How will young men and women get respect if they have no “paper cattle”?

By Xolile Madinda

This weekend I and a male relative were involved in a friendly process of customary “damages” negotiations with his girlfriend’s family because she has fallen pregnant out of wedlock. Fortunately, the discussions were friendly and the focus was more on building good relationships between us as families and for us, the father’s side, to commit to playing our role in the child’s life. It all ended well with all of us drinking some brandy together; and parted with respect for each other.

But the discussions about money during the negotiation were not easy. One of the reasons was because we had to negotiate how many cattle the fine would constitute. In the old days, this meant live cattle. Today, we negotiate a sum of money to represent one beast. Normally, one animal is represented by R2000, six cattle would thus be R12 000. This is a lot of money! Our family is a normal township family, and the father-to-be does not have regular income.

Fortunately, we negotiated the price down to “R1500” per animal. But this is where things get tricky today, “paper cattle” are not the same as “walking cattle”. Long ago when Africans lived on the land and herded cattle freely, their cattle were the foundation of the economy. These cattle also “bore” cattle, fathers ensured that in the kraal there would be cattle ready for his son to pay lobola.

 When Africans lost land, their herds and their freedom because of colonialism, they also lost the collective wealth of their cattle economy and had to adapt to cash wages. There are many things since then that have gone wrong, most of all, we have seen how Black people got poorer, many of our fathers, sisters, brothers have never been able to earn a decent living wage.

This is why during the negotiations we asked the other family to understand and remember that “iinkomo zemka nabelungu” (the cattle vanished with the whites). Wages do not give birth to wages. There is always pressure on money in the house. It is hard for fathers to save money for their sons customary duties.

Even worse, unlike cattle which can grow in number, money buys less over time even when people get wage increases, and it has been difficult for Black people to save given our economic oppression. It becomes a stigma when we are not able to fulfill our customs because we do not have enough “paper cattle”. This for any man feels like they have failed to be man for the family to protect the pride of the household.

For young men and women, things are getting worse, not better. Many will never find jobs, some will only work when they find odd jobs here and there. How will young men be able to perform their customs? How will we be respected if we cannot perform our customs?

Today the government has to step in and support poor children through the child support grant. This used to be the job of the whole extended family. But even this shows how things seem to have fallen apart. We just have fragments of what was, of who we were. Many cultural relationships of trust and respect depend on us being able to show that we can be responsible, that we can pay “paper cattle” if a custom requires us.

If we are to move on as Africans, we must find a new way of addressing the high levels unemployment facing young people. We want to be responsible, we want to be respected for being able to do the right thing.


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