Our identity as a nation is defined by the culture we embrace, practise and how it finds social expression. It defines our national character and personality. The promotion of cultural practices is generally an attempt by communities to preserve their own uniqueness of identify, to promote social cohesion and to some extent exercise social control over the behaviour of their members. As wonderful as the notion of perceiving culture as a form of identity is, entrenched within certain cultures are acts and practices that are harmful, in particular to women.
Fanatic culturalists often choose to turn a blind eye to constructive engagement on certain practices that have no useful purpose or relevance to modern times. Many cultures across the world find expression in entrenched male chauvinism and the subordination of women. Women do not enjoy equal rights with their male counterparts. Men in the past dictated what characterised the uniqueness of their culture in the form of traditional practices.
In Malawi there’s a cultural practice called kupimbira, where parents play pimps and sell off their young girls to older men in the form of arranged marriages. Fanatic Malawian culturalists would vehemently defend this absurd practice as part of their culture. It is a traditional practice that is not far removed from human trafficking.
And in certain parts of Africa female circumcision is entrenched. Mutilating female genitalia is justified as an initiation into womanhood. Women have to endure severe physical pain, bleeding and bacterial infections in the name of preserving culture.
Other harmful effects of this brute practice are said to be “abscess formation; cysts; excessive growth of scar tissue; urinary tract infection; painful sexual intercourse; increased susceptibility to HIV and Aids; hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases; reproductive tract infection; pelvic inflammatory diseases; infertility; painful menstruation; chronic urinary tract obstruction/bladder stones; urinary incontinence; obstructed labour; increased risk of bleeding and infection during childbirth”. Women who refuse to undergo this ridiculous practice are stigmatised. The same happens to young Xhosa boys who have to risk losing their manhood to a surgeon. He chops off their foreskins with a blunt and un-sterilised knife.
In South Africa there has been a fanatical resurgence of some practices that had been stopped many years ago, particularly among the Zulu communities. King Goodwill Zwelithini announced his plan to revive the practice of male circumcision as an attempt to curb the spread of HIV/Aids. A move that was lauded by some and triggered alarm among those concerned about the record number of deaths caused by this archaic ritual, especially in the Eastern Cape. This practice of subjecting young boys to unbearable and unnecessary pain should be abolished. There are hospitals that perform circumcisions. Other rituals involved in the rite of passage to manhood can be left to the tribal elders. This cultural fascination with young boys’ foreskins is astounding.
In the past — when kings still served some useful purpose to their people — young virgins would converge on the king’s palace to perform the reed dance. It was during this practice that the king would choose a young wife. The idea was that it promoted purity among girls, which in fact meant preserving a wider pool of virgins for the king and in Swaziland providing slave labour for the queen mother. Today this practice is still very much alive in the Zulu kingdom.
The reed dance festival in Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal, this month attracted a record 26 000 virgins. It is impressive that virgins of a ripe age have not gone extinct.
KwaZulu-Natal was booming as hotels, lodges and bed & breakfasts in and around Nongoma were fully booked. Zwelithini honoured Mbali Mhlongo and Noxolo Mbatha who died in the reed dance stampede last year. Zwelithini hailed the young girls as heroes.
In his address to the young virgins, KZN Premier Zweli Mkhize, like a responsible leader, warned them against the dangers of availing themselves to sugar daddies. Mkhize’s message would have carried greater weight if the king was not a sugar daddy himself.
What is the relevance of the reed dance in the 21st century or the existence of the Zulu monarchy? What is certain is that the Zulu monarchy is a great burden to us taxpayers who have to fund his lavish lifestyle. The cost of preserving the Zulu culture should be borne by his subjects.
Fanatic Zulu culturalists would vehemently and even violently defend their king from anyone who wishes to diminish his significance. These are people who are perhaps ignorant of the fact that we live in a constitutional democracy not a monarchy. The role of kings has greatly diminished and become ceremonial. Some cultural practices that may have perhaps had greater meaning during Shaka Zulu’s days have less relevance today. And often such practices violate the human rights and dignity of women and children, and in some instances the rights of animals.
While we proceed on our quest to build a multiracial society, rich in diversity and respect among races, we cannot ignore the dictates of progression of time, the duty imposed on us to respect the dignity of others and protect their human rights. Objectifying young women and subjecting them to the tribal fetishes of old men does not conform to the sacred and common principles of dignity and human rights that we should promote and protect. Africans should refuse to find pride and identity in dehumanising cultural practices. We should know better than our ancestors in such instances.
Culture should not be firmly rooted in primitive dogma. That which remains stagnant loses its richness, significance and renders itself irrelevant to evolving societal norms and values.