About a month ago I witnessed my sister's traditional wedding where she emerged not only as Mrs so-and-so but with a brand new name, Nokhwezi* as opposed to Zimasa* as she is commonly known. The practice of a new bride changing both name and surname is an age-old practice across many cultures to some extent or another. The new bride(makoti) is supposed to identify with her new family hence a whole new identity is created for her, including a new identity document. It is important to note that the groom's name and surname have remained intact. The wedding day also included a wardrobe change where umakoti had to wear new clothes that symbolize her status as the new bride. Again, the groom didn’t change anything. The day ended with my sister sitting on a grass mat(ikhukho) and her husband on a chair listening to older women telling them about the new adventure ahead.
Such practices surrounding women and their status in relationships in relation to men have been under much scrutiny over the years because of the question of equality. These practices are usually central to the coming of age rituals and the most obvious being marriage where the women "takes" her husband's surname and in my sister’s case and many Xhosa women a new name as well. I was shocked to find out that Home Affairs does the surname change automatically once the papers are signed without giving women the choice of keeping their own surnames (prior arrangements have to be done for this). Some women have challenged this practice by double-barreling their surname thus having two surnames and for the few who choose to keep their surnames, it’s an administrative nightmare in various contexts, especially when children are born. I have heard of few men who double barrel their surnames.
Many will argue that the naming practice is an indication of the married woman being accepted into her husband’s family, but if this is the case, why doesn’t the groom get a new name for being accepted into the bride’s family? If men and women are equal in South Africa, why do they not have equal status even at the Home Affairs office? Surely if the woman's surname changes, the husband’s surname should change as well? I understand there are complex issues in marriage, especially where people seem to be in limbo between traditional practices and recognising women as individuals who do not need to be owned or handed over from their fathers to their husbands. The structure of marriage runs deeper than the rituals as families and society get involved. The practice of lobola is central to the idea that marriage is about bringing two families together (and the negotiations are performed by the patriarchs in the respective families), but is this really the case; when the relationship is tough and ends in divorce, how many people consider that there was an exchange that was binding families and not just individuals? And lobola opens another can of worms as debates have been raging about why women do not pay lobola as men do seeing as we want equal status with men on all levels. Customary marriages are also another quandary. If a man can have more than one wife, can a wife have more than one husband?
It may seem that I’m being flippant about these issues but I recognise there’s a historical element to the question of these rituals and their meanings in society and people place value on the heritage, a particularly patriarchal heritage. I’m not anti-matrimony, but the inequalities in the name of culture and what is “normal” need to be looked at closely. Some may argue “what’s in a name”? The names and the labels we ascribe to ourselves as men and women are central to how we make meaning of ourselves and experiences in the world. I respect the decision for people who enter into marriage and the practices that abound, out of choice, not simply what is expected of them which is often the case with many rituals that are still practiced.
*Names have been changed