Culture Morality

Holy Cows – Gareth van Onselen on initiation, Zille and more

Earlier this week I was in conversation with Gareth van Onselen (GvO) at a launch event for his new book, Holy Cows: The ambiguities of being South African.

As far as I can tell, the event wasn’t recorded, which is a pity as I think we had an interesting dialogue on various contentious issues that are raised – either directly or by implication – in the book.

Two of the book’s themes seem to be of particular interest, judging by the conversation at the other launch event I attended, as well as social media and other comment.

Helen Zille is first up, if we address these themes in the sequence they appear in the book. GvO spends two chapters discussing Zille’s Twitter persona, in an exercise that one review (linked immediately above) called “a little creepy and obsessive”.

(There’s a chapter in the book on Pyramid, an obscure quiz show that ran on CCV-TV in 1995 and 1996, and I’d think that GvO having watched every episode of that a fair bit more obsessive.)

DSC_1066The chapters on Zille highlight various themes that recur throughout her Twitter output, and demonstrate that being as engaged as she is (it’s more accurate to say ‘was’, since stepping down as leader) allows us to establish a rather different view on her preoccupations and political dispositions than what you find in carefully-crafted newsletters and speeches.

One of the things that comes through rather strongly is Christian conservatism, in particular her negative attitude towards drugs, alcohol and sex. I’ve written on some of these things myself in the past, and also expressed views on her religious outlook in general, and think that cataloguing the Tweets in the manner than GvO does is useful for making the case.

Furthermore, the case is useful to make, for two related reasons – first, because even if Zille is committed to your liberty, in the sense that a roughly liberal party ought to be – the moralising tone of so many of the Tweets leave one feeling that her liberalism can be rather grudging.

Second (and I’m not attributing these observations to GvO), the hectoring and inflexible message that emerges from quite a few of the Tweets don’t provide enough of a counterpoint to the ANC’s political messaging.

Again, what I’d hope for from a liberal party is a tone and content that encourages critical reflection on issues. I wouldn’t expect that from a nationalist party like the ANC – but tonally, there’s little to pick between them, at least if you regard Zille as representative of the party.

In short, I think the wealth of data collected by GvO in these chapters give us interesting things to think about on the micro issue of a particular person’s political branding, as well as the macro issue of the various South African political brands in the market and how they are differentiated.

The second issue I’ll touch on is ritual circumcision, as discussed in chapter 7. Again, I’ve also written a column on this subject, but mine resulted in nowhere near the abuse that GvO’s shorter treatment (shorter than in his book, I mean) of the issue in his Business Day column did.

According to Xolela Mangcu, GvO’s column was “hate speech“. According to another correspondent, GvO was an “outsider” who also engages in inconsistent reasoning by not discussing all sorts of other cultural practices equally critically.

There’s one politically interesting issue here, and then another issue that is interesting mostly because it demonstrates a moral deficit on the part of these two critics.

The politically interesting issue is the question of who gets to comment on which issues – whether you need to be from a certain “culture” to criticise its practices. I think – and I know GvO does – that the arguments are what matter, not where they come from.

But tone can make people more or less receptive to a message, and this is (partly) why a column like mine led to less abuse, in that I foregrounded my outsider status (for pragmatic reasons only – not because I think it relevant to the argument).

GvO wrote in a certain style (and those of you who are actually interested in the arguments should read the book, not only the short column), and that style might or might not have been maximally productive to reader engagement. But again, that’s a separate point to whether the argument is sound or not.

The second issue is this: if there’s a cultural practice which does, on occasion, result in deaths and injuries, there’s a real problem to address – and it’s a far more significant problem than a “white” man having the temerity to criticise a cultural practice.

Yes, it’s true that this particular practice can be conducted harmlessly (using the word loosely, in that I’m ignoring the reinforcement of patriarchy, etc.). So if anyone says that deaths and maiming are always a necessary consequence of initiation, they are wrong and ignorant.

GvO doesn’t do that. And by all means, correct him or anyone else on particular facts they get wrong – but for as long as there exists a subset of traditional rituals that are open to the sorts of criticisms contained in the article and the book, there’s an argument to respond to.

Because if you don’t respond to the argument, then you’re telling us that according to you, the politics of identity – wherein a “white” man isn’t allowed to criticise something from “black” culture – is more important than deaths.

Or, you’re expressing a logical principle that only insiders can speak on whatever the insider topic is. And if this is the case, follow it to its logical conclusions – men can’t speak about something experienced by women, and vice-versa. The poor can’t talk about the rich. The Spanish can’t talk about the English, and so forth.

Most of the time, though, what it sounds like you’re saying is that this is something you’d simply like to have exempted from any outsider criticism, and that seems inexcusably lazy to me.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

2 replies on “Holy Cows – Gareth van Onselen on initiation, Zille and more”

I hold no brief for Mangcu and the person who sent the letter to BusinessDay, but I believe you’ve not understood a particular point of objection to Van Onselen’s column. He presumes that he (or the kinds of spaces he operates in) are the only places where initiation is criticised. It isn’t. I would be willing to bet money that GvO doesn’t speak a word of Xhosa and didn’t travel (let alone consult with) to the communities where these practices occur to gauge their opinions on the matter. He cannot possibly know what the people this happens to think.

The other wrong argument he makes is that nobody cares about dead initiates. Again, this is based on what exactly? Who did he ask? Xhosa people do care – these are their sons and brothers, for God’s sake.

For his information (and I suppose yours too, Jacques) – initiation is often and loudly criticised within the community. I can give you a further example: the deeply patriarchal reed dance (umkhosi wohlanga) is often criticised within the Zulu community. But you wouldn’t know that because you don’t speak that language.

From that perspective, GvO’s intervention drips with blind arrogance. Is it any surprise that so many black people have reacted with fury?

And yes, it does matter who criticises the practice if you want to make any sort of difference. Arguing that it shouldn’t matter that the argument is being raised by a sneering white liberal may win you points in philosophy debates, but it won’t change a damn thing. Luckily for all concerned, the argument against initiation (which by the way, is an outmoded practice) is being heard in the right quarters because it’s being raised by the people who actually matter: Xhosa men and women. What GvO thinks about initiation doesn’t matter.

– Sipho

Thanks Sipho. (As an aside – the column is a polemical in style – the book’s treatment of this is more considered, though I don’t say this to assert that it wouldn’t also be subject to the criticism you make.)

As for your criticism: I don’t think he presumes it isn’t criticised. He asserts that it isn’t criticised enough, and that it’s given undue shelter by the House of Traditional Leaders, and by a chilling effect on criticism that is justified by reference to cultural privilege.

He might say – and I certainly would say – that the trendline of deaths and injuries don’t seem to be decreasing at the rate I’d hope for, and that this merits outrage.

Your last paragraph is partly about tone, and that part I agree with (the “sneering” – and I mean in general, rather than necessarily agreeing about who is doing the sneering). But the whiteness or liberalness of the critic should not make a difference. If it does, you rule yourself out of being able to criticise sneering white liberals, on the same argument.

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