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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.

Categories
Culture Daily Maverick Morality Politics

A culture of dying

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

623156_314164Kabelo Mokgweetse ran away from his initiation school in Pampierstad in November last year, to look for food. He was tracked down and thrashed with a sjambok, before having his feet burnt as further punishment. Then, he was left for dead at the side of the road, where a passing motorist happened to spot him.

Initially only his toes were amputated, but the nerve damage eventually required further surgery, where his right foot was removed in its entirety, along with most of the left. The question that’s difficult to ask – never mind answer – is whether he might prefer to instead be one of the 23 youth who recently died as a result of initiation ceremonies in Mpumalanga.

Mokgweetse and thousands of boys like him are sent (and often willingly go) to initiation schools to mark the transition between boyhood and manhood, undergoing ritual circumcision and being instructed about their social responsibilities. And in most years, children die in the course of “becoming men”. It’s so typical, in fact, that a government news agency can use a headline like “Traditional leaders welcome no initiation deaths”.

That headline was for a story about Limpopo in particular, and dealt with the 2010 season, where attendance at initiation schools was reportedly down by 75% thanks to the World Cup. Limpopo does seem to be a province that has taken the health of initiates particularly seriously, with deaths in the low single-figures for the past few years.

The key question that arises for outsiders like myself is this: do the children who go to initiation schools, the parents who send them there, and the Ramophato (initiation school owner) think that this is a fair price for preserving these cultural practices? And if one death is a fair price, how many would be too costly?

Part of the reason for the continued survival of poorly regulated initiation schools is surely that they provide a narrative to life – a structure, and a reinforcement of community and communal values. But if those goods can be acquired at a lower price – and they undoubtedly can be – then the dozens of deaths we’ve seen so far this year are surely not only too many, but also reason for widespread outrage as well as legal action against those responsible.

Because this is a matter of culture, though, people prefer to tread lightly, tempering their criticisms with politically correct noises about tolerance and respect. But isn’t this in itself condescending, perhaps even racist? Could we instead wonder whether, if the average adolescent in Mpumalanga knew that they had a decent prospect of a good education, a good job and so forth, they’d rather be joining protests against such schools – opting for medical circumcision at the very least, if not entirely rejecting cultural instruction of this sort?

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 for 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 stands a chance of being respectable. And even then, it should never be a stand-alone justification for doing or believing something.

Culture can explain why we do things, even if they appear to be irrational to outsiders. Justification is a different matter, though – if not, how could we complain if a Eugene Terre’Blanche, for example, cites culture as a reason to keep black slaves? Culture cannot serve alone as a reason for doing something.

Equally, culture should not serve as a reason to avoid intervening when needless deaths can be avoided. Last week, a caller to Radio702 recounted his experience of an initiation school (where a close friend of his happened to have died). The caller, Sam, explained that deaths were common thanks to initiates being deprived of water until the last week of proceedings, and also poorly fed – meaning that they had few physical reserves to cope with the gruelling nature of the rituals.

Furthermore, they would also be less able to fight off infection, more common as a result of the lack of qualifications of many who perform the circumcisions. All of these factors can be managed, and to some extent have been managed in Limpopo. This is clearly not the case in Mpumalanga.

Interviewed on eNCA, the MEC for Health in Mpumalanga said that, as a woman, she couldn’t get involved. Her precise words were: “This is a tradition. This is a tradition. So in other tradition whether there are deaths or what but a woman can’t come closer to that”. A competing tradition here involves avoiding needless death, and doing your job. Someone who chooses the tradition of turning a blind eye to death deserves to lose her job, at the very least, and seems at least partly responsible for any future deaths.

Appeals to culture, tradition and the like have causality entirely back-to-front: 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 norm or not. And a cultural practice in which there is no age of consent, poor or no medical oversight, and wilful ignorance on the part of government officials is problematic, to say the least.

“Only God knows who’s going to die, when” was Msebenzi Masombuka’s (a representative of King Mabhoko) comment following the deaths in Mpumalanga. Even if one does believe that, we’d still present ourselves as candidates for earlier or later deaths, through our actions or inactions.

Or sometimes, it’s others we present as candidates for an earlier death. And we sacrifice them on the altar of “culture”. In May 2013, culture killed at least 23 boys – yet we should respect it, just … because.

Categories
Culture Morality Politics

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.