Africa: Not all cultural traditions are worth keeping

Published on Pambazuka News, by William Gumede, 2009-12-10.

… Yet, the bigger challenge for all communities in South Africa – from whatever colour – remains: To honestly re-examine all their cultural, traditional and religious assumptions and practices. To reduce such a call as an all or nothing battle between so-called ‘modernists’ versus ‘traditionalists’, or Western ‘civilisation’ versus African ‘backwardness’; or as an attempt to ‘denigrate’ African cultural beliefs’, is simply wrong.

Of course, as Africans we have experienced first-hand the barbarism of Western cultures that have portrayed themselves as ‘civilised’, ‘enlightened’ and ‘superior’ compared to African cultures, but that in practice have oppressed vast numbers in the most dehumanising ways imaginable. 

The debate over the fate of the killing of the bull offers us the opportunity to reflect on parts of all cultures in South Africa that may conflict with the values of our constitution, individual dignity and safety. It is not going to be easy: These issues go to the heart of our sense of self …

… The King of the abaThembu, Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo stands accused of kidnapping, arson and culpable homicide. The king is awaiting sentencing after he was found guilty of kidnapping a mother and her six children after he had personally set their home alight, to ‘discipline’ them. His defence advocate, Terry Price, argued that because of the king’s status, he should be treated with leniency.

‘What you cannot lose sight of is the fact that he did not go out to destroy lives but was committed to disciplining his community … They got the punishment that they deserved,’ Price said in mitigation of sentence. Surely, if we claim our cultural practices allow our traditional leaders to do as they please – even kill, then there is something wrong with aspects of such culture. It is wrong to blindly support morally wrong practices on the basis of cultural solidarity.

African culture has a long tradition of democratic practices also, such as consensus seeking and internal debates. But it also has some very autocratic practices – it is not wrong to admit so, neither is it wrong to say let’s discard such aspects. Finally, if only those who so zealously defend the most dehumanising aspects of ‘culture’, would declare African leaders’ greed, corruption and clinging to power as against African culture – and fight these ails with the same resolve, the continent would be a much better place. (full text).

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