Polygamy in South African society

POLYGAMY facilitates the movement of cattle and other livestock across families.

POLYGAMY facilitates the movement of cattle and other livestock across families.

Published Jun 16, 2024


A MAN expanding his family and ensuring a continued lineage, that culture and practices were never forgotten, coupled with ensuring land and agriculture was maintained, were among the bedrocks of polygamy among the people of Southern Africa.

Alliances were built, and women married no matter their standing in society, in this practice which, culture says, was never about the sexual gratification of a man.

Anthropologist Sisana Mabuya said polygamy also made sure women got well-deserved breaks between childbearing “duties“, a practice which over past decades, and with colonisation and civilisation, became frowned upon and seen as backward.

“It was among the practices the Westerners found prevalent among a people, and which, as they dismantled a well-oiled machine which was rooted in pride and wisdom, became diluted with innuendos of selfishness and a lack of civilisation; as the colonisers sought to replace Africa with, among others, a different culture and religion,” she said.

Mabuya said in fact, as civilisation and education were put on the same level as Christianity, polygamy and the real reasons for which it existed slowly faded away.

“Western culture preached monogamy, single-family households, and took away the sense of community which came with our practices. What they perceived as strengthening a community and society, they wrote Bible verses about and branded evil.”

Mabuya, born from a long line of polygamist families in her rural KwaZulu-Natal homeland, said when monogamy was introduced as the perfect way of life, it broke the very fabric of the community and left a people deprived of the strength it fostered.

She said: “Suddenly a man and woman chose to live away from home, leaving the rest of their family and community without the organic support system that had built and sustained it for centuries.”

And this, she and others have said, is what bore the ideology that polygamy was a selfish act, meant to benefit a man. “In fact, that is further from the truth,” Mabuya said.

It not only benefited families in the natural setting where any family had more girls than it had boys born. “It also ensured that land ‒ an important aspect of the existence of Africans in this region ‒ remained a shared resource, that no man was left without livestock, and that no family was childless or had no heir.”

She said originally polygamy was never about ‒ or at least had very little to do with ‒ the spouses, but was an agreement formed between families who understood what each needed to sustain themselves.

“In fact, a chief, a herdsman, a king ‒ had first pickings and this meant a family, and indeed a whole community, had both land, food and social standing.

“But it also meant in families where a boy seemed to have no prospects of having children for one reason or the other, would ultimately have children to call his own. A family whose agricultural prospects were dim suddenly had relations with the family of a girl who came from a home with enough to share.”

But it also meant no area of land went barren as women have had the natural ability to tend to it, and in turn they taught their children, as they went about it, how to make sure agriculture and livestock thrived,“ Mabuya added.

She said when a woman understood her own shortcomings or spotted those of her husband, she was tasked with the responsibility of finding a wife to join her, and this was not based on friendships, but on what the girl and/or her family could bring.

“This ensured the balance of power and allowed continuity. It also ensured the safety of women to always be guaranteed as they were accepted into a home with multiple other people.

“It also was a natural family planning method, as after childbirth, a man had other women to concentrate on. But over and above that, it ensured every family had the prized possession ‒ boys ‒ as the more women in a homestead, the more the chance of boys being born.”

She lamented the introduction of religion and culture and practices that had swayed this way of thinking, and which had left families frowning upon being part of a bigger community which preached the nuclear family way of life, and which allowed single-parent and childless families.

“Nowadays a man moves to set home up away from his family, to build a home with his wife, in what has become an urban way of life. This leaves elderly people alone, widowed women to struggle through raising children, and men to cheat on their wives in order to ensure their masculinity was maintained.”

Polygamy was also a tool to mend broken relations between families and communities, as when one sent their child into another’s hands, they would never fight them, bringing peace and wellbeing, Mabuya added.

Sunday Independent

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