Speak for the bull

2012-11-21 00:00

IT will soon be the Festival of the First Fruits, and one desperately hopes that there will not again be the horrendous killing of a young bull by a bevy of young men using their fists (and even barbed wire, it seems). This drawn-out, painful ritual has no place whatsoever in a country struggling towards solutions to a growing culture of violence.

After angry responses from many members of the public of all ethnic groups for several years, there was scarcely a mention of the killing of the bull in 2012. Why the almost complete silence in the media when it is now clear how fiercely many South Africans, both black and white, feel about this cruel ritual?

I have read again the article written in 2009 by that always courageous columnist, the inimitable Justice Malala: “The bull is now dead. In the aftermath of the noise and the anger in the week prior to his slaughter, I wish to speak for the dead bull,” he says. He goes on to describe how, on a Saturday in Nongoma, President Jacob Zuma and Zulu King Goodwill Zwelethini led the Ukweshwama ritual that celebrates the first fruits of the harvest. In this ceremony, a young bull is tortured to death by the bare hands of the young male participants. The strength of this dying animal will, it is believed, be transferred to the king.

Malala goes on to say that objections to the cruel ritual drag in all kinds of irrelevant defences about culture, black versus white, Western against African beliefs, and even colonial attitudes, whereas the debate should be about what is right and wrong as we struggle together to find a way of living together. It should be about what creates a path forward into the future as a nation. It cannot include a sanctioned ceremony in which an animal is sacrificed in such a manner. There can still be a celebratory ritual, and if a bull is to be killed, it can be done swiftly and mercifully.

“None of us should stand for cruelty meted out in the name of culture,” says Malala. “I do not measure myself by the lowest standards, but by the highest.”

Culture is not cast in stone. We learn and we change. We should not be sanctioning cruelty, let alone celebrating it. Of old inhumane practices, we should all, like Malala, be saying: “I know that I know more than they did, and that my practices must of necessity differ from theirs.”

He is surprised, he says, to see the growth of superstition that allows this kind of cruelty to animals in the name of culture and tradition. He is surprised at the angry retorts that are made to justify the protracted way of killing the young bull. It does not make it right that it has been practised for so long, he says, and he asks the question that lies at the heart of this practice that is so out of place in our struggle for compassion and mutual understanding: “Why not kill the bull swiftly?”

What is the cruelty of this ritual doing to these young men and to the watching celebrants? Where is the pity? Where is the empathy? He calls on us to ask the essential questions of our society as it struggles for self-understanding and shared humanity.

All of us, whatever our ancestral backgrounds, can look back and see rituals perpetrated by our ancestors that fill us with revulsion today. Times were different then. All our ancestors, black and white, belonged to societies in which barbaric cruelties were commonplace and totally accepted. In Europe, the Inquisition burnt alive “heretics” who would not accept Catholicism, people were publically hanged for stealing a loaf of bread, torture was officially sanctioned and human beings were sold as slaves without a thought for their sufferings.

It is true that cruelty is always with us, but it is surely not something we should wish to perpetuate. Cultures change and grow, and usually greater compassion brings more awareness and a more kindly culture. This pitiless way of killing the bull is not a ritual for the 21st century. If the bull is to be killed to celebrate the First Fruits ceremony, let it be over in a moment. Let the king himself put an end to the torture and earn respect for doing so.

Mahatma Gandhi’s warning should be echoing in our ears: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated … I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.”

“I have spoken for the bull,” Malala says. Can we, too, not speak for the bull and beg that it dies mercifully? Can we, too, not see that we can no longer allow so cruel a ritual without damaging something within ourselves? If we don’t speak out, we make ourselves complicit.

 Shirley Bell is a writer and editor who also produces The Animal Angle magazine for the SPCA. She writes in her personal capacity.

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