Some of our most treasured customs and traditions are actually un-African. They were imposed on us by racist colonialists who had destructive agendas in mind.
I am instantly reminded of the custom that obliges black widows to wear black garments for a year after their husbands depart eternally. We have proudly accepted this custom as our own, and we actively enforce it on black women. But the reality is that it isn’t. Those of us who are intimately familiar with history know that it belongs to the Greeks.
However, I should not digress. Our focus today is on ilobolo. Next time, we will have an opportunity to deal with another custom.
From the outset, it may help to clarify two things to avoid confusion and/or misinterpretation. Firstly, this is no call for ilobolo to be scrapped. Secondly, there is nothing intrinsically flawed with this custom that dates back to 300BC.
Our collective problem as black people is that ilobolo we practice today is no longer in its pristine form because at some point in our history, a British colonialist named Theophilus Shepstone corrupted it to further a colonial agenda.
Ilobolo, which has to do with building relations between two families, was never about personal gain in its pristine form. Evidence of this is illustrated by the fact that it had no set price.
The groom’s family would bring gifts to the bride’s family as a token of appreciation for raising her. Cultural expert, Sihawu Ngubane, notes that “they would harvest pumpkins and present them to their in-laws. After some time, people started giving cows as well, but there was no set number. It could be one or four”.
Ngubane further explains that “it also depended on how many cows the groom’s family had”. If the family had many cows, they could give more than one. If the family had not been blessed with cows, one cow or another gift was acceptable.
So where did it go wrong? How did this sacred custom morph into the money-making scheme we know today?
History tells us that Shepstone, who was commonly known as ‘Somtseu’ and wielded a lot of influence in the Natal province, introduced the law that bastardized our custom. As someone who was familiar with the culture, he said the groom’s family should pay 11 cows to the bride’s family.
Understanding why Shepstone did this is not difficult. At the time, the British colonial government required labour on its coal mines. African households, which primarily survived on subsistence farming, had initially been reluctant to surrender their labour to the colonial government. But after this law was introduced, African men were compelled to work for the colonial system so they could earn money to pay ilobolo.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Naysayers will argue that ilobolo in its current form is still about forging relations between families, and that it has nothing to do with making money. In this regard, Ngubane has this to say: “You cannot tell me that you are building a relationship if you are going to put a price tag on it”.
The bitter pill we must swallow is that ilobolo in its current form is a bastardized practice – a creation of a British colonialist who must be smiling as he looks at us wherever he is right now.
Ultimately, two questions confront us as we reach the end of this piece. Do we continue practicing this corrupted form of our custom in the name of “culture”? Or is there hope for a future where it can be decolonized and practiced in its pristine form?
~ written by Ayanda Sakhile Zulu, politics student at the University of Pretoria.