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Culture can and does change

The words custom, culture and tradition are often invoked to shut down debate and discussion instead of used as a meaningful way of explaining a practice, belief or to understand historical events or legacies. The furore surrounding the feast and celebration known as Ukweshwama has raised some interesting points about the sanctity of culture and practices that some may find disgusting. During Ukweshwama a bull is ritually killed more or less by being beaten to death and having its neck broken. I do not wish to offer a direct opinion on the actual practice and I think that the current media debate is hyperbolic in the least and perhaps a little dishonest from both perspectives.

I wish to start with some comments on these terms. Culture has nothing to do with refinement or the high arts or even ritual acts or custom in an immediate meaningful manner. It is simply the way in which people understand and create the web of meanings that surround them. Cultures are not bounded entities that can be pinned down and said this is the essence of being Zulu etc. All cultures flow into one another and in a mediated world in which we live in there is more cultural sharing than ever before. South Africans (and even Canadians like me) do share some common culture through which we create meaning in this world. As such we can all deride or comment on ritual acts and perhaps in doing so we can learn something about one another and engage in a meaningful dialogue.

All tradition is invented. This can be taken as trite and to mean anyone can just make something up and claim it as their culture, but that is not quite accurate in the way in which this is supposed to be meaningful. New practices (even traditions) are invented within a greater context of belief systems and worldview.

Ukweshwama is not a timeless tradition of the Zulus. It has been revitalised after an absence of many years. This of course does not mean there is no tradition involved, but that the contemporary practice is much changed from its original context of a war ceremony to strengthen a regiment before battle. The very violence was integral to a group of people about to go out and commit violence.

The people that are contesting the ceremony have done little to learn something about the larger set of Zulu beliefs that inform the ceremony and the ritual slaughter. What cattle mean for the Zulu people as well as the role played by the ancestors is poorly understood if at all. Despite the advent of Christianity the ancestors play an important role in contemporary Zulu society. Depending on which family the role and significance is different and not always a form of direct ancestor worship as often depicted. Even an atheist Zulu still remembers ancestors and acknowledges a role they play once they have passed away — that role can be the teachings or deeds performed during life, to more direct intervention in life as a ghostly presence, to interceding with God the way the saints are seen to by Catholics.

Cattle are more than meat, they are symbolic creatures that can signify family ties, growth and prosperity and still play an important role even for many city dwellers who never actually own cattle who still calculate bride price (lobola) in relation to cost of a cow. They are ritually slaughtered at funerals and remembrance ceremonies the year after death often called ukubuyisa idlozi — come back ancestor — which is my favourite ceremony. This is where the deceased crosses over from the living to the dead and joins other deceased ancestors. The ceremony is used to mark the end of their journey from the living to the dead and where the ancestor is beseeched to help the living and is usually ten months to a year after death. It is a wonderful celebration of the man’s life and what he accomplished. The mourning is over and it is a happy ceremony often with lots of beer and of course meat from the cattle slaughtered. I am a little off track in revere, but the point is that the importance of the ancestors and the past intersects with the role and symbolic meanings of the cattle.

To simply deride a ceremony and say it must be done away with as it is cruel and to note that cultures can change is to miss the point a little. Culture can and does change and is always a dynamic “thing”, but its dynamism is constrained by those other webs of meaning and the larger worldview that informs its ritual expression.

So if you wish to see and end to the brutal drawn-out death of a cow then perhaps a more nuanced call is needed. First of all Ukweshwama is not that common a ceremony and in most places does not happen at all. It seems to be restricted to an annual event held by the king. The ritual killing is only part of the event, so to call for an end to Ukweshwama is misplaced as the ritual killing is but part of the event. Why not a dialogue about the way in which the bull is killed? A stab in the jugular with an assegai works quickly and is respectful to the ancestors and to custom. I have done this myself with Zulu friends and it ends in seconds. It is very similar to halal or kosher butchering practices.

For the supporters of the killing perhaps they can avoid a knee-jerk reaction that claims no-one other than Zulu can comment. Perhaps they can try and explain why it is done and do so with a little honest retrospection and acknowledge that there are other valid ways to kill a bull. And Ukweshwama used to be a far different ceremony with many other parts that are not performed today. If those parts can change then why not the way in which the bull is killed?

Invoking tradition and culture as essences or things that cannot change are the very same discourses used by the far right to justify violence and xenophobia against those deemed different. No person should be silenced over this no matter their stance on the topic. No cultural norm or standard is to take precedence over another. Culture and cultural change comes from dialogue and debate and external influences can affect change if it is done with some sense and respect. The animal rights group has failed to do so through their court action.

Why not send a delegation to the king to discuss the ritual? This could have resulted in meaningful change. As it looks now the ritual will be performed in all its violence for time to come to prove a point. And for that we are all the worse off and understand one another that much less.


  • Michael Francis

    I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.