South Africa's 'topless bride gift' tale, and how money, TV and mobile phones killed polygamy

Men like Kenya’s Akuku Danger, who had 100 wives, are a fast-dying breed.

There is this wonderful South  African socio-economic story doing the rounds. Sorry, that is a little pompous, it is actually a gossip tale about a topless virgin, complete with beads around the waist and neck, who was given as a “gift” to a top dog from the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) - acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motseneng - by village elders.

In this World Cup season, and with everyone terrified that these frightening rebels of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) could soon take over the Middle East, then go on to exterminate the world’s infidels, I was intrigued to see that the story still managed to break into the British papers.

Thankfully, because of some grown-up reporting I read in the Mail & Guardian, it seems most of it is not true and we were sold a dummy.  For example, we now know that the young woman wasn’t a virgin. 

Secondly, that she is engaged to be married to someone else. That the SABC big man –acting chief operating operator Hlaudi Motseneng - is married, although going by the example of his (officially) five-wived President Jacob Zuma, he has a bright polygamous future ahead of him if he chooses to seize the opportunity. 

Also, that these elders involved were not just some run of the mill barefooted villagers. It was a well-heeled lobby group of the proud Venda people.

What is true, it seems, is that the Venda elders gave Motseneng a cow in appreciation for the work SABC has done in expanding Venda-speaking media. At least Motseneng didn’t leave empty-handed.

Like both bad and good journalism does, apparently the story has destroyed the young woman’s family. She herself says her fiancé is fretting. The Sowetan newspaper that started it all, is unapologetic, and its editor says his paper stands by its story.

Ordinarily one would have left that matter to rest at that point, until the young woman’s grandmother, a matriarch in the community, spoke up. She told the Mail & Guardian that she had  come under personal attack as a result of the reports. 

“People now say … that I’m selling the child. I’ve suffered a lot because of her,” she said.   “The husband-to-be is a rich man, not a poor man, so what else do I want from the SABC people?”  

Changing times
She probably didn’t intend it, but in that statement the Venda matriarch gave us the extraordinary insight into why this “wife giving” business, once common in many parts of Africa, has all but died out. It might also explain why polygamy, at least the old-fashioned variety where men had 10 wives (or like Kenya’s Akuku Danger, eastern Africa’s most written-about polygamist, who left behind 100 widows when he died in 2010).

You wouldn’t think it, but wife gifting and polygamy are in decline precisely because more African men are rich. That is truly counter-intuitive, because you would think rich men would afford more wives. But no.

If you go back even just 50 years, in many parts of Africa there would only be one bloke who had gone to university, and only one “native” who had money. Most parents, wishing the best for their daughters and grandchildren, would angle to marry off their girls to that sole eligible bachelor.

Today, there are Africans with money of some sort or the other wherever you turn. The pool of cash-rich eligible bachelors has grown dramatically, and that in turn has democratised what had been a very conservative African marriage market.

But there is more. A rich man has more things to distract him than a poor one – like watching the English Premier League. Now we are in World Cup season. By the time he watches the last match, it is 2am East African time. He is so knackered by then, he can barely crawl into one marital bed. Imagine if he had six. In that period, meanwhile, the poor man in the village has done touring the huts of his three wives and is back sleeping contentedly in the Master Manyatta (hut).

The Yacouba way
This reminded me of  the very inspirational Yacouba Sawadogo, an illiterate Burkina Faso farmer whose story is told in the documentary “The Man Who Stopped The Desert”. Yacouba reimagined traditional farming techniques to restore soils damaged by desertification and drought, and magically conjured up bumper harvests in desert patches people had fled. Few know of Yacouba’s story, but if there is an African documentary you should watch before you die, “The Man Who Stopped The Desert” is it.

Yacouba has seven wives, but he doesn’t live with any of them. He lives alone in his house at the corner of the compound that also serves as a store for his precious harvest. He rooms with grains, you might say.

So what does that have to do with anything? Well, it means that the wives have to come to Yacouba’s house to get their weekly rations. That is a very power-laden ritual in polygamy – the man at the centre of the distribution network, and in that way exerts his authority over his disparate household.

However, look at the effect that the mobile phone has had. The Kenyans came up with this M-Pesa thing, now the world’s most successful mobile phone based money transfer service. An African – or at least Kenyan - polygamist would look silly if he made his wives come to him to get money (for money is the commodity through which polygamist control is more commonly exerted in recent times). He would have to M-Pesa it, and therefore not be able to eyeball his wives and reassert his authority the way Yacouba does with his grain.

This, though, is a boring story so it’s understandable why many would wish that the “Topless bride given to television chief” version, as The Times of London put it, were the correct one.



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