Umtheto ka Sokisi: the original gaymarriage

Gold miners, Johannesburg, South Africa, photo by Margaret Bourke Smith
stolen from here.

Many people think that the idea of gay-marriage or gay relationships is new in my part of the world (Southern Africa). The truth is, though, that there is a long history of same-sex relationships that precedes today’s ‘modern’ (sometimes heavily Western-inspired) gay identities. Not only does this history help to shake the idea that African sexuality is and has always been strictly heterosexual, it also “contribute[s] to our understanding of how cultural change around intimate personal life occurs in relation to the global political economy”. In other words, we are reminded that our intimate and sexual lives are not fixed through time. As our economic and political circumstances change, so too does the way we organize our intimacy and sexuality. Mine marriages are a great example of just how quickly and dramatically our intimate lives can adapt to our circumstances.

In the late 1800s gold had just been discovered on the Witwatersrand and Diamonds had been discovered in Kimberley. Big players in diamond mining such as De Beers emerged and implemented the closed-compound system to control their labourers – effectively imprisoning miners for the duration of their contracts and consequently keeping them away from women. Though on the Witwatersrand, men were allowed to move freely in and out of gold mines, police and native administrators kept women and children away from the growing settlements around the mines. (In 1896, for instance, there were 90 known Tsonga women in the Johannesburg area, compared to about 30,000 Tsonga men.) Beyond that, migrant miners on the Witwatersrand were fearful of venereal disease (particularly syphilis) from town women, and violence from gangs of local men. So, having only limited access to women because of their circumstances (and also their fears), miners looked towards other men for intimacy and sex.

“The practice of taking boys or youth as temporary wives quickly became the norm, or at least unremarkable in this context. But people often like to put a name and a face to big changes to help understand them better. And so it is that oral history refers to one man in particular who popularised the practice – Sokisi or Ishe (Lord) Socks. Sokisi was a Tsonga migrant working at a Brakpan mine in the early 1890s. He so preferred izinkotshane [boy-wives] that a new exprssion entered the language in his honour. Umteto ka Sokisi, meaning ‘Sokisi rules’ or ‘the rules of mine marriage’, was a code of conduct that defined the precise kinds of behaviour that were allowed between males in a sexual relationship in the mine hostels. They prohibited anal penetration, for example, in favour of between-the-thighs sex. As in male-female hlobonga [thigh-sex], the rules stated that the inkotshane had to remain passive and could not reciprocate the sex act; in other words, only the husband could enjoy an orgasm. The wife, sometimes called nsati (which literally meant woman or wife) or umfaan (young boy), also performed other feminine duties such as cooking and fetching water and firewood. Over time, the males who filled this role even became feminised in appearance, for example, by adopting feminine dress, wearing false breasts made of coconut shells, putting on scent and keeping well shaven.”

The mine marriages were similar to ‘traditional’ marriage in various ways besides the obviously gendered allocation of sexual and domestic roles. A lobola-like payment was often delivered to the wife’s family before the marriage. Men would court potential wives and these potential wives would, for the most part, enter willingly into a mine-marriage. “Dances, feasts and wedding processions added to the sense of fun that was otherwise so lacking in the bleak environment of the industrial compounds.”

So there it is – gaymarriage began not in Cape Town, but Brakpan, and not with some debonairly Dutch seamen, but our very own tantalizingly Tsonga Sokisi. Sokisi was so bitchin’ that when his king, Gungunyana, ordered his return to Mozambique in order to punish him for his infamy, Sokisi decided instead to rename his principal inkotshane Sonile, after Gungunyana’s principal wife.

Written from Epprecht, M. 2008. Unspoken Facts: a history of homosexualities in Africa. Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ)


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