Reader Blog
Reader Blog

Our diverse cultural heritage defies the stereotype, let’s keep it that way

By Busani Ngcaweni

It was January 2000. Heavy rains in the north-eastern parts of KwaZulu-Natal were causing mayhem for rural communities and across the border in neighbouring Mozambique where search-and-rescue teams from the South African National Defence Force were in full force.

Apart from the environmental and livelihoods impact of these heavy rains in this relatively poor part of southern Africa, health problems loomed large. Because of the subtropical climate and topographic features (vast flat lands), the region is a malaria hotspot. Commercial farmers and development agencies call this place Makhathini Flats. Locals call it Mhlabuyalingana (the land is level — owing to vast flat lands and indigenous trees of same height). Besides lush bushes, predators, swamps and sand dunes, only the colonial border and inconsequential language varieties separate communities between Mhlabuyalingana and Mozambique.

I spent two weeks in this place doing research on behalf of Monsanto. The research firm I worked for thought we would be able to collect data on farming practices in the fertile region which Monsanto needed in order to expand its business in the area. Monsanto was convincing local small-holder famers to adopt its genetically modified seeds for maize and cotton arguing that the people of Makhathini Flats needed more cash crops like cotton in order to increase their yields and therefore reduce poverty.

I had a team of field workers who crisscrossed villages from Pongola Dam, Obonjeni and Kwangwanase collecting data on farming practices and preferences. Our assignment was on a tight budget and schedule so we had to defy the swamps, mud and ignore malaria sufferers in order to get data and get out of that unfamiliar territory as soon as possible. We were too young to comprehend the political economy of the area and the ultimate negative net effect of application of the data we were collecting. But we had work and could explore various parts of the country as researchers.

Three things fascinated our curious minds: all of them being an inseparable part of South Africa’s heritage.

One: locals told us how cars stolen in South Africa made free passage through this area next to the Ndumo Game Reserve into Mozambique.

Two: we woke up at midnight to peep through the windows hoping to see tokoloshe (zombies) and baboons associated with witchcraft. After all, Mhlabuyalingana is renowned for great izinyanga (healers) and abathakathi (witches). We were enthralled by the prospect of witnessing the legendary tokoloshe. Alas!

Three: it was our real first encounter with isithembu (polygamy) at close range.

It is the last two that I am recalling here.

Mr Dlakadla (not his real name), in whose homestead we lodged, was 39 years old. He had six wives. The youngest was a niece of the first. The story was that his in-laws arranged this marriage as part of thanking him for being such a good son in-law. He had 19 children and was expecting his 20th whose birth would coincide with this 40th birthday, so he claimed. He seemed tantalised by this tale.

In the hours we spent in the Dlakadla homestead and the neighbourhood, we learned of legendary stories of polygamy and witchcraft.

Many of the high school girls we interacted with told us, like their older sisters, aunts and mothers, that they expected to transit to motherhood in their early twenties. Tertiary education did not feature much in their aspirations.

In a focus-group interview one could not help but frown at the general nod when a participant answered: “Farming is important to me but I always pray that when they pay lobola for me, I must be the first one otherwise if he already has other women, they must accept me and love me like their younger sister. I hope that don’t cast some evil spell on me so I have bad luck and struggle to have children.” (Tone might have changed after 15 years of that interview.)

How could it be, I asked myself. How can a matriculant in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa be preoccupied with marriage and coexistence with senior wives? I had known of polygamy from my Inanda neighbourhood, which is dominated by polygamous Shembe congregants. But in my pedestrian mind, it never occurred that such could be the existential preoccupation of young school-going girls.

In fact I know it was not. After all, we grew up together and none of this ever arose in my community.

Observing palpable bewilderment, Dlakadla’s teenage daughter simple laughed at me. She had a beautiful yet cheeky smile. She didn’t say much in the focus groups. Word had it that she was a bookworm and her father demanded she read stories to her siblings. That too sent me into some grey zone. Too many story-lines that didn’t immediately connect.

Leap to Heritage Month of September 2015.

As fate would have it, flying to Cape Town last week, I sat next to a suited lady on the national carrier. After a minor confusion about who was to sit where, we settled. Ice was broken by this confusion and so a conversation followed, starting with common disgust at the national carrier’s decision to serve kiddies-like snacks instead of hot meals without altering the ticket price.

Save the inconsequential details. She told me she came from Mhlabuyalingana and worked as a banking lawyer in a big firm in Sandton. I knew she was from KwaZulu-Natal because she gave me her clan name instead of her surname. I have lived in Joburg long enough to know not to expect such from a Sowetan. In Jozi you can date someone for many months without even knowing their surname. It is part of the heritage of the migrant labour system.

Like those colonial, self-affirming Eurocentric anthropologists, I would then claim my vast knowledge of Mhlabuyalingana, regaling her with memories of my time in the area. I volunteered the name of the hardworking smallholder who tilled his corn and cotton fields all day and tended to his livestock in between. Dlakadla was a great guy, I concluded, wondering what became of him and Monsanto’s dangerous escapades.

She smiled, exclaiming “Are you that researcher guy from Durban who was scared of mosquitoes? The guy who was questioning my father about the logic of farming cotton where there were other profitable crops?”

Damn it’s a small world!

She turned out to be the bookworm who read to her siblings. She and few of the girls from that interview passed matric and got government loans to study at university. She is now a proud lawyer in Sandton. She is still single, she said tenderly. “I have overstayed my welcome in the age of singletons according to my community’s standard,” she continued. How could that be, I pondered. She is a maritime lawyer in an industry dominated by males.

Back at Mhlabuyalingana, she narrated, Dlakadla was still going strong tilling the land and raising his children with five of his wives. One had died a few years ago. She’d been attacked by a predator that had escaped from the game reserve. It is not clear which animal attacked her as she was collecting grass for the grass mats she and the other older wives weaved.

I asked about those hot subjects of polygamy and umuthi. She didn’t say much about the latter say for a spoof that she could send lighting to burn my house if I told a lie or robbed her. About polygamy, she believed the matter was not well understood in South Africa especially by urban people and those educated to believe in western modernity, which promotes a Judeo-Christian culture and shuts out cultural practices like polygamy. She asked why it was not an issue in Muslim communities, where it is also practiced.

This was of course a fascinating discussion as it defied the very influence of urbanism and education that she was talking about. She spoke proudly of her heritage, her many siblings and mothers who loved them all and encouraged them as children. She told of her loving father who treated everybody equally and wanted his children to go to school. Everything defied the stereotype.

Unfortunately two hours was not enough for this conversation. With the help of social media, it shall surely be continued.

For some this is not a typical South African story. It is an oddity occurring in the margins of patriarchy, whereas for others there is nothing new really.

As we observe Heritage Day this week, or King Shaka Day as my companion insisted on calling it, we are reminded of the need to be tolerant and understanding, to recommit to the project of building a culturally diverse but united South Africa.

We should set aside our prejudices and engage in conversations that promote nation-building instead of disunity, which often results from judging and looking down upon people’s cultural backgrounds.

Like the mighty Nile River, South Africa is made up of many tributaries giving life to our heritage, meaning to the present and a path to the future.

Busani Ngcaweni is a co-editor of the forthcoming book Nelson Mandela: Decolonial Ethics of Liberation and Servant Leadership to be published by Africa World Press.

Tags: , , , ,

  • Heritage Day: What’s wrong with this picture?
  • The things we do in the name of transformation
  • Celebrating our heritage beyond braais and traditional outfits
  • What good is tradition if we lose a penis?