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This article examines the persistent authority of the customary practice for forming recognized marriages in many South African communities, centered on bridewealth and called “lobola.” Marriage rates have sharply fallen in South Africa, and many South Africans blame this on the difficulty of completing lobola amid intense economic strife. Using in-depth qualitative research from a village in KwaZulu-Natal, where lobola demands are the country’s highest and marriage rates its lowest, I argue that lobola’s authority survives because lay actors, and especially women, have innovated new repertoires of lobola behavior that allow them to pursue emerging needs and desires for marriage within lobola’s framework. In particular, I argue that dyadic narratives of marriage increasingly circulate in lobola processes alongside the extended-family narratives “traditionally” associated with African marriage. As key agents in this circulation, young women remain among lobola’s strongest supporters even as many yearn for what they call “50/50,” gender-egalitarian marriages. To help build this argument, I synthesize actor-oriented analyses of legal pluralism with Ewick and Silbey’s (1998) theorization of the role of lay action in producing legality, in order to illuminate how lay actors contribute not only to the form and content of different legal systems but also to the reach of their authority.


This article has been published in a revised form in Law & Social Inquiry. The final version is available at This version is free to view and download for private research and study only. Not for re-distribution or re-use. My other work is cataloged at



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