Article by: Chuck Stephens, first published on City Press.

Where did this phenomenon of “blessees” come from? Is it the feminist echo to polygamy? Was it prompted?

Surely polyandry – the female version of polygamy – is illegal in South Africa? But then again, so is prostitution, but no one prosecutes sex workers any more, do they?

This shocking phenomenon has to be contextualised

First, unemployment rates are higher in South Africa today than they were during the Great Depression in the US.

And among young people, unemployment figures are most horrendous of all – 48%. That is one out of two.

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As men tend to have the edge in the job market, a guestimate is that this may be a lower 40% among young men and a higher 60% among young women.

Never mind buying groceries or paying the rent. Where do young men find money for lobola?

It must be a long and arduous wait to fulfil this traditional dream, one cow at a time. Meanwhile, the young women are kept waiting. Where can they go for some extra cash flow?

Second, the rise of the middle class has been a feature of the first two decades of democracy.

The number of wealthy black people is probably on a par now with the number of white people, who were already wealthy.

Who lures whom? And does it really matter?

That’s where the capital has accumulated – although more black people by far are poor and unemployed, and young. So most of the surpluses sit with older men.

Such conditions are ideal for “blessers” to emerge, older married men with a “seven-year itch”.

Poverty is denser among young people, especially young women. The stage is set for temptation. The question is, who lures whom? And does it really matter?

The point is that when blessees and blessers hook up, the authentic tradition of polygamy is conjoined with the imposter, polyandry, because blessees also have relationships with several men at once, who are often older and already married.

This is by no means traditional. It is a case of gender parity gone crazy. It ushers in a new world of polyamorous relationships.

Poverty is denser among young people, especially young women. The stage is set for temptation

Sadly, the young men are getting squeezed out. First of all, half of them are unemployed and unable to pay for even the first lobola cow.

In one case recently reported in the media, a young man’s father even seduced his son’s girlfriend to become one of her blessers!

They will take more than one blessee if they can afford it. Surpluses of wealth are thus linked with the highest density of poverty.

There is a silent casualty: lobola

Young men can’t afford to pay it and older, wealthier men don’t have enough time to wait around until all those cows have been paid for. They want instant gratification.

Young men, don’t believe your girlfriend when she says that she is going to Moria for the weekend. She is really going away for a wild weekend with her blesser. She will even ask you for the bus fare to Moria, then use it for more vodka while she cheats on you.

Lobola is even becoming a scam for lonely foreigners who want to marry a local woman as families are taking lobola from more than one man. Foreigners who have no way to check are paying lobola for young women who have already had children. The kids are hidden in a relative’s home so that the maximum number of cows can be obtained. The foreigners are told that she was never married, while the fathers of those hidden children live nearby, undeclared and undetected.

What can be done? Lower lobola to fewer cows? Charge less per cow?

Or just abandon customary marriage and go for a common law (informal civil) or church (formal civil) marriage?

The knock-on effect is already evident – more teenage pregnancies, more single mums, more girls leaving school, more social grants and more suicides.

Not to mention more transmission of HIV (the riskiest behaviour of all is multiple sex partners). Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi was right to declare war on blessers.

Never mind buying groceries or paying the rent. Where do young men find money for lobola?

In Sweden and other countries, reducing prostitution only works when you punish the men who pay.

But they are not the only problem – blessees are also a serious threat to public health and polyamorous relationships are a nightmare scenario at the epicentre of the AIDS pandemic.

Cry, beloved lobola, that traditional hedge fund against misconduct. If she misbehaved, her husband could return her and ask for a refund.

If he mistreated her, her family could take her back and withhold a portion of the lobola. But fathers and uncles don’t want to be elders any more; it’s more fun to be blessers.

This article was first published on City Press.

About the Author: Chuck Stephens is executive director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership