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Culture schmulture — some things are just wrong

The Zulu practice of Ukweshwama is violent and inhumane. For those who haven’t been keeping up with the comments around this practice this is what happens: Witnesses to the ritual describe the scene where a bull is released into a group of men, whose duty it then is to slay the animal. However, this is not a simple quick wrist flip slitting of the throat, but instead is a drawn-out activity which causes the animal a great deal of trauma and suffering. The scene described involves many men attempting to break the neck of the bull by pulling on its horns, trying to tie the penis of the bull in a knot, pulling out the animal’s tongue and stuffing its mouth with sand.

The difficulty in critiquing culture is that it is presented to us as something immutable and a-historical, and thus it appears as if there is nothing we can do to change it. The practice I am describing is described as part of a ritual that transfers power from the bull to the men involved in its slaughter. It is also believed to create unity among the 40 or so men involved in the attack, and thus create unity in the kingdom over all. This sounds like a scary piece of patriarchal rhetoric if I’ve ever heard one, and one that we should be more worried about in South Africa in particular. There is no need for men to show that they are men through violence. There is no need for group acts of violence to become the foundation by which we build a nation’s unity. There can be other ways — there are other ways.

Culture is not immune to change. Those who present it as such are obviously trying to protect a very particular set of interests. This applies to all instances where violence, murder, massacre, abuse etc are explained using any culture as an explanation. It is never an explanation. We make up our culture by the multitude of individual and shared acts that we participate in every day. In being part of a culture we should not lose our ability to distinguish between right and wrong, but should find that our culture reinforces our decisions.

When things are justified in the name of culture the lines between wrong and right seem to blur as those who would be critical step back for fear of being branded as unsupportive of South Africa’s diverse cultural heritage. The South African Constitution protects culture and tradition out of respect for these differences. The decision to use a human rights-based framework has in some cases come up against difficulty as the notion of what an abuse of rights is, seems far from decided upon. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we should do nothing.


  • Jen Thorpe

    Jennifer is a feminist, activist and advocate for women's rights. She has a Masters in Politics from Rhodes University, and a Masters in Creative Writing from UCT. In 2010 she started a women's writing project called 'My First Time'. It focuses on women's stories of significant first time experiences. Buy the book on the site or via Modjaji Books. Jen's first novel, The Peculiars, came out in February 2016 and is published by Penguin. Get it in good book stores, and on