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Pregs Govender

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Our Violent Society: Created In the Name of “Culture”

Fifteen years into liberation and democracy we should be guided by the way South Africa’s citizens created an inclusive human rights culture that values every person. Our Constitution upholds the right to religion, culture and language as long as these do not undermine the values enshrined there. The values of our democracy are clear: human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.

Under apartheid the lives of the majority of South Africans were devalued — life was cheap and “culture” was used by the apartheid state to divide, exclude and dishonour. Despite the state’s oppression, a culture of resistance nourished poetry, art, music, theatre and dance, and people retained and evolved rich oral traditions. Culture as the values, beliefs and art that people use to define themselves changes and adapts as people change and adapt. However, apartheid attempted to calcify culture as a tool to divide and rule and had brutal success in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Many men in KwaZulu-Natal were mobilised or coerced into a “cultural” organisation on the basis of Zulu identity. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the apartheid state funded and armed this “cultural” organisation. Members of the Israeli security trained its deadliest members. The conflict that followed almost escalated into civil war in parts of South Africa. The TRC confirmed the “impi” had gone on a killing spree not just against other men, but also against women and children. Independent research into the violence confirmed that women’s and girls’ bodies were targeted in particularly vicious ways. This was not peculiar to these attacks — this viciousness was very much in line with that of the apartheid masters on women detainees, women on streets and farms and women in their own families.

A recent book on marketing, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin, is premised on the belief that almost everyone is driven by a need to belong, to follow a leader and to have a song that our “tribe” dances to. He describes what spin doctors and strategists employ to build the power of the leader over the tribe.

Under apartheid in KwaZulu-Natal “culture” came to encompass not just what men wore and what music and food they loved but their right to carry weapons — to “kill for the king”. For many, culture became conflated with the inequality of women who were relegated to “minors” under apartheid law, thus ensuring women’s dependence on patriarchs in local communities, leaving them vulnerable to abuse by those who had been put into power by the state. Today many from that “cultural” organisation have crossed over to their previous enemy, often carrying much conservative baggage and their weaponry.

What is the relevance of all of this for the current situation? All indications are that the ruling party will retain its majority in Parliament and its conduct in this period sets the tone for the future of our constitutional democracy. What its leaders say and do is critical for all of society.

In South Africa large numbers are unemployed and experience ¬≠poverty daily through a lack of decent housing, water, sanitation, food and healthcare. Over the past few years infant and child mortality rates increased and adult life expectancy rates decreased. These are socio¬≠economic human rights that must be addressed. Yet those who have held and continue to hold state power appeal to the frustrations of young men, using these issues as rallying points. “Culture” is invoked in potentially dangerous ways that are too resonant with our painful past.

In the making of a new voting tribe culture is being used and defended from attack because it is “Culture” with a capital C, calcified, beyond question or criticism. In a time of peace the song Umshini Wam, a military song that means Bring Me my Machine Gun, is sung at campaign rallies across South Africa. It has other meanings that became explicit when it was sung outside Jacob Zuma’s famous rape trial, where photos of the complainant were burned to chants of “burn the bitch, burn her” by women and men — in the week of International Women’s Day.

The biblical archetype of evil — the snake — is used to describe other human beings with the advice that the “snakes” should be “beaten” to death. “Witchcraft” is used to explain veteran women leaving their party, during an election speech, in a context where too many older women and men have been killed as “witches”. Institutions critical to democracy are attacked and undermined if they challenge the interests of powerful individuals. A leader of the youth says things to outrage and is an easier target than the source of his legitimacy.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    March 26th, 2009 @09:03 #

    As long as journalism of this calibre is still appearing in the mainstream press, I don't quite despair of our country.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    March 26th, 2009 @10:05 #

    Well said, Pregs. Not sure that the M&G is mainstream press though is it Fiona? At least for now such articles can be published in the press and the said publication not banned.


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