Maiming, killing and dying for “culture”

Originally published on SkepticInk

Parts of a 17-year-old boy’s feet from Bonita Park, in Hartswater had to be amputated, after he ran away from an initiation school in Pampierstad in search of food.

After he was tracked down, he was thrashed with a sjambok, while his feet were burnt with fire. He was later abandoned along the side of the road, where he was left for dead, naked and bleeding, until a passing motorist noticed him and alerted the police.

Due to extensive nerve and muscle damage, his toes had to be surgically removed.

667532_612441This boy, and thousands like him, are sent (and often willingly go) to initiation schools to mark the transition between boyhood and manhood, “through ritual circumcision and cultural instruction regarding their social responsibilities and their conduct”. Ever year, children die in the course of “becoming men” – and in South African society, being a man correlates quite positively with thinking you can dictate the course of the lives of women.

Part of the reason for the continued survival of poorly regulated initiation schools, with poor hygiene and cultural instruction from previous centuries, is that they provide a narrative to life – a structure, and a community. If the average adolescent knew that they had a decent prospect of a good education, a good job and so forth, they’d probably be joining protests against such schools – opting for medical circumcision at the very least, if not entirely rejecting cultural indoctrination.

But it’s been – and will continue to be – a long wait for more people to have a better shot at a good life through adequate healthcare, education, and those goods many of us take for granted. And what we put in place as substitutes to give meaning to life – namely cultural practices such as these – result in initiation schools, genital mutilation, corrective rape, culturally embedded homophobia, sexism and so forth.

“Culture” is used as an excuse of all sorts of things (in South Africa, often as a simple vote-getter). But it’s only when you get to choose what your “culture” is – and not have it forced upon you – that it becomes remotely respectable. And even then, it should never be an explanation or justification for doing or believing something. As I tell students, appeals to culture, tradition and the like get the causality entirely backwards: things could become cultural norms because they are good norms; but the fact that something is a cultural norm has no bearing on whether it’s a good or respectable one or not.

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.

Idiotic opinions on Zuma’s penis

There are of course plenty of examples to choose from, but here’s one instance of the sort of idiocy which has resulted from the Goodman Gallery’s display of the Brett Murray painting featuring Jacob Zuma’s penis (and the subsequent publication of the artwork by the City Press and others).

Ignoring the royal “we” of Qunta’s tweet below, as well as the (perhaps 140-character induced) spelling, there’s still enough here to ask why anyone would this an opinion worth expressing.


Legality isn’t the only thing that mediates art and speech. Legality is, though, the thing that ‘mediates’ (or rather, dictates) whether something is legally permissible or not. Beyond that, it’s a matter of taste whether you approve of something or not. But the point of a roughly free country is that your subjective preferences need have no bearing on what I’m allowed to see. Zuma, his daughters, his wives or whomever can say “we don’t like that” (the artwork, that is, rather than the penis. They could think that of the penis too, but that’s again a matter of taste. For the wives, at least) – but they can’t say “that’s not allowed”.

So, we have norms and values to inform (or mediate) the debate outside of law – to make the case for thinking something praiseworthy or blameworthy and so forth. But all this within a framework of recognising that it’s allowed, even if we don’t like it. And we have norms and values to guide us in areas that aren’t covered by law, and also to influence law via democratic processes, where you can vote according to those norms and values, and in doing so, hope to eventually influence the law.

But you can’t expect your norms and values to simply be the law. Because they are yours, not ours, and they’re not obviously the ones “we”should adopt. Because no matter how royal the “we” in your mind might be, it doesn’t include me – I see a portrait of a man who can’t be taken seriously for well-documented reasons, where that impaired moral standing is being highlighted through a certain form of artistic insult, and where the insult has been earned.

Of course this is insensitive to “culture”. But in this matter, where “culture” demands respect for a buffoon, or asks us to endorse the subjugation of women, it’s the culture that’s the problem rather than those who are disrespectful of it.

Mandela’s autopsy

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

Yiull Damaso’s painting of an imagined autopsy of Nelson Mandela has provoked outrage similar to that generated by Zapiro’s recent Mohammed cartoon. The outrage is similar in its severity, and unfortunately also similar in its knee-jerk thoughtlessness. Most troubling, the similarities extend to having to hear yet another argument in favour of the censoring of free expression on the grounds of cultural or religious sensibilities.

The painting, adapted from Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp”, shows a deceased Mandela being autopsied by Nkosi Johnson, while FW de Klerk, Helen Zille, Desmond Tutu and others look on. It is, of course, the portrayal of Mandela as deceased that is causing most of the consternation, on the grounds that this portrayal consists, variously, of witchcraft, disrespect, a violation of dignity, and a “insult and an affront to values of our society” – at least according to ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu.

As with the Zapiro cartoon, we can and certainly should ask whether images like these are in unacceptably bad taste. If they are, we should say so, and hope that we can persuade artists of the legitimacy of our point of view. Having fewer offensive artworks in our purview would no doubt make for a more comfortable life. But one person – or one group, no matter how large – does not have the authority to define what counts as unacceptable and what doesn’t, except within their own cultural universe. Continue reading “Mandela’s autopsy”

Africa is not a country: football and nationhood

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

In the minutes before Ghana took on the USA in the first round of 16 game, a friend and I were discussing where our support lay. She wanted Ghana to win, and I expressed a preference for a USA victory. I wanted the American team to win on grounds of their footballing culture, in that the approach the USA has taken to professional football of late seemed a better example of what the South African team and football administrators should aspire to.

I can understand why South Africans, and Africans in general, like the idea of one of “our” teams doing well. But it doesn’t quite make sense for me, as a football fan, to support teams simply because they represent an African nation, because there is much about Africa that is difficult to support. From female genital mutilation in Egypt and homophobia in Malawi, to assorted human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, there are things about this continent that clearly expose a fundamental divide between Africa as a collective concept, and the sort of world I’d prefer to live in.

As an example of African football, Ghana is of course also a complicated example, given that only one of their squad of 23 actually plays football in Ghana. When the vast majority of the national team lives and works outside of the nation reflected on the covers of their passports, to what extent does it still make sense to think of them as representatives of Africa? Continue reading “Africa is not a country: football and nationhood”

Forgive him if you like, but Jacob Zuma should resign

South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, has recently provided an effective negative proof of the value added by a competent press office. In an embarrassing attempt to manage an embarrassing situation, the South African public have received:

  1. A statement dated February 3, in which JZ confirms his “love-child”, while berating us for caring about his private affairs.

  2. The leaking of some “evidence” on the same day which suggests that JZ and Sonono Khoza are in fact married, and that the existence of the most recent child does therefore not suggest JZ was cheating on his 37 other wives.

  3. A further statement/apology dated February 6, in which someone finally cottons on to the fact that the man in question was elected without the moral currency or credibility which might otherwise allow us to respect his wishes in this matter, and that an apology might therefore be necessary.

  4. Communication from god, reminding us that “faith dictated that he [JZ] be absolved“, and suggesting that we should “leave this episode behind us, regrettable as it is, and move on as a nation”.

God spoke through Ray McCauley’s National Interfaith Leadership Council (NILC), as she has tended to do since they beat out her previous spokespersons, the South African Council of Churches, in what must have been a rather difficult contest to arbitrate. I’ve discussed the NILC previously, and argued against the popular notion that religious groups like the NILC have any special claim to moral knowledge.

But this incident, and this President, is about more than simple moral issues. It’s also not simply about the convoluted definitions of “culture” we can come up with in order to justify doing whatever the hell we want. Normally, I’m a strong supporter of the idea that I don’t want or need my political leaders to be exemplars of moral virtue – their job is to offer political leadership, and I don’t really care what they do in their private lives.

However, cases like these do intrude into the public consciousness, and – when placed alongside rape trials, dodgy arms-deal allegations, shady friends, financial mismanagement, reckless sexual behaviour in a country blighted by HIV/AIDS and so forth – they do provide a fair amount of evidence of a lack of sound judgement, and a poor awareness of voter interests.

As mentioned earlier, I don’t care who JZ sleeps with, or what drugs he takes, or anything else to do with his real or imagined private life. I do care that political leaders think carefully about what they do, and that they have the intellectual capacity to realise the implications that their choices might have. JZ clearly lacks one or both of these abilities.

So, forgive him if you like. Pray about it if you think that will help, or eat a crystal (I think that’s how it’s supposed to work?). But forgiveness does not mean we should forget about competence – and in this case, have we not already forgiven enough incompetence?