McKittrick on Pauli, 'The Decline of Marriage in Namibia: Kinship and Social Class in a Rural Community'

Julia Pauli
Meredith McKittrick

Julia Pauli. The Decline of Marriage in Namibia: Kinship and Social Class in a Rural Community. Culture and Social Practice Series. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2019. xiii + 296 pp. $55.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-8376-4303-9

Reviewed by Meredith McKittrick (Georgetown University) Published on H-Africa (June, 2020) Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Boston University)

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Across southern Africa, rates of marriage have declined precipitously over the past half century—a remarkable transformation given that marriage was once nearly universal. Julia Pauli’s well-written and engaging book explores this transformation through the lens of a small community in northwestern Namibia.

Pauli, an anthropologist, conducted extensive fieldwork in the town of Fransfontein. Fransfontein is tiny—fewer than one thousand residents, with a few hundred more scattered across twenty-five small settlements located in the communal grazing areas that ring the town. Its small size posed advantages as a field site: Pauli and her research assistants were able to visit virtually every household in the town and its surrounding settlements. They collected general survey data about marriage, relationships, and fertility. Pauli also recorded detailed life histories of a number of women from different generations and was able to attend many of the weddings that took place while she lived there.

Marriage, once almost universal in Fransfontein, is now exceedingly rare: Pauli’s survey data show that fewer than 30 percent of adults had ever been married. Among those born after 1944, the figure is less than 18 percent (p. 132). This has occurred despite the fact that marriage has been embedded within Christianity (with its supposed focus on sexual relations and reproduction within marriage) for a century, to the point where “traditional marriage” is in fact marriage within the church. Indeed, Fransfontein exemplifies many of the marriage dynamics seen elsewhere in southern Africa. Formal marriages are limited largely to an affluent elite and middle class. A large, economically precarious group of underemployed and unemployed men and women do not marry. Among the formally married population, women link their and their children’s economic fortunes to their husbands; those husbands support their nuclear family but also father children out of wedlock, often with multiple women. Unmarried women create “lateral” networks consisting of multiple (in this case, mainly sequential) lovers, from whom they seek to draw support for them and their children. Unmarried men construct “alternative masculinities” focused not on marriage but on their many lovers and children.

While some have suggested that falling marriage rates indicate the declining value and relevance of marriage, Pauli argues that the situation is quite the opposite. The rarity of marriage correlates to its high social value, and it comes at a cost that only the wealthy can afford to pay. “Weddings have gone from being a universal rite of passage to a celebration of the class distinction of a new elite” (p. 175). Most of Pauli’s book traces how this state of affairs came to be, and what its consequences are today.

The result is a book that adds substantially to the rather limited literature on southern Africa’s uniquely low marriage rates. Pauli roots the increasing exclusiveness of marriage in the Bantustan policies of apartheid-era South Africa, in which a local homeland elite was created that now seeks to perpetuate its own class distinctiveness. Mark Hunter’s Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa (2010) is probably the most similar work in terms of its subject matter and methods, although his book focuses on the HIV epidemic—a topic Pauli scarcely mentions. Like Pauli, however, Hunter notes the ability of local elites to contract formal marriages while most people are locked out of the institution due to economic precarity. Like Pauli, he focuses his study on a former Bantustan—in this case, an industrial complex that once offered a fleeting middle-class stability to those willing to work within the structures of grand apartheid. Hunter, and others before him, suggests that bridewealth inflation is a primary economic barrier to marriage. But bridewealth in Fransfontein is essentially nonexistent, as it is in other regions that also have very low rates of marriage (such as northern Namibia). Clearly other explanations are needed.

One strength of Pauli’s book is that she is able to offer a more holistic explanation for declining marriage rates, by rooting these changes broadly in a politics of distinction. Bridewealth inflation thus becomes a symptom of a broader trend: what Pauli calls “the celebration of distinction through conspicuous weddings” (p. 42). Following Pierre Bourdieu, Pauli grounds her argument in the idea of habitus, or the way a person’s lifestyle and social position are connected. Class formation and class reproduction are central to her argument, but class formation assumed distinct forms in the context of apartheid. Fransfontein, once part of the Damaraland homeland, witnessed the creation of a new kind of elite in the 1970s and 1980s. As the Bantustan system spawned multiple miniaturized state bureaucracies, apartheid “big men” who occupied the top tier of the new homeland administrations handed out the lower-status jobs—all those people needed to clean all those new government buildings, for example—to young female lovers. Some of those women became their wives; others remained lovers. An apartheid patronage system was created, and a new class of local elites emerged. At the same time, weddings became more elaborate and expensive, with pricey engagement events, special dresses for bridesmaids and groomsmen, and formal receptions where bands play while exclusive meals are served to hundreds of guests. Very few could aspire to this vision of matrimony. Marriage rates began their steep descent.

But Bourdieu has limits here. Fransfontein has not gone the way of France: the excluded do not seek to claim a modified version of bourgeois practice for themselves. No affordable version of elite marriage has emerged. “Given what’s at stake, it’s remarkable how little these marriages and class-based boundaries are contested,” Pauli writes. “Many unmarried people have accepted that they are living in a state of ‘waithood,’ waiting to marry and waiting for a better middle-class life. People unable to marry will not marry at all, rather than change the wedding ritual” (p. 188).

In some ways, the question of why this is so is central to the book—a second puzzle within the puzzle of declining marriage rates. And yet it is not a question Pauli can definitively answer. She perceptively notes that the oppressed here are not a homogenous group (presumably they are not in France, either, however). For example, a couple who dreams of an inexpensive wedding runs up against the bride’s kin group, who makes it as difficult as possible for a man to afford a wedding, imposing high costs on him at every step in order to sustain the value of marriages that do occur and the (largely hypothetical) importance of kin groups in enabling those marriages. Somehow, the universal importance of kinship networks has remained even as the universal importance of marriage has been undermined.

But there do seem to be cracks in the high value placed on marriage that Pauli does not fully explore. She opens her book with a story that demonstrates the envy unmarried women feel toward those few who manage to marry. And yet she also notes that married women, weary of their financial dependence on unfaithful husbands, often want something different for their daughters. Many unmarried women who have stable employment choose to remain single rather than have to support an unemployed husband. The contradictory ways that women in particular view marriage and the constraints it imposes on women are not fully explored. We also hear remarkably little, given that most fieldwork was carried out in 2003-4, about the impact of HIV/AIDS on ideas and practices of marriage.

Yet overall, this is a rich and valuable study, offering a nuanced and historically sensitive approach to an important question. It also underscores the importance of studying class formation in black communities under late apartheid, especially given the persistence of those class structures and high levels of inequality today.

Citation: Meredith McKittrick. Review of Pauli, Julia, The Decline of Marriage in Namibia: Kinship and Social Class in a Rural Community. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. June, 2020. URL:

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