“Times have changed and tradition has faded away. Many people don’t trust one another,” said Thomas Mathebula from Cottondale, who has been living with the mother of his child for the past five years. “People don’t know how to love. You tell a woman you love her, she plays you for a fool. Love has lost its meaning, and people abuse it,” he continued, “Even those who get married today get divorced tomorrow.”
In the past, marriage was a favourable option for South African couples. Marriage was once used as a necessary tool to bring two different families together, but now marriage seems to no longer be a viable option for modern men and women. Instead, they prefer to live together without the boundaries of a marriage certificate to seal their fate.
Mathebula, 33, met his current girlfriend through his best friend’s girlfriend. Since she fell pregnant with his first child, he hasn’t considered marriage. “My family forced me to live with her because I got her pregnant. I was only fooling around with her,” he admitted. “I don’t love her enough to make her officially my wife. I have considered paying lobola for her in the past because if ever something were to happen to her, I would not have a leg to stand on.” According to African customs, if a man lives with a woman without paying lobola to her family, it may mean trouble for him: he will have to pay a high price for lobola when she dies and before she gets buried. However, Mathebula doesn’t seem to care because he says, “She doesn’t have any respect for me and or family.”
Like many relationships, Mathebula and his girlfriend have broken up on a number of occasions because of their lack of love. He believes that she always comes back because she doesn’t get along with her family, and that she also uses their daughter as an excuse for her return. “She knows that I don’t love her but, she wants to stay with me regardless. I always tell her to pack her stuff and go because I want to marry someone else, but she refuses, so I stay out all night sometimes. We always end up fighting. I think she is forcing me to stay with her because her family is very poor, and my family provides for her,” he continued “I think poverty is the main source of vat en set.”
Mathebula is not the only one who thinks poverty is to blame for the high rates of vat en set, the term for unmarried couples living in together. “Many women are forced to go live with their boyfriends because they are facing poverty in their homes,” said Dudu Khoza, an unmarried mother of two living with her partner. “They think if they go live with their boyfriends their, lives will be easy, but that is not always true. A man charms you into going to live with him, and then he runs off with some other women and leaves you behind with the kids,” she said. “And when you have problems like that, you cannot run to tell your family because he didn’t pay lobola, so you don’t have the power to say anything.”
Although Khoza is living with the father of her children, she isn’t happy with their living arrangement, and feels she has no choice but to accept what her boyfriend decides for them. “The men today aren’t the same as yesterday. They don’t have any respect for women. My man promised to go to my family to pay lobola, but when the day came for it to be paid, he made excuses,” she said. “It really breaks my heart knowing that he lives with me for free, but there is nothing I can do to make him marry me. The damage is done and I already have his children who need his support.” She believes that people who are married have a nicer life. “They plan everything together and their relationship is guaranteed, not like us. The biggest mistake women make is sleeping with men before marriage. Once a man gets to know you like that, he will never marry you because he already got what he wanted in the first place.”
“Marriage is a thing of the past and more and more people prefer vat en set,” said Vincent Mnisi from Tintswalo Village. “People charge too much for lobola. It is no longer about a potential suitor getting permission from the woman’s family but about her offering their daughter for sale. That is why men don’t pay lobola or marry anymore”?
Mnisi also feels women cannot be trusted when it comes to relationships. “Women today are very promiscuous. Just because a woman may be beautiful, it doesn’t mean she is wife material. For all you know, you may think you are her only lover, only to find out later that you are not. She may have many boyfriends while in a relationship with you.”
Other people seem to think that unmarried couples live together not because of the high cost of lobola, but because youth today wish to abandon their cultural heritage. “Westernization has poisoned our children’s minds,” said Gladys Mnisi, 69, a mother of five, three of whom are already married. “I will never allow my daughters to live with a man without marrying. It would be a disgrace to my family if I were to allow such nonsense to take place in my own home. That is not how I raised my children to behave. When we were growing up, things like living together with a man who didn’t marry you hardly ever existed.”
Some people simply blame women for living with a man, “Once a man takes a girl and breaks her virginity in his comfortable queen-sized bed, she will run away to live with him without him even asking,” said Lindiwe Maboso, 59,from Ka-zitha. “And once that man opens his eyes and sees other beautiful girls out there, he will run away and leave her with a baby, and expect her parents to support the child.”
Although many people choose to live together without getting married, others tie the knot and for different reasons. “My husband had no ID because he is from Mozambique, and the police bothered him all the time. I had no problem helping him out. It doesn’t make any difference why he asked me to marry him, he told me that he was going to take care of me, and he is doing exactly what he said he would do,” said Tsakani Mnisi in her new home. Married two years now, they held the ceremony in a hotel in Johannesburg without the knowledge and presence of her family. Tsakani continued to explain. “We plan everything that needs to be done together. Because he has no parents, he is totally devoted to me.”
Other couples feel that living together without marriage is definitely not the right way to start a romantic partnership. “Before marriage, we did not have sex because we were both Christians,” explained Nkateko Sibuyi, who has been happily married to her husband Respect for two years. “If we had done that from the very start of our relationship, things could have turned out differently. But because we waited, we love and appreciate each other as always even though we are apart when he is at work.” She continued “I grew up wanting good things for myself and vat en set wasn’t one of them. Men who choose to do this are afraid of taking responsibility towards the woman and her family. They know that they can leave or abuse her at any time whereas in a marriage, things like that are almost impossible because you act responsibly towards one another. ”
Pastor Khoza of the International Faith Healing Church Ministry also had something to add about couples living together without the blessings of God. “According to Christianity, it is wrong to live with a partner without getting married first. Lust is the biggest problem that drives into these young men and women these kind of relationships,” he explained. “When a young woman has never been married or engaged, and man talks her into having sex with him, he must marry her because that is what the word of God says. ”
For many, times have changed and traditions of lobola and wedding ceremonies have faded. For some, what matters more than love, is legal status and financial security, but people’s motives are complex and varied. The only thing that seems certain is that successful relationships— with in and outside—both side.
Thandi Mkhatshwa is a reporter with