But male relatives rarely agree to such things, trapping many KwaZulu-Natal women in unhappy marriages.
"When I'm thinking deeply about my situation, sometimes that dream of being a pilot comes back," Nonkululeko said. "It makes me feel like a failure in life."
Mandla Mandela, a traditional chief, ruling lawmaker and grandson of Nelson Mandela, the country's first post-apartheid president, belittled activist Ngubane in a 2010 parliamentary hearing when she drew attention to bride abductions, saying that her understanding of culture had been "adulterated" by Western notions.
"When you are going to discuss culture, do not even try to bring in white notions, as such an approach will turn things upside down," he said.
But Mandela also said the girl eventually must agree to the marriage before it is consummated, speaking of victims as "someone's daughter" and equating raping a girl to stealing her father's cows. He said cultural laws forbid a man who abducts a bride to have sex with her.
"By entering her, you have then violated her father's cattle. Back home in Thembuland, we beat you to your death if you touch a girl in this way," he told the hearing. The abducted girl he said, has a right to reject the marriage and return home.
But victims say it doesn't work that way.
Jabulile, whose name means "happiness," grew up in an unhappy family in rural KwaZulu-Natal. When her father died, her mother was "inherited" by the dead man's brother and spent days weeping. A month later, at 15, Jabulile was abducted by four men, one of whom wanted her as a wife. She was taken to a forest, beaten, raped, made to drink a "love potion" and forced into marriage with the man, who was eight years older.
"I was crying, I was shocked, I was shaking like a leaf," the now 28-year-old said.
Jabulile's brothers reported her abduction to the police.
"The police said they didn't want to involve themselves because by screaming and saying, 'No, no, no," girls mean, 'Yes, yes, yes,'" Jabulile said. Her uncles swiftly accepted a payment of eight cows.
In 2010, Ngubane, the activist, conducted a workshop in an isolated area of KwaZulu-Natal, hoping women would share their experience of being forced to leave school because of bride abduction. But the issue is so sensitive that they denied it ever happened.
"For a whole month, it did not come out. The whole group said they did not know anyone who was dropping out of school. Then women opened up. They said, 'It happened to me.'"
Like Nonkululeko, Jabulile has been forced to have sex countless times by her husband over the years.
"I never wanted it, not even once." She didn't realize that under South African law it's illegal for a man to force his wife to have sex against her will.
"I didn't know," she said, after a long pause. "I always see myself as being in the wrong, because I am married to him.
"I don't love him. I am staying with him because he turned me into the wreck I am now. He took my virginity and made me into what I don't want to be."
In the first legal breakthrough in such cases, a 15-year-old girl pressed rape charges against a man who abducted her in March 2011. (It was the second time she had been abducted as a bride. The first time, when she was 13, she managed to run away.)
Her grandmother, Thulelene Mbhense, 60, said the girl was abducted on her way to school and held for weeks. She said a police supervisor brushed off the case, telling the family the girl must have been badly brought up and promiscuous.
Mbhense went to the village where the girl was being held, walked into the abductor's house and saw her granddaughter sitting with the man.
"I said, 'Let's go home,'" Mbhense said.
Last year, her abductor was convicted of rape and sentenced to six years in prison.
But as with Jabulile, the news that thwala followed by forced sex is a crime hasn't reached all the remote villages of KwaZulu-Natal.
Nonkululeko sometimes sees a new girl from another village brought to a man's house in her area. Cows are sent to the girl's family and she becomes a "wife," but without the usual wedding festivities.
No one states it openly, but everyone knows she has been abducted.
"The problem is as women, we don't want to talk about these things," Nonkululeko said. "It's a disgrace and as women we are not allowed to take disgraceful stuff out of our houses."
Nonkululeko bowed her head and wept silently.
"I like my name," she said. "But I don't see democracy."