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"Ingcwaba lentombi lisemzini" : a socio-cultural and gendered construction of ukuthwala among the Zulu people in selected rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal.

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Ukuthwala evokes emotive responses, with those who either support or oppose the practice. This is an area of human interaction that has remained outside of the public arena as a result of social transformation, which made people think it had totally disappeared, but it has increasingly come under public scrutiny in post-1994 South Africa due to the forced ukuthwala (bride abduction) of young women aged 12-16 years. Ukuthwala has also resulted in public debate due to bride abductions which are viewed as against the young women's consent, but not much has been done to investigate the practice of ukuthwala among the Zulus living in rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) in post-1994 South Africa and the impact this has on the social lives of the thwalwa'd women. Therefore, this study investigates the reasons for the practice of ukuthwala by the Zulu males who reside in Bergville, Zwelibomvu and KwaNgcolosi, and explores the social meanings of ukuthwala. The study is interdisciplinary in nature and adopts qualitative methods of data collection. Themes emanating from the research findings are analysed in relation to the theoretical framework. An analysis is undertaken of some of the gendered constructions related to ukuthwala and sexual identity relating to ukuthwala as perceived by Zulu men and women residing in selected areas. The processes involved in ukuthwala practice for the thwalwa'd woman and the abductor are examined in order to establish the context for the study and to extrapolate the processes in order to reflect on the meaning of ukuthwala. Drawing from its historical context, and using feminists’ theories and Young’s theory of oppression, the study argues that ukuthwala is a customary practice that has no evidence of criminality, as women involved collude in the practice to solve a problem relating to love relationships. However, the study identifies the illegal practice of abduction or ubugebengu (criminality); in the words of participants, that is being practiced in the name of ukuthwala. This study highlights the ongoing debate as to whether ukuthwala may be practised as a means to open up the marriage negotiation process, and concludes that both men and women understand ukuthwala as a Zulu custom which opens up marriage negotiation process. Accordingly, ukuthwala in this traditional form is understood as not violating the rights of young women and children. However, the manner in which it is currently practiced by some men in some communities it exposes young women and children to harmful practices, similar to forced abduction and this was referred to as ubugebengu (criminality), which violates women’s rights and was condemned by all. Communities are not yet empowered to manage these situations. Like many other Zulu cultural practices, information about ukuthwala has been mostly conveyed through the word of mouth and the original intentions at times have thus been distorted. This study encountered the challenge that the South African laws fail to ensure that the abuse of ukuthwala is firstly eradicated and secondly that there are criminal sanctions for the violation. Ukuthwala is a Zulu custom that opens up a space for women’s agency where they can decide to marry a man they choose and end the relationship they do not want. In this way the women are able to command the men whom they love, and who have resources and therefore are also powerful to act in a way the woman wants with regard to initiating negotiations for the marriage. However, it can also be viewed as a Zulu custom carried out by powerful men who have resources and therefore can pay ilobolo (bride wealth), as a power display directed at other men who happen to be their competitors. On the other hand, forced abduction is carried out by emasculated men and is a power display directed at women. The study also conceives of ukuthwala as a cultural practice, and as a social construction that is gendered; it adopts zero tolerance to the abduction of young women. The study suggests that if all stakeholders work together through the process of collaboration, interventions are possible and criminals can be sanctioned. The study recommends further research of issues pertaining to culture, sex, sexuality, gender, masculinities and ukuthwala, in order to support an intervention into the socialisation of boys, to help them in making informed decisions before engaging in ukuthwala.


Ph. D. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban 2011.


Zulu (African people)--KwaZulu-Natal--Social life and customs., Rural women--KwaZulu-Natal--Social life and customs., Rural girls--KwaZulu-Natal--Social life and customs., Forced marriage--KwaZulu-Natal., Theses--Gender studies.