The F-word: Diverse heritage comes at a price

2012-09-15 09:05

Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini’s denial that he asked for R18 million to build a new palace for his queen should have meant the end of the story.

But I suspect it has merely been put off for another day. That is because the debate skirted around the really important issue: what it means to say we recognise cultural diversity in our society.

Too many times when we talk about diversity, we reduce it to having blacks and women in the decision-making structures of organisations.

Not enough is made of the rural/urban divide as an important element in shaping perspective. What is urban is seen as civilised, while anything rural, like institutions of traditional leadership, coming-of-age initiation ceremonies or even the vexed question of maiden chastity, is seen as inherently backward.

A more nuanced appreciation of the reality of rural life in South Africa would include how we engage with matters such as why rural communities take such great exception to not having a tarred road linking them to the nearest town, but shun the national road passing their village as it joins one big city with another.

For these communities, the institutions of traditional leadership are more important than Western-type democracy. In an electoral system where voters do not know who their next mayor, premier or even president will be, it is difficult to argue that forms of traditional leadership are less representative than those with which the electoral system saddles us.

Back to Isilo Samabandla Onke. If we accept that our Constitution respects the cultural diversity and heritage of this country, we must also agree such diversity means we have different forums of community leadership, including traditional forms such as kings and queens. We must accept such institutions come with prestige, responsibility and a price tag.

To say the king must get a job, as some argue, disrespects institutions meaningful to millions of South Africans. It is ethnocentric arrogance at its most pernicious.

Needless to say, one must expect to be accused of hiding behind culture to tolerate “obvious” wrongs. It is easier to accuse others of cultural relativism than to interrogate why we think our own views or cultures are better.

If what has been argued is the principle of the Hlangalomhalabathi living off the public purse, we must ask what it means to recognise traditional forms of leadership as part of our national heritage. What privileges are these leaders entitled to and what are their obligations?

If we are moved by principle, it should not matter whether the king had asked for R18 million or R800 000. Ditto the number of wives. The drafters of our Constitution agreed there would be no hierarchy of cultural values.

This was an important concession in a country steeped in a tradition where some think they are better because of their colour, class or urban addresses. We cannot be a culturally diverse country only when it is convenient.

We already do that with African languages, which are supposed to enjoy equal status, when in fact English is first among alleged equals.

I’m certain that even among those who live under the authority of kings and queens, not everyone is happy being ruled by someone whose only qualification for the office is their bloodline. I have heard of traditional leaders being removed from their thrones because of communities being dissatisfied with their performance, their morals or both.

I’m optimistic that the day these communities want a “republic” they will know what to do and will not need the guidance of us city slickers or others who, as always, assume they know better.

This being Heritage Month, Ingonyama’s alleged requests remind us national heritage is contested terrain. It is not just about bare-breasted maidens dancing for the pleasure of lusty tourists.

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