Marriage in Tswana Society

Matrimony Process

Traditionally a man's first wife was selected for him; if he could afford more than one wife, he chose others himself. Among noble groups with much property, wives to whom the man was related were preferred. 

©Dr Peter Magubane
The celebration extends to singing and dancing with knobkerries used to punctuate the dance moves.

Favoured were his mother's brother's daughter, father's sister's daughter, and father's brother's daughter. Marriage to this last meant that the bride wealth would stay in the byre shared by his father and father's brother. Marriages were usually arranged by kin groups, the man's kin taking the initiative. Child betrothal used to be common, but it is no longer practised. An important part of betrothal was transfer of bride wealth 'bogadi' from the groom's family to the bride's. A marriage was valid only when bogadi had been paid. This denoted the transfer of a woman's fertility - not purchase of the woman - to her husband's kin group. Only then could the children she bore become part of his kin group. If a wife failed to produce a child, her group had to replace her with one of her sisters or send an extra sister, or return the bogadi. The bogadi consisted mainly of cattle, though some Tswana 'Ngwaketse and Kwena in particular' included sheep. Today, when bridewealth is transferred, combined money and cattle payment is agreed by the groups. The number of livestock was not open to negotiation but was decided by the groom's people; the bride's family had little say in the matter other than to protest if they believed the groom's kin could afford to give more.

Payment was normally due in one instalment when the bride went to live with her husband. The animals, always an even number, were assembled by the groom's father who asked his own siblings to contribute. He expected one beast from the groom's maternal uncle, since cattle received for his sister (the groom's mother) had been used to obtain his own wife.

The cattle were sent to the bride's father's homestead, where they were held for a time by her father. After they had multiplied, the bride's father distributed them among his and the bride's mother's close kin, all of whom would have been asked to contribute to the bride's brother's bogadi. The bride's maternal uncle and eldest brother had preferential claims over cattle received as her bogadi.


When a man had more than one wife, each wife was entitled to her own lapa — houses, fields, cattle, and domestic utensils used by her and her children. However, a woman sent to replace a wife who died childless, or to bear children for a barren wife, went into the lapa of the wife she was replacing. On an older wife's death the resources of her lapa were inherited by her children, A polygamist’s wives were normally ranked in order of betrothal 'not marriage', a fact that left the ranking open to dispute, particularly after the husband's death.

The first wife betrothed was meant to be the most senior, and her eldest son heir to the status and unallocated property of his father. Yet disputes over ranking often followed a powerful man's death as his first sons by his wives jockeyed for the right to be primary heir.

When the apartheid state gave special powers to chiefs, some anthropologists found themselves caught up in such disputes, and even in court, as men vied for the right to succeed their fathers to a chieftainship and called on anthropologists to verify their claims to being first sons of senior wives.