Unraveling Ukutwala: Untangling Modern Distortions and Its Intersection with Human Trafficking

Discover the ancient tradition of Ukutwala with Mam Ngobese, a Zulu cultural expert, as we examine its distortion in modern times and its link to Human Trafficking. Join us to gain valuable insights into this practice and its potential impact on Modern Day Slavery. Let’s combat exploitation together and empower a world where freedom prevails – welcome to Free To Fly podcasts.

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Welcome back to our Free To Fly podcasts. Free To Fly is a faith-based organization dedicated to combating Human Trafficking and Exploitation. Today, we have the privilege of interviewing Mam Ngobese who is a Zulu cultural expert. Throughout this discussion, we will explore the cultural practise of Ukutwala, how it has been distorted by modern-day practice and how this intersects with the issue of Human Trafficking. By taking the time to learn more about Ukutwala, we can equip ourselves with valuable knowledge concerning this tradition and its potential implications for Modern Day Slavery. Let’s dive in and explore this important topic together.


IntervieweeMam Ngobese, from the Nomkhubulwane Culture and youth development organization

InterviewerAmanda Mdhluli

List of AcronymsAM: Amanda Mdhluli


AM: Welcome to the Free To Fly podcast. For those of you who don’t know, Free To Fly is an anti-human trafficking organization located in South Africa, and we help fight child trafficking. With us today, our guest is a cultural expert and a cultural activist. Today, we will be talking about Ukutwala. So today, we are shedding light on Ukutwala and what it is. Sawubona Mam Ngobese

Mam Ngobese: How are you?

AM: We are good, we are good. I just want you to please introduce yourself, what you do, and how you became an activist so that our listeners have a better understanding of your work, passion, and why you are a cultural activist.

Mam Ngobese: Yes, I’m Dr. Nomagugu Ngobese from the Nomkhubulwane Culture and youth development organization. I am passionate about the upbringing of the girl child. It is relevant today due to issues like rape and human trafficking. If you don’t have any belonging to a special group, they find themselves of becoming vulnerable to trafficking, rape and abuse. It is so vertile that victims of human trafficking are killed after they’ve been lost from their homes. I’ve been working on this for approximately 30 years now. When it comes to Ukutwala people who were doing research have distorted the things concerning our culture. If a boy is in love with a girl, and if he doesn’t have cows for lobola, they organise it with the boy and the woman for Ukutwala – it was an organised thing between lovers.

AM: What is Ukutwala in its essence in the Zulu culture.

Mam Ngobese: Ukutwala was a thing done by people in love when a boy does not have any Lobola. Ukutwala was originally done by people who were in love and committed to each other. Both parties agreed to the process early in the morning. The groom’s family would go to the bride’s family and formal negotiations would be made. It was a well-prepared and organized process, not what it’s being distorted into today. People who abuse this practice for their own benefit, especially targeting young girls, are committing a crime and should be imprisoned. Ukutwala should never involve non-consensual or exploitative relationships.

AM: That’s a crucial distinction to make. Now, in pre-colonial times, was Ukutwala part of African tradition?

Mam Ngobese: Yes, Ukutwala was a part of life back then. It was a known practice, but it had different meanings and was not abusive or exploitative as we see today. Because if a boy or lover had no cows, and sometimes there were many suitors, so it was an act of love between two people who genuinely cared for each other and their families were involved in the process.

AM: So Ukutwala was not done without the woman’s consent. It was always between lovers, or two people who had a common interest and an understanding.

Mam Ngobese: Exactly.

AM: How is Ukutwala carried out when it is done correctly?   

Mam Ngobese: Many years ago a girl would take a calabash to fetch water – while they were there, things were organised by the boy and the girl. Or sometimes when they went to fetch firewood in the veld.

AM: Did they run away together, or what actually happened when they met up at the river or to collect wood?

Mam Ngobese: They organise that. The boy’s brothers would go straight to the lovers family house. So, it was organised – as opposed to these days when people talk about Ukutwala as being common and everyday. In fact, a new name to be given to that practice as it is not what it was meant to be. Where someone just grabs a girl child to further their own interest and they are being killed there. It is not Ukutwala. In fact, Ukutwala was distorted – people were doing research and said “they are against”. The CRL should sit down with us and we should talk about it. People are distorting our things It was a good thing, but today people they loose their cellphone, they reside over this things. Women are killed over and over again, by their lovers. We know the story, every time some women are killed. Because this lover thing it goes without others, the rituals are not done proper. While our spiritual beings are becoming annoyed – so one person is hurt one way or the other. People are saying they are transforming – but to me you can’t change

AM: I see. Now, let’s discuss the gender roles in Ukutwala. There are cases where a mother may disagree with her daughter being married off, but the men in the family may insist. What happens in such situations?

Mam Ngobese: Such situations are relatively new and shouldn’t be happening at all. Love and consent should always be at the heart of any relationship. If both parties disagree, it means there is no freedom of love.

AM: What about the case of Ukutwala where the girl doesn’t know the guy – she’s never met him. Usually in these cases it’s a young girl who is a teenager and she’s being married off to a man who is well into his 40s and is much older than her. What happens in this situation.

Mam Ngobese: That situation should not happen. As I told you – that is not our culture at all. That is criminality. Those people must be imprisoned. We should never force a child into marriage, especially with a significant age difference, as that’s harmful and criminal.

AM: A lot of these recent cases of Ukutwala involves old men who take advantage of women or families that are poor and they specifically want the young girl. They are not going to go for the older one – they usually ask for the one who is still in school, who still has some sort of innocence.   These are the most recent cases of harmful practices that is disguised as Ukutwala that people practice:  that’s what they use in court. They tell the judge – this is my culture – I am allowed to do this.

Mam Ngobese: NO! No! That is crime – that is abuse. This is a new thing which is being transformed into something so horrible.  Looking back 100 years ago, our people, our ancestors, had love. They built their homes harmoniously, communionally – it was good. What they have transformed it to is not about our culture – it is abuse, and they need to be imprisoned.   That is why I said it must be given a new name to those who are doing those nasty things – abusing a girl child. That is not our culture.

AM: That’s a crucial point to address. Now, considering recent cases of Ukutwala involving young girls and older men, do you believe there should be a specific age considered suitable for marriage in African standards?

Mam Ngobese: There is no specific age suitable for marriage in African standards. Marriage depends on your luck if you are to be married. Not all people are designed for marriage. A child must grow, must be educated, must enjoy their youthfulness – there’s a lot of things, so she becomes a responsible adult in the future. But if they come very early to abuse the child it is done like that. By who? There were no ‘schools’ before – there were home schools where a child was taught – a boy child as well as a girl child. Marriage should be about maturity, love, and consent between two individuals. Abusing culture to marry off young girls to older men is a crime and should be condemned. We need to focus on protecting the rights of children and ensuring their well-being rather than justifying harmful practices with cultural arguments.

AM: Exactly. So, in conclusion, do you think we should stop the practice of Ukutwala altogether or focus on punishing those who abuse the culture for their own selfish gains?

Mam Ngobese: We should absolutely stop the abusive practices of Ukutwala. It is not a true reflection of our culture and goes against the principles of love and consent. Those who exploit and abuse this practice for their own benefit should be punished – They must be jailed.   The place for them is in prison because they are sealing the life of that particular girl.   We talk about 2 people falling in love, so if they abuse the creation of love which was created for this special purpose by the creator, they must go to jail.

AM: The process of Ukutwala doesn’t just involve the guy, it also involves his family and the girl’s family. What punishment do you think they deserve because they are the ones who are agreeing to give away the child.  The child wouldn’t go anywhere if they said no. So, what punishment do you think they deserve.

Mam Ngobese: The perpetrators must be dealt with – whether it’s the mother or the father, because it has to do with the life of this child:  someone who has done wrong things must be punished so he or she cannot continue with it anymore.  If we take these things lightly it is the same as doing nothing. As Christians, as indigenous people of this country – or any religion across the world, an evil act must be stopped.

AM:  What do you think can be done by the community, especially communities in rural areas. Are communities doing enough to protect these girls from this harmful practice.

Mam Ngobese: There are many contributors to this, religion being one of them. People have turned to be individualistic; they have changed. They have lost their sense of identity and what they have grabbed is something that is killing the whole society. Even iNkosi (Chefs) they have lost their morals and values. We must have workshops that teach the boy child things.  

AM:  What can be done to ensure that communities and people are united against these issues – to fight the abuse of the practice of Ukutwala.

Mam Ngobese: Its visiting schools, visiting communities – we must revive these things. We need to orientate people.

AM:  So to sum up what you are saying – people must be brought back to their own culture.  The must learn about their own roots – who they really are.  We need to make a way for people to discover themselves because they are getting lost and don’t have a sense of direction.

Mam Ngobese: When was studying in the university of Natal I discovered that when they are teaching Zulu they taught it in English. How does a learner learn their language when they are taught in another language. There is a lot that must be changed.  

AM: Thank you, Mam Ngobese, for taking the time to do this interview with us and sharing a bit on this important topic of Ukutwala.  The way it is done today is not the normal practice – its people who take our culture and its practices and they make it ‘dirty’’ – that was never really the culture.



Dear friends and key stakeholders. Thank you for joining us on today’s podcast. Our aim and heart for these podcasts is to raise awareness about human trafficking, and to highlight the atrocity of this crime is to humanity. A reminder that human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry, which is sadly the fastest growing worldwide and second biggest crime after drugs. It is far more organized than many care to believe. We invite you to join hands in fighting against human trafficking. Follow us on our social media pages at freetofly.org.za  on Instagram and on Facebook. Forward slash free to fly Zed a do check out our website at www.freetofly.org.za to sign up to be a volunteer or donate towards the building and running of our safe house for children who have come out of human trafficking. For those of you who do not know free to fly is an organization that is currently starting up the first safe house in South Africa for children who have been rescued from human trafficking. Our heart is to run a holistic, trauma informed survivor informed program that will facilitate this journey of healing. Please follow our journey on our website. Till next time, take care and be sure to share and listen out for the next podcast. Thanks friends. Friends to fly can’t be held liable about the content of our podcast.