• The Eastern Cape is often claimed as the most spectacularly unspoilt region of South Africa, however, it is also one of the most isolated, underdeveloped and impoverished. Rivers that intersect hills and mountains create dramatic scenery, they are also a symbolic backdrop for the stories that follow. The river was historically the venue where ukuthwala would occur and sometimes still where many young girls have their fates as wives sealed.
  • Fundiswa was 18 when she was thwala’ed and married, her husband was 34.
  • Fundiswa began to cry as she told her story, indicative of wounds that have never healed.
  • Nandipha in her house. She reflects while telling her story.
  • Nandipha proudly shows the additional house she is building for her family. Her husband passed away after only two years of marriage and because she had no children she was sent back home to her family. She eventually remarried and became a mother and grandmother.
  • A heard of Nguni cattle in the mist. Cattle are the commodity exchanged as payment to the family whose daughter is sought as a wife. The importance of the 'lobola' is premised on a girl being valuable and important to her family. She is a helper in the home, and support to her parents. Giving her to another family in marriage was considered a loss and therefore her importance to her family would be compensated for with cattle. Many, even those in the Eastern Cape, say that nowadays girls are merely seen as commodities themselves, a way of gaining cattle or even money, which is of greater value.
  • A Nguni cow, an Eastern Cape symbol of wealth and prosperity. Cattle have always been, and in rural communities today are, a primary bartering commodity and an indication of a family's economic means. When a marriage is negotiated this essentially revolves around the 'lobola' payment which must be made for a customary marriage to take place. Cattle are the traditional form of 'lobola' payment.
  • “When he saw me, he picked me”
  • Nolulama, Nokuthula’s mother, with her newborn baby. Nolulama was 18 when she was also thwala’ed in 1990. Her father was extremely poor. She was taken by three men from her house and taken to a nearby village. Her husband’s family had chosen her for their son who knew nothing of their plans. When her daughter Nokuthula was thwala’ed she was opposed but had no say in the matter as it was her husband's decision, preferring her to be married before she possibly got pregnant. His reasoning highlights a relevant social issue and herein its perceived solution.
  • “I wanted to marry him”
  • Lindiwe doesn't recall the year or how old she was when she was thwala'ed by her boyfriend. Though it was around the time of her initiation as she was participating in the dances that maidens undertake at this stage of life. When it happened it came as a shock and she tried to escape. When she asked her husband why he thwala'ed her, his response was a fear that she would run away if he had spoken to her beforehand.
  • Faniswe had wanted to marry her boyfriend but her father wanted her to stay with her family and care for her parents. He was forced to consent once she had been 'thwala'ed' and been taken to his home. This is another example of elopement form of the practice.
  • When asked why he 'thwala'ed' his wife, Xolani said that it was how a man got a wife. He had arranged it with her brother as her father had already passed away.
  • Phumeza says she cried when she realised she was being 'thwala'ed', but she soon came to see that it he would be a good husband and it was a good family to marry into.
  • Vuyani told his parents he wanted her as a wife and they said he must go and take her. He knew her boyfriend and that he was in Jo'burg, but knew if he 'thwala'ed' her before her boyfriend married her, there was nothing to be done, the boyfriend must concede, its just how things were.
  • In 1981 Sibongiseni was 19 when she was 'thwala'ed'. She never wanted to marry him as she had a boyfriend who was in Jo’burg working on the mines, and they were planning to get married. She sometimes still wishes her life had been different.
  • Nombeko says that in 1977 she 'thwala'ed' herself, she simply went to her boyfriends house because they wanted to be married. Someone from his family went to inform her family the next morning and they came to negotiate 'lobola'.
  • In 2001, 2 months before her 16th birthday, Thembeka was thwala'ed and married. Her husband was 24. Her brothers came a few days later to fetch the lobola cattle and told her they wanted her to grow up and become a wife. "By then I stopped crying I resigned myself to my fate" she explained.
  • The hut designated for cooking is where the three sisters-in-law spend a large amount of their time. They would also do the cleaning and laundry, tend any crops in the field as well as the animals, besides cattle, a job reserved for the men of the family.
  • A young girl doing her homework in the evening light outside her hut. The South African Constitution affords her the right to an education, to her right to choose, and protection from violence and abuse. But in the context in which she lives, multiple socio-economic challenges abound that require practical and sustainable solutions if she is to have the actual opportunity to grasp a more prosperous future.

      The Silence Beyond the River

      Exhibition Background


      “The Silence Beyond the River: Encounters with the lives of ukuthwala” is the culmination of a follow up project on human trafficking supported by Kindermissonswerk on human trafficking. The exhibition is based on a 4 month period spent in the Eastern Cape earlier in 2013, meeting and conducting interviews with individuals across different spheres of communities, on the subject of ukuthwala.

      The interviews were part of Media Monitoring Africa’s (MMA) project that sought to come to a greater understanding of the practice of ukuthwala, and specifically how it is portrayed in the media. MMA observed how stories have appeared in South African media of the perversion of cultural practice, some highlighting the view that the practice should be criminalised and viewing it as a relic of a patriarchal past, while others highlight traditionally oriented communities seemingly digging their heals in order to protect their culture from outside interference. The aim of the project was firstly to gain greater insight into the practice, to understand the clash between a rights discourse and traditional practice’s, and secondly to hear the views and voices of those involved, including children and how the different sides are portrayed in the media; to contribute to a meaningful dialogue that would ultimately lead to collective solutions.

      Additionally the project saw how ukuthwala, as a perceived part of culture, was frequently understood in contradicting ways, communicated so by the people interviewed. In addition numerous statements made, particularly by some of the young women who had been married through this practice, starkly highlighted far broader aspects of life in these rural areas that are challenges in and of themselves, within which ukuthwala manifests and which play a role in the continuation of the practice. Additionally, it was often times communicated as a perceived solution to other very real challenges, and while it may not be the solution we need as a country, the lived realities often see little opportunities for empowerment to develop alternative methods of overcoming these challenges.

      It was also striking how people hold to their identity as a reflection of their society, embedded in the idea that ‘this is just how things are’; because that is their reality, there is no other. These photographs tell of real South African’s living in this rural reality, one that can be said to be on the other side of a cultural ‘rift’. By seeing them, we hope that a greater understandingly will be shaped of the diversity of South Africa’s collective citizenry and how opposed they can sometimes be, and that with this understanding questions will be asked and solutions devised. Additionally by highlighting these complexities it must be seen, as with trafficking, that the many underlying contributing factors and complexities involved need solutions to be found, without which the abuse of those who are vulnerable will continue. This is the first step to figuring out how to build a better country for all citizens, women men and children

      Lastly the project sought to engage with children, particularly in these rural areas, to hear their voices on matters that relate to them in their real or perceived roles as girls and boys, and the futures that lie ahead of them, in a society that has, and is, changing and developing in many different ways across culture, class and race. An important element of the exhibition is the inclusion of the audio montage as an expression of their voices on the challenges that confront them as children. It is mostly in Xhosa, and is a representative of children undertaking their right to participation (transcription available from MMA)

      ‘Rural’ should not mean being impoverished, or uneducated, or desperate, or having less rights, or even of having less value. It should certainly not mean that future generations in these areas have less opportunity for a better future.


      Photographer’s Introductory Thoughts

      The Eastern Cape is a magnificently beautiful place. Rolling hills, lush valleys, intersected by rivers heading to the ocean, all underneath a wide-open sky.

      The people living in the Eastern Cape are likewise beautiful, with lives that look different to those in other parts of the country.

      Beyond the rivers however, in the green hills and valleys, there are untold stories that have not reached the mainstream, possibly due to the owners of the stories not believing they were worth telling. Some of these stories are here, in these photographs and recollections. They reveal the lives of some of those who know ukuthwala first hand, it being a part of their lives, albeit for some a small part that does not define their lives.

      For some young women, who have escaped such marriages, brought about violently and against their will, ukuthwala has impacted their lives greatly. Having escaped these marriages they now find themselves estranged from their communities, with no certainty for the future.

      What is clear is that ukuthwala finds itself embedded within a context of far broader societal challenges and cannot be viewed in isolation, separated from these factors. It also has historical cultural roots that cannot merely be legislated away.

      It is in this current context that the next generation find themselves in, faced with obstacles, of which the fear of being thwalad is one (for the girls that is). The children and youth in the Eastern Cape straddle two worlds, each on the other side of a cultural rift, one in which old things are disappearing and new things are being grabbed on to even if sometimes they are misunderstood.

      Every child in South Africa has the right to education, and like all citizens they too have the freedom to make their own choices and participate in decisions that affect them. No young girl, or woman should be forced into marriage. The challenge for South Africa is to recognize the sometimes vast differences between the cultures of our collective citizenry, none of which can be demeaned, yet where there are abuses solutions must be found.


      Ukuthwala: To carry (Xhosa)

      The practice of taking a girl either willingly with her knowledge or by force without it, as a preliminary step to marriage, for the purpose of entering into marriage negotiations.

      Traditionally the practice was always initiated with the ultimate aim of bringing about a marriage; sexual intercourse not being permitted until the marriage was finalized. A girls consent was implied in her submission, should her father have consented to the marriage, according to society’s defined and accepted norms of behaviour, which sought to promote the best interest of all involved and therefore society at large. Historically it was not totally without force, but this was the exception and not the norm.

      Upon exchange of lobola, usually in the form of a negotiated number of cattle, a valid marriage had taken place.

      Current discourse on ukuthwala regards its changing character in contemporary times; it now frequently being used outside the bounds of its traditional nature and purpose and manifesting in numerous cases as abduction, assault and rape; and, if a marriage is said to have taken place, it can in extreme cases be labelled as matrimonial slavery. In this format it is also classifiable as human trafficking. Where this occurs in the name of tradition and under the guise of the practice of ukuthwala, it is in fact not so and can said to be a corruption of the traditional practice.

      Thwala: The verb of ukuthwala

      Thwalad: Past tense of thwala

      Makoti: Young wife
      No longer a maiden, a makoti is required to take on the role of a young wife in the family, her duties and responsibilities now tied to caring for her family. Makoti clothing contemporarily consists of a long skirt, with an apron type garment on top of the skirt as well as a scarf to cover her head. It signifies to the community that she is no longer a maiden but a young wife.

      Culture: The ideas, customs, traditions and social behaviour of a particular people or society. It is the way of life of a group, created over time in order to provide for specific needs within society. Defined by beliefs and traditions and provides a group with identity and unity. Culture is not static, rather it changes and evolves as the needs of society and its environment undergoes changes.


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