President Zuma: dogging South Africans with stereotypes about culture

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

sad-dogCulture is restrictive and oppressive, and it is used to generate further oppression. Not simply because you’re told what to believe in the name of culture, but because what you are told to believe can be oppressive or restrictive. Perhaps, that you’re not the equal of a man. Perhaps, that as a man, you are necessarily responsible for the oppression of women.

Culture is also a reference point for where we’ve come from, and how we ended up here. It’s what binds us in times of strife, or when others tell us that we’re somehow inferior or unworthy of survival or happiness. Culture is what gives us beautiful art – music, paintings, books – and it is what renews our creativity through the wellspring of ideas it provides.

Culture is a handy card to play when trying to rally political support, especially if you can appeal to a version of culture that speaks of a struggle against oppression, and therefore a historical debt that is owed to that struggle. Without the comfort and strength provided by culture, we would never have survived. Or so the narrative might go, if you thought that culture comes with chains.

Culture can be all these things. But most importantly, it can be what you want it to be, including nothing of any significance at all. And you can mix and match not only elements of culture, but also the respect with which you regard various elements of various cultures. But when the idea of culture is used as a straightjacket, as a way to enforce loyalty or groupthink, it is only and always restrictive and oppressive.

When a President says that black South Africans should stop adopting the customs of other cultures, such as appearing to care more for their animals than they do for their fellow South Africans, he ends up transgressing various aspects of logic as well as of decency. Decency, because one unspoken implication of that speech last December was that white dog-owning folk had no humanity, and that black folk who loved their dog were somehow less black.

Logic, simply because of the obvious contradictions immediately pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere, via photographs of Mandela, Vavi and others being friendly with various furry animals. Zuma’s speech clearly contained some foot-in-mouth, though, and it’s uncharitable to read reports of a speech like this literally. He was (at least, as far as I can tell) referring to the fact that it sometimes seems that people care more for (relative) frivolities than for their fellow human beings.

If this is accurate, it’s of course still deeply problematic to square the humanitarian Zuma with the one who appears in our headlines most days for some allegation of corruption, or the construction of multi-million Rand homesteads. Let’s leave that aside, as I have no trouble believing that he at least believes he cares, and was speaking sincerely.

What I want to highlight here is culture. Because what Zuma is saying in a speech like this is an insult to culture, or to the sort of culture I describe above as an affirming and sometimes inspirational one. Because Zuma could be accused of telling black South Africans to take direction from his repressive stereotypes, rather than the repressive stereotypes that the white man brought to Africa. He’s saying that black South Africans are free, but only up until the point where they butt up against the boundaries of culture that he is prescribing.

The point of freedom is to be free to choose. Zuma is correct that some people seem to care more for their pets than for humans, and I’d agree with him that it’s wrong to do so. Not because of culture, or at least not because of “black” culture or “white” culture – rather something like a “sentient” or “compassionate” culture. And perhaps, a culture that eschews opportunism, preferring to work towards the long-term benefit of all South Africans.

This means, at least in part, eliminating the race-baiting that has become such a reliable part of his rhetoric. I understand that many of us white South Africans appear (and often are) insensitive to culture and its manifestation, especially now that “our” culture blankets most of the world we get to hear about. But this doesn’t justify adding to the caricatures of what white and black people do and believe – and it certainly doesn’t justify telling people what they should believe.

Culture changes, and anyone who won’t allow it to is an oppressor. If you choose to hold on to some cultural elements and customs that are significant and not harmful to others, I shouldn’t judge you for that. When you use culture as a weapon to abuse common sense, and to guilt people into loyalty, I will judge you for that, as should we all.

And some of us will judge you even more harshly when you make it clear that you’re just making things up as you go along. Or is Mac Maharaj actually just trying to embarrass you, by protesting that you were simply trying to “decolonise the African mind” while you made noises about a national cleansing ceremony, to be hosted by none other than Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu – a representative of a faith that exists here largely thanks to colonialism?

Assuming that the vote of no confidence fails, Mr President – and assuming that you actually give more of a damn about your country than you’ve ever appeared to – why not spend 2013 and onwards focusing on speeches (and decisions, naturally) that help us to find common purpose, instead of on ones that deepen or even create divisions?

You have your second term, after all, and the threats you personally face during that term will come from people and institutions like the Public Prosecutor and Parliament. The threats to your party, on the other hand, seem to come mainly from people like you. To put it simply – if you don’t stop being such an embarrassment, South African voters may soon begin to consider having a cleansing ceremony of their own.

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.