Tradition is a source of power, but Zuma and fellow traditionalists want to impose their views on all black South Africans
In light of what Africa has withstood since European imperialistic expansion and what black cultures survived under apartheid, clearly there is great wisdom and beauty to be found in African traditions, which need to be better understood and preserved.
However, it is no secret that many traditions, in Africa and beyond, can hurt the very people who identify with them.
Misogynistic practices and notions such as ukuthwala and female genital mutilation are some of the traditions contrary to a better life for all black women and men.
In his address to the National House of Traditional Leaders on November 1, President Jacob Zuma attacked black people who dare disagree with some of the precepts of their self-avowed traditions and culture. He called them “clever blacks” and, with an odious phrase strikingly similar to the one used by his erstwhile supporter, Julius Malema, when he belittled the pain of the woman Zuma was charged with raping, saying they were pursuing the white man’s agenda.
There is much to make us apprehensive when zealous traditionalists like Zuma attempt to make black people show unreflective obedience to his views of what constitutes tradition, and make what are subjective retrogressive views as the total of tradition.
While there is some positive consequence from having a president who does not hide his identification with his tradition and culture – best exemplified by his polygamous unions, which are of course permitted by our laws – traditionalists should not impose their beliefs and practices on all black people.
Many black men and women desire and make different choices, like marrying one spouse or not at all, and no president or traditionalist should force his views on them.
For the president to speak disparagingly about black people who critically engage their culture and tradition by calling them “clever blacks” is unfortunate or ironic.
Zuma deliberately conflates his own views of tradition with tradition in its entirety because he is abusing tradition for short-term political gain.
The irony is that Zuma is channelling a colonialist discourse by calling critical black citizens “clever” and wishing they were an undifferentiated and dumb mass, even when they might oppose what they consider oppressive, or folly in their traditions and leaders.
Zuma is not alone in fascist views and construction of black traditions as beyond criticism and static. The reason his views seem to have found resonance with the traditional leaders is because many in the House of Traditional Leaders share similar sentiments.
Ordinarily, tradition is a much abused, or at best misused, word, but traditionalists are the worst abusers.
While some of the abuse is wilful, another form arises from self-induced ignorance. Zuma exhibited both types of abuse of tradition for the benefit of and in collusion with the traditional leaders in his recent address.
To appreciate the abuse of the idea of tradition, we have to understand the two overlapping meanings of the word.
Firstly, tradition refers to something that is handed down from generation to generation. Secondly, tradition means a belief, practice or value from time immemorial.
If what Zuma exhibited was abuse from self-induced blindness, he needs to be reminded that in any generation there is always bound to be differences about any practice considered to be traditional. We may be Zulu, black, South African, men, or all four, but we believe in different things.
Black women and men should keep exercising their native intelligence by questioning some of the precepts of their culture and tradition they do not agree with. To allow themselves to be shamed into cowardly silence by Zuma’s childish name-calling would in fact be a betrayal of the great promise inherent in black traditions.
» Botha works in media and government relations for Sonke Gender Justice Network
» Ratele heads the traditions programme at the Institute for Social and Health Sciences at Unisa