Court battle over Zulu bull-killing ritual

2009-12-02 00:00

THE deadlock between animal rights activists and supporters of the ritual slaughter of a bull by Zulu warriors at the Umkhosi wokweshwama ceremony on December 5 continues, pending a ruling by Judge Nic van der Reyden on Friday.

An early bid by the judge yesterday to encourage the parties to find middle ground during the lunch adjournment proved fruitless, and the legal arguments resumed in the afternoon without further talk about a settlement.

Judge van der Reyden suggested in argument it is unrealistic to expect “one judge to put a stop overnight” to an age-old ritual that is of vital significance to millions of Zulu people. What if the king then lost his powers or was struck by lightning, he asked.

He likened the debate to that surrounding circumcision and even the Soweto uprising, which was the result of a bid to “force Afrikaans down the throats of children”.

“I am sitting on a powder keg here and if this can be resolved by way of agreement it should be done,” he said.

Earlier the judge said he is aware that whichever way he rules, he “will be damned”, and pointed out that although he is an “ardent animal lover” and hates cruelty, the issues have to be evaluated objectively and unemotionally, bearing in mind the importance of the tradition to the Zulu nation.

Animal Rights Africa (ARA) is asking the court to grant an interim interdict to stop this year’s ritual slaughter of the bull on the grounds that it is likely to be subjected to acts of cruelty.

Alternatively, the ARA has asked the judge to interdict the king and his followers from ill-treating the bull. The court is asked to order specifically that the bull may not be “tortured or maimed, beaten, kicked or terrified, endure having its tongue pulled out of its mouth, its eyes gouged or its reproductive organs mutilated, twisted or severed, or have any substance forced down its throat”.

The ARA also wants the court to authorise its representatives to attend and record the ceremony before referring the matter for oral evidence so that the issues can be fully debated.

Michael Smithers SC argued that ARA was criticised for inaccurately describing what takes place at the slaughter and basing its application on “hearsay” and not affidavits of eye witnesses.

He pointed out that members of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals who allegedly possess video footage and have witnessed the ritual, did not wish to become involved in the litigation due to fears for their safety.

He submitted that it is”inherently improbable” that a bull can be killed barehanded in a quick and painless manner “by breaking its neck”, according to the version that has been presented on behalf of King Goodwill Zwelithini in court papers.

Nirmal Singh SC, representing the king, KZN Premier Zweli Mkhize and Traditional Affairs MEC Nomusa Dube, said one faction of society cannot be permitted to assert its beliefs over those of others, particularly those beliefs involving religious custom and ritual whose freedom is protected under the Constitution.

He said the slaughter of the bull in no way impinges on the beliefs of the ARA or its members’ right to hold such beliefs. It was not asked to witness the event or endorse it, he said.

“They [ARA] are entitled to hold their belief and they should afford the Zulu nation the same courtesy.”

Singh urged the court to accept the version given by historian Professor Simon Maphalala, who describes the ritual and explains that the bull may not be maimed or mutilated in any manner during its slaying as this would show disrespect for the king.

According to historian Professor Simon Maphalala, the Ukweshwama ceremony is based on an ancient tradition which holds that the people are not allowed to taste new corn or any of the fruits of the new year until they have been sanctioned by the king at a feast.

One of the events is for “young warriors approaching puberty to control and kill a bull which has been especially chosen for its strength”.

“To achieve this aim the animal is overpowered by closing its airways and thereafter its neck is broken in a specific manoeuvre that causes a quick and painless death. No bloodletting of any kind is allowed; nor is dismemberment of any kind part of that ritual slaying.

“The reason for this is the symbolic representation of the king in the form of the bull.

“From ancient times it was believed the power of the king wanes. While in olden times the king was killed and a new king was installed, the modern practice developed of killing the king symbolically so that his power may be regained and he would be revitalised.

“Thus the bull cannot be mutilated as in form he represents the king; hence the killing with bare hands.”

The professor said that once the bull succumbs, a traditional doctor opens up the animal and removes the gall and mingles it with herbs and medicines. This is given to the people to drink and the flesh is given to the warriors. What remains must be burnt.

The strength of the warriors in overcoming the bull is assumed by the king and is symbolic of the power he wields over the Zulu nation.

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