FOURWAYS, South Africa -- Like many brides-to-be, Immaculate Lesetla has found herself consumed by her coming wedding. There are 200 guests to think about, a church ceremony, a hotel reception, a honeymoon cruise on the Mediterranean Sea. Even with a professional planner, the 31-year-old computer expert is swamped.
At least one thing is done: Months ago, her fiance, Aubrey Modise, paid her family $2,700 as the negotiated lobola, or bride price. It means the two are already married according to southern African custom and ready for their "Western" wedding. It is the lobola that formally seals the relationship between the families as well as between bride and groom.
Though South Africa is by far the richest and most urban country in sub-Saharan Africa, the payment of bride price remains a widespread practice, from rural villages to upscale suburbs such as this one north of Johannesburg.
The tradition, common across Africa, has come under criticism for treating women as chattel and for raising a financial barrier to marriage. But Modise and Lesetla could not imagine marrying without it.
"It brings the families together," she said. "It's a gesture to build relationships. It's meant as a thank-you for raising the kid. I don't agree it treats women as property."
"We are all equal in this house," added Modise, a 36-year-old software consultant who will exchange vows with Lesetla on Aug. 19.
The lobola custom might actually protect women, said David Coplan, a social anthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. "If you've paid for her, you're much less likely to abuse her," he said. "You value what you pay for, as opposed to the feminist idea that you're buying a commodity."
Lobola is more rational, he says, than the dowry system long practiced in Europe and still used in the India. A dowry is a payment by the family of the bride; lobola, by requiring payment by the family of the groom, puts value on a woman's labor and child-bearing.
In the West, said the American-born Coplan, "we give our daughters away for free."
Lobola, a Zulu word, has been practiced for hundreds of years, originally using cows as currency. It survived abolition efforts by missionaries who deemed it un-Christian, the region's Marxist governments and periods of economic turmoil. It has also reflected those changing historical forces.
In South Africa during the 1920s, as the white government pushed blacks off their rural lands, blacks who could invest in education often did so, ending up in cities as teachers, clerks and messengers. Men would pay a high price to marry into a prominent family, a phenomenon that continues.
In Lesotho, a mountainous country surrounded by South Africa, bride prices rose during the 1930s as men left to work in South African gold and diamond mines. Earning mine wages, a man could pay a premium for a woman capable of running a farm during his long absences. Her family would demand a higher price to dissuade him from abandoning her for a "city wife."
Coplan married a woman from Lesotho in the 1980s, at a time when the standard price was "21 cattle, horse and saddle" converted to local currency. Since his wife had been married once before and the bride price not returned, he tried to avoid paying. His fiancee's family insisted on being paid, and he eventually complied by building his mother-in-law a house.
Lobola received official approval soon after the end of apartheid in South Africa. In 1998, then-President Nelson Mandela signed a law recognizing customary marriages, so long as women were treated equally as called for in the country's constitution, and as guaranteeing they could divorce under civil law.
Yet lobola is also causing new concerns. A recent survey by the Human Sciences Research Council found that half of black South Africans between 16 and 24 years old, male and female, believed lobola discouraged marriage: With the unemployment rate near 40 percent, many men presumably find it difficult or impossible to raise the necessary money.
"We think it's a major factor in the low marriage rates," said Acheampong Yaw Amoateng, a research specialist at the council. "People are becoming greedy by increasing the price tag."
The steady emergence of a black middle class has driven up prices, though the sums are often within a groom's reach.
Tshepo Madigage, a 29-year-old software developer, paid $630 in "damages" after his girlfriend became pregnant. But he still owes her family $1,600 for lobola - a price he helped secretly fix with one of her uncles prior to the ritualized negotiations.
Until he pays, the two families say the couple must live apart; the baby boy, born in January, lives with his maternal grandparents. Madigage says he needs to save, but he also drives a BMW 325ci that cost $37,000 and admits to the "usual male stalling."
He will follow through, he insisted, in part so the baby will get his last name. Moreover, "I just feel obliged. It's something I was brought up with. I respect that."