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High-priced dowries frustrate S. African blacks

African tradition and Western culture often come face to face in South Africa's black townships. Sometimes the result is a blend that combines the best of both worlds. Other times it is like oil and water.

For many black youths in this country, marriage is a good example of where old and new are not mixing well. The younger generation is objecting to the capitalist overtones being added to the time-honored lobola or dowry system that requires a young man to pay for his bride's hand. Traditionally, the bride's parents were given cattle. But cash is fast becoming the common means of payment.

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''Let's face it,'' says Drum Magazine, a leading black publication, ''lobola has gone commercial.''

Drum Magazine recently conducted a nationwide survey of lobola prices in South Africa and warned that the tradition, though revered by the older generation, was causing ''disillusion, depression, frustration . . . and rebellion'' among South African black youth.

The trend is for parents to view their daughter as, at least in part, an investment on which they have a right to expect a return. The survey found that more and more parents preferred cash as compensation for surrendering their daughters to marriage. And the prices are skyrocketing.

A young man whose wife-to-be is a domestic servant now must come up with as much as $650. A high school graduate commands payment of up to $1,200. A bride from royal lineage can fetch her parents up to $5,000. And these expenses come on top of what some describe as extravagant expenditures for weddings by black families.

There is, of course, some logic to the parents' wish for cash. After all, what use are cattle to a Soweto family where 10 people live in a small, four-room house with a tiny yard occupied by a shack housing relatives?

Still, the modern version of lobola can have serious consequences for many young blacks. The cash demands have become prohibitive.

''Many of the young blacks don't go through the system now because they cannot afford it,'' says social anthropologist David Webster of the University of the Witwatersrand. Instead, he says, young people live together without marrying, which ''carries no stigma among their peers.''

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Lobola may also be a contributing factor in the high number of illegitimate births in black townships, Mr. Webster says.

Despite growing resistance to lobola, the practice is still a common feature of black marriages, whether in rural areas or in the urban townships. One estimate is that 90 percent of all marriages in Soweto still incorporate the lobola practice.

Traditionally, lobola was seen not so much as a system of payment as a means of exchange, Webster says. The aim was to exchange cattle for the fertility of the woman, and in the process extend and formalize the links between the families of the bride and groom.

Cattle were central to lobola not only because they were the source of wealth , but also because it was customary for a new marriage to be ordained by ancestors. Cattle provided by the groom as a form of lobola were slaughtered as part of the ritual of the marriage ceremony.

Increasingly, lobola has taken on more commercial purposes, says Webster. Lobola, although it may not be paid in full for years, is negotiated through hard bargaining between the groom and the bride's parents. The agreed price becomes a ''symbolic statement of good intent'' by the groom that he will take good care of his new wife, Webster says.

But for some young couples lobola is just an early ticket to the poor house. Drum Magazine quotes a young woman angry with her own parents for the price they have attached to her:

''My parents put me through university, and now they want 4,000 rands [$3,700 ] from the man who wants to marry me,'' she says. ''How can they expect us to raise a family and build a home when the lobola debt will keep us in poverty for the rest of our lives?''

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