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.

President Zuma on religion and “humanity”

As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

It’s always a surprise to find oneself agreeing with Floyd Shivambu, but if President Jacob Zuma really did say what he’s reported to have said at a church service on Sunday, he should certainly face his day in court. Not only a court involving advocates and charges of corruption, but also the court of public opinion, where he should be found guilty of a gross lack of judgement in using intolerant and divisive rhetoric to divert attention from the ANC Youth League’s criticism of him.

If a Helen Zille tweet speaking of “education refugees” can result in a week of widespread outrage, how is it the case that Zuma can effectively say that the non-religious have no humanity without (at least) equivalent levels of outrage? In fact, he should not only face criticism from the public and censure from the party, but if you support the hate speech provisions in our law, this should perhaps also be a matter for the courts.

“We need to build our nation because presently we have a nation of thugs. This is a task faced by the church. Fear of God has vanished and that means that humanity has vanished”, is what Zuma is reported to have said to the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa. We do indeed need to build our nation, but as I’ve previously argued, when it comes to moral leadership Zuma is hardly the man for the job.

The church can certainly play a part – a large and possibly effective part, seeing as the majority of South Africans are members of some church or another. And when the church focuses on respect, love, compassion and other sorts of virtuous qualities, I wish them all possible success. But when the church that our new Chief Justice belongs to endorses the view that homosexuality is a sickness that can be “cured”, it should be immediately clear that churches have no monopoly on morality.

My previous columns have frequently discussed the absence of a positive correlation between religious belief and moral virtue, but this is not the point here. Whether it’s true or not that religion can encourage those virtues, the fact remains that non-believers are in no way handicapped when it comes to discerning right from wrong. We use different standards to do so, yet mostly end up with the same conclusions as the religious do.

This is obviously so, because most of these conclusions are obvious ones that anyone living amongst others would reach. We all have an equal investment in social cohesion and freedom from fear, and shared rules make those goods possible, regardless of how we reason our way to them. In South Africa, as in many poor countries, humanity “vanishes” largely because people are materially insecure, and resort to opportunism to address those insecurities.

If your life is miserable, you’re less invested in the future, and more invested in seizing opportunities where you find them. The narrative of a harmonious “rainbow nation” only gains traction if you have reason to care for the welfare of others, and it’s not always the case that we do. The church can provide reasons of this sort, yes – but stronger and more universally respected reasons are secured when people have jobs and food, perhaps along with a government they can trust to not exploit them.

If it’s only fear of God that keeps religious people from breaking laws or harming others – or even from having humanity – then we should be seeing far worse moral crises in secular countries than we do in religious ones such as ours. And what does lacking humanity mean? Are secular folk simply lacking some moral property, or are we somehow not even human on Zuma’s reckoning? And what does it say about the moral character of the religious when the implicit claim is made that without religion, they’d suddenly discover or rediscover the impulse to rape, rob and murder?

Whether you call it “humanity” or not, President Zuma, many of us don’t do these immoral things due to the belief that it’s wrong to do them. As much as I’m willing to say that your religious beliefs are false, I’ll only start saying that you lack humanity when you act like you lack humanity – not only because you have a different worldview to mine.

Like perhaps now, where you essentially tell me and all other non-believers that we are qualitatively inferior to you and other believers. You – the man who hasn’t gone more than a couple of months without some press coverage on things like rape trials, dodgy arms-deal allegations, shady friends, financial mismanagement, corruption or reckless sexual behaviour.

I get that you need to defend yourself against the current round of attacks from Shivambu and others, and that you’re heading into a delicate situation in Mangaung later this year. You’re entitled, and would be expected to, defend yourself by rallying religious support. But you can do so without calling my humanity into question. Choosing to do so is divisive, inflammatory, and intolerant of any worldview that doesn’t accord with your belief in God.

And it certainly seems to lack humanity to me. But then, perhaps I lack the necessary qualifications to speak as a human at all.