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Ukweshwama: What is all this bull?

The Scramble for Africa which began in the 1880s has been largely blamed for disrupting and eroding the cultural practices and traditions of Africans. Africans have maintained that colonialism and imperialism served to entrench Western values while undermining their way of life. The rise of African nationalism since the end of colonisation imbued those who saw modernity as a threat to their culture to actively guard against external influences on their way of life. Often these cultural extremists were not able to draw a clear distinction between the progressions of humanity as a result of technological impact and modernity and deliberate acts that serve to undermine the African way of life.

The technological superiority of the Western is often misinterpreted as suggesting cultural superiority over Africans to the extent that Africans themselves reject modernity in other instances as they perceive that to be undermining their culture. The problem also lies with Westernised Africans who reject African culture in favour of Western values and religion and are unable to appreciate the richness of their own culture while continuously redefining certain traditional practices as humanity evolves and the world around changes.

It is perhaps important to attempt to define what “culture” is as opposed to “tradition” as it has become apparent that some cultural extremists are unable to see the difference. Culture itself primarily refers to the value system and shared attitudes that characterise a group of people or society, their human expression and the way in which they perceive and interpret the nature of the world around them.

Cultural practices have a particular meaning that speaks to the values we embrace as a people. The content and meaning of culture as projected through certain practices should never change nor be compromised but the tradition through which such cultural meaning or values find expression does evolve. Tradition ensures continuity of culture and its transmission from one generation to the next and with each generation certain traditional practices which are considered archaic and irrelevant will ordinarily be abandoned. It is not a given that the latest generation will enthusiastically inherit some of these practices from the former without questioning them. With each generational change comes a new form of cultural expression, often to the horror of cultural extremists who stubbornly refuse to adapt to changing circumstances despite facing the risk of rendering themselves primitive.

To make a practical example of the above, let us look at the cultural practice of paying lobola. This is a traditional custom aimed at uniting two families together, those of the groom-to-be and bride-to-be. This is a form of expression of gratitude by the groom-to-be’s parents to their family for having presented them with a wonderful and beautiful future daughter-in-law while the groom-to-be communicates to his future parents-in-law that he is capable of supporting and taking care of their daughter.

Traditional lobola payment was in the form of cattle because in olden days before the emergence of plastic money, cattle were the primary source of wealth. Today the dictates of modern times have rendered cattle as payment irrelevant to the extent that the uncles who have embraced these advancements have speedpoint machines to accept lobola through credit-card payments. Despite these changes in traditional practices, the cultural significance of lobola has not changed.

It is important that when we defend certain traditional practices we understand what informed them from the onset and that we do not shoot off blindly on a tangent and claim that our culture is facing some external onslaught.

It appears that the Zulu monarchists have by their behaviour projected themselves as being cultural extremists who, despite the progression of time, wish to stubbornly uphold certain traditions. Ukweshwama is a traditional thanksgiving that has been practised by the Zulu nation for time immemorial before the harvesting of crops. According to the tradition no crops may be harvested until they are blessed by the king and his sangomas. At his traditional ceremony Zulu warriors kill a bull barehanded by strangling it to death. Perhaps during the days of King Shaka such display of heroism by Zulu warriors was much more relevant as the era was about the survival of the fittest. What purpose does this practise serve in modern times? Are those men who display their brute force and cruelty to a defenceless animal considered warriors? Is this for the amusement of the Zulu king or to stroke his royal ego? Are there even any crops to be harvested?

The hysteria that has met the court challenge by Animal Rights Africa (ARA) is unwarranted. Almost every black person I heard comment on the issue took a defensive position claiming “their” culture was being undermined by “these whites”. The issue has morphed from a debate about Ukweshwama to racial mudslinging.

The arrogance of the Zulu royal family in refusing to address this issue has not been too helpful, even more so that ARA is represented by an outspoken white man. It is an idiotic debate which could have been resolved between the ARA and the Zulu royal family without the involvement of the courts. The biased involvement of the ANC’s Commission on Religious and Traditional Affairs into this bull saga is also unnecessary as it further entrenches the false perception that an African culture is under threat.