include under the heading ‘medicine’. This is not too far a stretch because even in our society where we pride ourselves on the ‘scientific approach’, there is a great deal of faith and mystery in medicine; at least with the ‘placebo’ effect so prominent, it seems that the effectiveness of many of our western drugs is to a considerable extent based on psychosomatic effects.

- 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:
1. Magic and spirits (often termed ‘Animism’):
- there was a wide range of forces and aspects in this category. They are very important for matters of health, fertility, romance and day-to-day living.

- 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):
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.
- 2 Ancestor Cult
-this is virtually universal and one of the most important aspects of religion in Africa (see "Ancestor Veneration"). The ancestor cult was an extension into the supernatural of older family members; older members had a good deal of authority. Another way of looking at it was that Africans visualised the family as a whole entity spanning both the living, material realm and the invisible, but real, spiritual world. The family transcended death. For individuals, death was simply another stage in a long series of stages that began at birth.

- 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:
- marriages are very important because it is the institution by means of which the perpetuation of the family takes place through procreation. Marriages themselves were pleasing to the ancestors, but there would also be a number of overt appeals and rituals recognising the ancestors and seeking to ensure their protection and assistance. Especially when bride came to homestead of her new husband's family (all societies in South Africa were patrilocal), there were special ceremonies to introduce her to the ancestors.

-at birth or during initiation ceremonies into adulthood, sacrifices and offerings to ancestors were required to help the children to survive or to assist the young people through the ordeals.
- in the ancestor cult, it was the extended family who were involved in relatively simple rituals for every day life; many rituals were in fact not overt to outsiders and often escaped the notice of missionaries.
- e.g., the killing of a beast—it was understood by Africans that this was pleasing to ancestors and had to be done in the proper way and in the proper place. There might be no overt indications or rituals. It could look just like a feast; however, certain bits might be thrown into the fire as a gift to the ancestors. Also, when beer was being drunk from a new batch, a little would be spilled on the ground ‘for the ancestors’.
- except in the royal clan, lineages were not organised nor were memories kept for any length (they might pass on names for several generations, but did not maintain ties of any great depth). This contrasts with some other areas of Africa (especially west Africa) where lineages were highly organised. There were no lineage headquarters or shrines and no large important rituals.
3 Ancestor Cult of Royal Clan
- the chief or king is regarded as the ‘father of the people’. The ancestors of the royal clan have an interest in and influence over all the people in the chieftaincy or kingdom; thus, the rites and ceremonies of the royal clan took on many aspects of a national religion.

- 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.
4 High Gods
- there was no cult or worship of such beings among peoples of South Africa.

- 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.
Life Stages or patterns
- we shall look at some aspects and some customs to get impressions of the real nature of African societies and their way-of-life.

- 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.

Marriage and the status of women in African societies
- this has been and continues to be an area of controversy and a good deal of misunderstanding.

- 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).
Three aspects were especially focused on by the missionaries:
  1. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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.
Marriage Types
- please note that marriage in African societies was a linking of 2 families, not simply a linking of 2 individuals. It was not based on romantic love or sexual attraction. Personal affection between the individuals was not the prime consideration in arranging a marriage and many were arranged by the families. What were they looking for?
- ‘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.
  1. 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?
  1. 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.

  2. ‘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’.
- this made it possible for every woman, or least every woman who wanted it, to attain the status of wife (uMfana). Although boy babies exceed girl babies at birth (almost 52%), higher mortality among boys soon turns that into a majority for girls. This higher mortality continues throughout most of life (except during a woman’s child-bearing years). By the time the age of marriage was reached, there was an excess of females. Monogamy would not allow all women to attain marriage.

- 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.
Divorce and end of marriage options
- what we would call divorce involved a woman leaving her husband’s home. Lobola payments meant that disentangling the economic ties between the families became very complex and difficult after several years.

- 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:
- 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.
- lobola was not a purchase or sale; women were not chattels.

- 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:
- 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.
The Status of Women in African Society—summary
- this is a complex task and one should avoid dogmatism. Inevitably, evaluations are going to involve comparisons; in doing so, one should avoid the errors of socio-cultural biases and prejudices. Also, ‘different’ does not mean ‘worse’. Finally, one should avoid comparing apples and oranges.
Legal Status
- women always had the legal status of a minor; some male (father, husband, brother, etc.) was held responsible and any charges had to be answered by her legal guardian. The exception was a charge of witchcraft.

- 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.)
Political Status
- officially, they usually had none which was like Europe, but some women de facto exercised influence through males as did some women in Europe also.

- 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.
Economic Status
- a wife had her own ‘house’ and therefore a distinct, separate economic existence; nor could the assets of her ‘house’ be disposed of without her consent; in fact, a Batavian official by the name of Alberti reported that Xhosa men would not trade or dispose of ‘the meanest trifle’ without first consulting their wives.

- women in England did not achieve a similar status until the Married Women’s Property Act in the 1880s.
What about drudgery and ‘slavery’ of African women?
- here we have to avoid comparing apples and oranges; many missionaries were lower middle class and upper working class in Britain, but in Africa they always acquired servants and became de facto middle class. Comparing missionary wives and African women is not an entirely valid comparison.
- 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.
Disparities of wealth and standards of living
- there were in fact very large differences of wealth in African societies; ownership of cattle was very unequal.

- 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.
- a rich man’s wife, even the chief’s, was expected to do the same tasks and work as a poor man’s.

- in a subsistence economy, there is little possibility of significant differentiation in living standards; the rich have more resources to help them through the lean times. Wealth gave greater status, greater security and more influence, but did not involve significant differences in standards of living. The value system added to this; rich people were supposed to share their wealth; this is what gave them influence. Anyone who was kin (and family relationships were maintained on a vastly broader scale than in our society) felt a right to request help if they needed it and society generally regarded it as an obligation of the part of the rich to provide it.
- wealth did provide influence and power; rich men were able to attract young, poor men as clients and followers. Wealth was also an important element of chiefly power.
Kinship ties
- this was a very important element of African societies. As noted earlier, kinship ties were maintained on a very broad scale; the main element of religion was based on the family. This was a major component of social welfare—kin could approach and expect other kin to share whatever they had. Generosity was held up as the most important social and moral quality.

- 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.

HOME History 322 list Top of the page