South Africa is famously referred to as the rainbow nation owing to its cultural complexity and diverse religious practices. It is made up of various tribes and cultures such as the Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Tswana, Ndebele, Khoisan, Hindu, Muslim, Afrikaner people; the list goes on and on. All of these people are unanimous and as such calls South Africa home.
This has greatly contributed to forming a part of the country’s heritage, identity and culture. Understanding that South Africa is composed of all these various influences is essential for helping South Africans to understand and respect each other and to learn from each other’s cultural practices.
Now, let’s talk about the Zulus and their wedding tradition as one of the complex cultural heritages in South Africa.
The Zulus are a traditional hunter-gathering ethnic group in South Africa. Zulus are the largest black group inside South Africa. Cattle have always been the primary form of subsistence for this group.
Though many Zulus live in urban areas, there is a steadfast movement to embrace traditional culture. A battle between the forces of change and conservatism has resulted in violence at times. Despite consisting of over a hundred different tribes, Zulus have some common beliefs and traditions. The Zulu ritual of marriage, creation myth, ancestor worship and clothing style are all hallmarks of this group’s identity.
The Zulus and their traditional wedding ritual
A Zulu wedding, like most African weddings, is vibrant with colors, music and dancing. There are other traditions when it comes to South African weddings but Zulu weddings are among the most popular because of the vast population of members of Zululand.
When a Zulu girl is ready for marriage, her father will arrange a coming-out ceremony to introduce her to society and formally make her availability for marriage known.
Nowadays, I don’t know how close to the historical Zulu traditions a Zulu wedding is but it is still fascinating to learn about how their ancestors did it.
Among the Zulus, the bride has the upper hand. The bride goes and gets her groom. Once she gives her consent, the number of cattle that will be given to her father in exchange for her is negotiated.
Beaded jewelry is the language of love in Zulu weddings. Brides-to-be will typically make two sets of bead necklaces in matching colors – one for herself and one for her groom-to-be. Their matching color-coded necklaces and bracelets will let everyone know that they are an item.
Traditional Wedding Day in Zululand
Once a couple has decided to move forward with marriage they are allowed to spend some nights together with the permission of the senior girls in the bride’s kraal i.e. her village …as long as she remains a virgin. She will be periodically examined to make sure that she is still a virgin, and if she loses her virginity, the groom-to-be or his family will be required to pay a fine and the wedding ceremony will be carried out immediately.
The groom will give cattle to the bride’s family. The cattle serve as insurance in the event of his death OR if he rejects her or leaves her unjustly. The cattle will be a source of financial support for her (and any children they may have had). This lobola i.e. bride price, also serves as a guarantee to the girl’s father that he (the groom/husband-to-be) will take care of his daughter.
On the day of the actual Zulu wedding ceremony, the bride is decorated with red and white ocher designs on her legs and arms. Bags of pebbles are tied to her ankles (these are primarily for their rhythmic effect during dancing).
She wears a veil made of beads and twisted fig leaves; oxtail fringes are tied to her elbows and knees and a goat’s hair fringe is worn around her neck. She will also carry a miniature knife, an assagai, pointed up to symbolize her virginity. After the marriage is consummated, the knife will be pointed down.
For a Zulu bride, marriage means disconnecting from her ancestral line of birth and joining her husband’s ancestral lineage. This forms the basis of the ceremonial wedding dance competition wherein a ritual antagonism between the family of the bride and the family of the groom is displayed.
This dance is actually the highlight of every Zulu wedding ceremony. At some point during the ceremony the bride does a dance of her own during which she kicks her leg high in order to show her mother that she is a virgin.
The dowry negotiations are fierce mainly fueled by the father-of-the-bride demanding top payment for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Eventually, the bride leaves her father’s house with gifts in tow for her new husband’s family… gifts will include such things as cows, mats, beads, baskets, etc.
Over time, family relationship between her family of origin and her new family do improve. After much feasting and being welcomed into her new home, the bride’s mother-in-law rubs butter fat on the skin of her new daughter-in-law at the end of the ceremony.
Adapted from African wedding tradition.