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Very Long Engagements: The Persistent Authority of Bridewealth in a Post-Apartheid South African Community

  • Michael W. Yarbrough

Abstract

This article examines the persistent authority of lobola, the customary practice for forming marriages in many South African communities. South African marriage rates have sharply fallen, and many blame this on economic challenges completing lobola. Using in-depth, qualitative research from a village in KwaZulu-Natal, where lobola demands are the country's highest and marriage rates its lowest, I argue that lobola's authority survives because lay actors have innovated new approaches for pursuing emerging desires for marriage via lobola. I argue that dyadic narratives of marriage increasingly circulate alongside “traditional” extended-family narratives, especially among the young women who strongly support lobola while yearning for gender-egalitarian marriages. My argument synthesizes actor-oriented analyses of legal pluralism with Ewick and Silbey's theorization of lay actors’ role in producing legality to illuminate how lay actors contribute not only to the form and content of different legal systems, but also to the reach of their authority.

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