Clashing cultures

2009-11-27 00:00

IN most parts of the world, culture is a major driving force behind human behaviour. This concept has become the context in which to explain politics, economics, progress and even failure.

In his piece, “The clash of civilizations and the remaking of the world order”, the world-renowned historian, Samuel P. Huntington, makes the following statement: “It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of human conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be culture.

“Culture and cultural identities … are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-cold war. Global politics is being reconfigured along cultural lines … peoples and countries with similar culture are coming together. Peoples and countries with different cultures are coming apart.”

Huntington points out that even the manner in which food is selected, prepared, presented and eaten often differs by culture. As the saying goes, “one man’s pet is another person’s delicacy — dog, anyone?” Huntington’s hypothesis helps to contextualise the hype about our cultural practice of the killing of a bull during the First Fruits Ceremony. True to Huntington’s hypothesis, the source of conflict between those claiming to be representing Animal Rights and the Zulu people is culture.

One cannot help but detect an element of superiority and a holier-than-thou attitude in the disparaging remarks that have become a feature of the current debate in the media during past weeks about the First Fruits Ceremony. Musimbi Kanyoro, an African writer, is spot on when he points out that an approach that points fingers at others with the intention of showing that a particular practice is inferior, is a nonstarter in Africa. Rather, an ideal method for the African would be to call for collective solidarity engaging every member of society.

Cameron Duodu’s article: “The sense behind our nonsense”, represents his defence of the practice of libation. In line with Duodu’s thinking, I would like to make sense of “our nonsense” with regard to our cultural practice of killing a bull with bare hands. My contention is that this practice must be understood in context. People miss the point by believing that ukweshwama, or the First Fruits Ceremony, is merely about young men killing a bull with their bare hands. This is just one of the rituals and certainly not the essence of the First Fruits Ceremony. The essence of the First Fruits Ceremony is about a prayer to strengthen both the reigning king and the nation. This prayer has a strong bearing on the First Fruits Ceremony, and its deeper meaning is obscured by the killing of the bull, which is done by young men with their bare hands. It may be due to the sanctity of the lesser- known part of the ceremony, namely the strengthening of the king, that the true meaning of the entire ceremony is missed.

The question that arises is why the killing of the bull overshadows the First Fruits Ceremony? Is it due to a ruse or to African wisdom at its best that the other rituals associated with killing the bull are missed? Although it is performed to test the strength of the young men, in essence it is meant to dissuade young men from taking up arms against each other, thus threatening the stability of the nation. Furthermore, the sanctity of the ceremony itself prohibits the use of weapons. Every Zulu person knows the havoc that could be caused by weapons, and the history of the Zulu nation is littered with examples wherein the taking up of arms had catastrophic repercussions.

Without meaning to join in the debate on the issue of animal rights, it needs to be pointed out that the issue of rights is a complex one. It is often agreed that there is no general agreement that exists on how rights should be defined. Rights entail complex moral, policy, societal and cultural considerations. Philosophers and legal analysts have offered numerous conflicting and competing models seeking to explain or categorise rights. However, despite differences about what rights are, analysts often agree that personhood is at their core. Thus, no matter how it is defined, personhood is a central gateway issue in deciding whether to extend fundamental rights to animals. Interestingly, New Scientist derided assigning rights to animals on the following basis: “If animals have rights which protect them against humans, it is only logical that they should have rights that protect them from each other. If a chimp kills another chimp in the wild, or a human, do we really want to hire a fleet of lawyers? And if we extended honorary personhood to all animals, would the gazelle be entitled against the lion?”

The practice of killing the bull barehanded has a historical and cultural importance attached to it. I believe that it should be preserved as it is inexorably tied to our traditional value system. It would be a great loss to the Zulu nation if this time-honoured ceremony, the First Fruits Ceremony, is abandoned or watered down in order to please “civilised” (mostly Western) tastes.

Perhaps the obiter dictum of the greatest of all teachers, Jesus Christ, should be our policy: “I come not to destroy the laws and the prophecy, I come to fulfil.”

• Dr Vusi Shongwe works in the Office of the Premier — KZN. This article is written in his personal capacity.

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