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Mandla Mandela and the demise of traditional black culture

By Melo Magolego

A little while back in my home township of Ga-Rankuwa, just north of Pretoria, a very peculiar thing happened. A woman who had been living with her parents had, on the passing of her parents, become sole resident of the family house. Due to the vagaries of the economy, the other siblings who previously had each been living elsewhere by themselves started returning back to the family home. This resulted in low-grade warfare and caused the woman much dismay. One day while her siblings had each gone about their lives, the residents of Zone 1 were treated to a spectacle: she hired a bulldozer and razed the house to the ground. Apparently she believed if she could not enjoy the labour she had put into the house in peace then nobody else would.

This kind of tale is not unfamiliar: the cases of Redi Tlhabi and Tshepo Motsepe-Ramaphosa (wife to Cyril and sister to Patrice) each individually highlight the more storied examples. The internecine family conflict, I believe, arises because of the collision between black tradition and the changing landscape of our society.

Firstly, black families have traditionally been headed by a patriarch. Tradition (at least in my own family culture of the BaPedi) dictated that on the passing of the patriarch the eldest son became the decider and spokesperson, the youngest son the inheritor of the house and everyone else effectively a quorum. Women siblings who had been married typically did not have as strong a say as the male siblings.

The now welcome constitutional and moral inclusion of women as legitimate deciders and spokespersons has upended this tradition. I suspect it is to the above notions that Mandla was alluding when he said his aunt is married and that he had been groomed by his grandfather (that is, Mandla is eldest in male blood line). The fact that women are now rightly included in inheritance issues and family debates has created a structural problem in many black families – a problem which modern systems of governance have been slow to address.

Secondly, the hereditary and static manner in which this transference is done fails to take cognisance of the changed political configuration within the modern family. Traditionally the patriarchal superstructure had ensured that women could not be earners in the family and hence by default could be subordinated in decision-making. This has changed and simply designating that the eldest so-and-so is going to be the decider fails to take into account whether this eldest so and so has the political power to implement his decisions.

Previously the superstructure ensured this was so. The inefficiency in the transference of the patriarch’s social capital and patriarch’s genetic endowment means that there might be a more effective decider that is not correlated to age or gender within the family. Seminal feminist Simone de Beauvoir had once said (in the early 20th century) that women then were the cunning kitchen activists that they were solely because they were prevented from using their talents more productively in the court of deciding the fate of societies (unlike men who had ample opportunity to do so).

Thirdly, ancestral worship has not only been a traditional aspect of black life, it is still very much prevalent in today’s society. This is contrary to public reticence and hence the implicit rejection of this practice. For me the hushed and almost hysterical reportage about the fact that Mandla exhumed the graves at night speaks to an implicit value judgement and lack of cultural awareness. Polytheism versus monotheism is not a matter of kind but of degree. Polytheism (sacrosanct deference to ancestors in this case) is merely a matter of degree along a continuum as compared to monotheism (which it seems is more socially acceptable).

Seminal anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss, after his travels in Brazil, concluded that societies have superstitions to help them understand those things for which they lack the tools and concepts to explain otherwise. An example would be scientists at the Large Hadron Collider who might have lucky charms to will experiments to success. These are all attempts at willing the inexplicable sequence of events, which sometimes lead to success and other times failure.

The belief that graves should only be exhumed at night is not mere mysticism but is a direct product of people grappling with a mysterious universe. Other examples of this type of behaviour are the burning of incense in Catholicism and the rituals at the Hajj. You ask then, is atheism not the answer? An ancestral-driven view of life is socialised into a lot of black people. This socialisation persists because for the most part there is a dearth of convincing and universal alternative explanations for the universe. It is this persistence which guarantees that this socialisation is not a mere epiphenomenon. A failure to observe this socialisation may lead to psychosomatic disorders. I believe that the court ordering exhumation in broad daylight is a gross failure to recognise this reality for black people.

Lastly, the urbanisation of blacks and life lived in apartments poses an affront on practices such as slaughtering cows during important events. The tides of the economy often pressure people into this urban lifestyle but when slaughtering needs to happen it turns blacks into migrants.

Melo is also a Fulbright Scholar with an MSc in electrical engineering from Caltech. Twitter: melomagolego