Press "Enter" to skip to content

Sometimes culture is a load of bull

There are two main points that really get my goat about the current Ukweshwama debacle (Ukweshwama, for those who don’t know, is a traditional Zulu ceremony involving the ritualistic slaying of a bull). The first is the unbridled cruelty to the animal involved, and the second is the most widely used justification for the ritual’s ongoing existence — namely “culture”.

I’m not going to argue the first point here. Suffice to say, my own meat-eating habits will add to the complexity of my argument against the cruelty. No, I’m not conceding, I’m just not going there. Yet.

But the second point is much easier to argue. The Ukweshwama ritual has been described by many of its proponents as “an integral part of Zulu culture”. And somehow that justifies it, they say. Absurd, isn’t it?

The moment “culture” starts providing a blanket excuse for social taboos or legal infringements, we’re in big trouble. I mean, if you fancy the idea of jumping a bull with a gang of forty other men and mutilating its testicles to make you feel like a man, or you feel like doing copious amounts of hallucinogenic substances and dancing naked in the fields, or cutting your neighbour’s scalp off because he trespassed on your property, then say so. Take your argument to court, and enjoy being laughed at. Well, mostly …

But for goodness’ sake, don’t say it’s your right because you’re a Zulu, or a hippie, or a Native American. We could have a field day with that sort of cultural carte blanche. I could decide that defecating on the pavement is a facet of my culture. Would you want to share the country with me?

It also serves to mention here that not all people of Zulu descent are too worried about their Zulu identity being lost because they didn’t maul a bull somewhere along the way. None of my young male Zulu friends have done it, to my knowledge. I also never really see modern Zulu men insisting too vehemently on sleeping in a beehive hut. People move on, cultures progress. Well, mostly …

And please don’t argue that because the tradition has existed for a long period of time that it suddenly qualifies as an untouchable cultural expression. We could pick out all sorts of choice “cultural” nuggets from the past and regurgitate them in that case. How about royal family incest from the Egyptians (culture doesn’t go back much further than that)? I picture the following hypothetical scenario with a mixture of amusement and disdain: during the glory days of the British royal family, it somehow gets revealed that Princess Diana has Egyptian lineage. Princess Diana and her son William announce to the world that they intend to get it on and produce offspring (insert appropriate banjo music here), because it’s “their culture”. Sounds pretty ridiculous, doesn’t it?

To clarify, I’m not here to argue the merits or demerits of animal cruelty, drug use, scalping, defecating on pavements, incest, or any other taboo. What I’m saying is that regardless of whether they are right or wrong or fall into a grey area, the notion that issues can be justified because they’re cultural norms for a particular group is ludicrous.

So ludicrous in fact, that me being the ludicrous chap I am, am now quite keen to adopt it as I write this. Thus, should I find my neighbour, for example, beating the crap out of an animal and gouging its eyes out for no reason other than looking good in his community, I will be inclined to beat the crap out of him in return. Because it’s my culture.


  • Bernard Allen

    Bernard Allen is passionate about justice, logic, humour, and the arts.