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9 April 2020
Class of 2020: Bongeka Mhlauli on the Practice of Ukuthwala

(Published - 9 April 2020)

The old-age African tradition of Ukuthwala, a practice of abducting young girls and forcing them into marriages, is continuing in South African even though it is a criminal offence today. 

Some of the perpetrators, as UWC graduate Bongeka Mhlauli found, are using this ancient tradition to hide their criminal intentions to oppress and violate the rights of the young girls - unlike in the past when Ukuthwala was intended to start and build families. “These days girls as young as eight years old are taken out of school, abducted and get raped,” she said. 

“This shows that the aim of these young men involved is crime. They just want to satisfy their sexual needs using these powerless girls and hiding behind the practice of Ukuthwala. In olden days the family of the abducted girl would be informed, and the bride would be slowly introduced to marriage over a period of time. Not abducted today and tomorrow she has already been forced to have sex already.” 

Mhlauli, who is a product of the same practice herself, conducted a study titled, The Relevance of the Custom of Ukuthwala in Modern Xhosa Society, for her master’s degree in BA. She graduated last week. 

She said she was shocked to find that the bride abduction is continuing, not only in South Africa but throughout the African continent. Although the government and other organisations have conducted awareness campaigns to show that the practice is unconstitutional, some communities are still adamant that Ukuthwala is part of their tradition, and no one should interfere.  

Mhlauli, from Ngcobo in the Eastern Cape, said she was attracted to the topic after her mother revealed that she was also married through Ukuthwala during one of those mother to daughter conversations. “I was so shocked because we are just a normal happy family like many others. And when I realised from media reports that the practice still continues, I was interested to compare the old tradition with the current practice, which is more criminal than anything.”

Although the practice is criminal, Mhauli concluded it  still holds a significant part among certain indigenous people and it is still taking place in many communities with many cases not even reported. Her work, she says, could be a helpful cultural-educational tool to those who are not familiar with Ukuthwala. And it creates awareness to those who still practice the tradition by highlighting the negative aspects of it towards human rights.