I wish I can collect my wits and say that I’m happy about celebrating the Heritage Month/Day in South Africa, but I can’t. These days, the whole country is in a celebratory mood as she commemorates one of the most significant characteristics of human beings - cultural diversity - that perfectly symbolizes our Rainbow Nation.
Sadly, I don’t actually see any cause to be jovial about this supposedly unifying moment. Whose heritage are we celebrating? What heritage for that matter? Is the braai representative of all South Africans? Maybe you can wake me from my slumber and educate me.
Heritage is some distant, illusionary dream in this country. If it exists, in fact, it serves those who have hijacked the whole course of African subjectivity that we might have had before. Alas! It is by the hands of our own people that African heritage’s post-mortem is being written. Heritage died not today, not yesterday, but long ago and it is dying yet again another slow painful death.
Well, South Africa has histories and traditions in abundance, to the extent that diversity is necessary to acknowledge them all. We even have the Apartheid Museum just to acknowledge it as part of our unshakeable history.
People of all races have a thread of commonality that bring them together, or else divide them. What sets apart this country is this very rainbow/diversity notion which unites differences.
But ours does not hold any water to demand calls for celebration. And if we are to be frank with ourselves, an extensive, collective introspection of a large scale needs to be done to clear the path of what our own heritage must mean to each and every one of us.
I’m a proud young Zulu man. I do feel the blood of well-documented Zulu warriors flowing in my veins and pumping up my heart to the rhythmic beat of the prose and African poetry we sing as praise names. Every time when I’m on the outskirts of Uthukela, I feel like slaughtering a beast in honour and praise of our ancestors who roamed those lands and preserved them for future generations.
Carrying a spear is not a provocation of violence nor is it a symbol of war for me, but a noble act of my awareness of masculinity and the incisiveness I may be demanded to exhibit at any given moment. From time immemorial, men performed hunting and security roles for their households and communities.
This is informed by my history as a black man, and as a Zulu man in my own country. My history subsequently informed my traditions, as my forefathers before my fathers did carry spears. Nakedness is not something the Zulu tribe is ashamed of. Almost 85% of bodily flesh is left in the open when one is wearing traditional Zulu attire. These attires are not worn in hiding, but mostly in public without any offense.
I do understand that we moved from that period as we had to adapt to civilization, and we had to learn not to upset people who found this offensive to their appetite. This is the glory of living in a rights-based society.
As a constitutional democracy, South Africa is a country where everyone’s rights are protected by the law. To observe and practise one’s culture is a matter of choice and necessity. But why is it that whenever African people (especially Zulus) observe their own cultures, we find certain sections of society hell-bent on opposing them?
Why do agents of change that harbour questionable vested interests want to impose their own ways upon us whenever we, Zulus, observe the Reed Dance ceremony? Obviously these people are entitled to their opinions as freedom of expression is also another protected right in this country. But I say this is bull-k*k. Let us marshal to shove this Eurocentric self-righteous chauvinism down their throats or where the sun won’t shine for another millennium.
Obviously, a broad-minded person, most likely a liberal, will argue that some cultures are so old and uncouth that they need some refurbishment in order to adapt to modern society’s ways of living, if not irrelevant altogether. This is all good and true. But to examine a culture does not have to mean that it must be assassinated and buried. I get the sense that the people advocating for this have a hidden wish to make all Zulu cultures vanish.
A deep-stick to measure African progress to modernity has always been at the hands of The West, based on Eurocentric ways, not the other way around. And I’m not cool with that. Why doesn't the Reed Dance be critically observed and analysed based on its virtues compared to its vices? At this age of HIV and Aids, all social interventions to curb this pandemic should be welcome with open minds much as Western medicine is endorsed. After all, HIV is much of a social problem than a medical one, but I'm not going down that road here.
Royal British nuptials
When I said that our heritage is slowly dying at the hands of our own people I meant just that. And I’m not apologetic one bit about saying so. Look at the SABC for instance, the supposedly public broadcaster that must represent all communities in this country, and which is freely accessible even to the deep rural folk of Manguza that still use cow dung for floor polish.
But what is the content of this freely accessible SABC shows us/them? I find little programs, if really any, that I can identify with from this broadcaster (I envy the days of Kwakhala Nyonini, Ubambo Lwami, Ifa LakwaMthethwa just to mention a few).
At some time last year (2011), viewers were subjected to a whole day’s broadcast of the Royal British nuptials. Wow, an awesome event! Just to sit there and watch the all high and mighty of the United Kingdom observing their beloved heritage and ensuring their dynasty is intact. I sat with my heart pumping up hoping that whoever was at the wheel of the SABC at that time must have seen the light and would no doubt show the Reed Dance come its time.
This person seemed to have been smoking the good stuff, until this Zulu ritual that is. What with this ceremony attracting international media and national recognition every year? You'd expect the SABC will cash in on this. To my dismay, I was doomed to another boring programming come the first weekend of September 2011.
So you see, those people (the portfolio committee on communication, SABC board of directors, programme directors or whoever is at the driver’s seat) care less if audiences are fed a junk diet, so long as it does not represent them. They are inadvertently complicit to our African heritage’s murder. The truth is, we hold all the institutions of power except the economy, yet we can’t use them to our own advantage.
Not only is this the killing of our heritage perpetuated through this media alone. Take a drive up the N3 from Durban to the Kingdom of the Zulus. Amazing sights await as you look at the road signs for directions. You find places like Uthugela instead of Uthukela, Mkuze for Mkhuze. If you dare take the N2 drive southbound towards the Eastern Cape for instance, you find places like Umbogotwini for Ezimbokodweni, Umkomaas for Umkhomazi and the list goes on and on. I’m ashamed because this has become acceptable.
Even though these are vestiges of apartheid, that which we claim to have successfully defeated, we see and use these names willy-nilly without so much as to question why this is still so, least of all change them. This is the death of our language, a double dying of our own heritage. Imagine a child at school who has to fail a spelling test because s/he wrote Uthukela instead of Uthugela, which is the official name anyway.
Even at universities, IsiZulu is learned in English. It’s unthinkable! And I wish I was making this up. Take away a people’s language; you take away their heritage if you want to kill them, just to rephrase one gentleman who wisely put it.
We, Africans, always have to explain ourselves to some external forces who don’t wish to understand our ways, but only want to impose theirs on us. When Africans were colonized, they had to give up their cultures in substitute to that of the masters. Later when apartheid was enforced, they had to give up their languages as well to speak that of the masters. Though now these systems are somewhat a figment of the past, they still stand taller than anything Africans are building for themselves.
Even using muthi and burning incense to cleanse myself is not a thing to be ashamed of, much as praying is for Christians. It is therefore heartbreaking to witness some people calling for the head of the traditional healer who engaged his services to the Marikana mine workers. Whatever his rituals might have led to, freedom of belief is a right in this country and those men made a choice to associate themselves without anyone forcing them.
When we slaughter a beast, animal rights agitators claim animal cruelty. But they don’t have the same vigor to denounce "lobster frying in the suburbs" nor any inclination to condemn keeping rabbits and parrots as pets. When the King Goodwill Zwelithini (Bayede!) asks for a budget increase for his constitutionally preserved office, and mind you he’s the only recognized King in the whole country, people call him greedy. But the president has just been granted a 5.5% salary increase which sees him earning more than R2 million extra only in two years.
And this is the president’s constitutional right as well. But from where I’m sitting, the current president himself is not so different from the King in terms of education, background or otherwise. In fact, they are cut from the very same conservative cloth. So why would the King be undeserving of the increase while the president does?
Having said this, I still feel that I don’t have any cause to celebrate. My heritage is questioned, my language is undermined. Until my children learn sciences in their native language, and when I watch television programs that represent me, and see public representatives address us in their native language, then I will pop up champagne and drink to celebrate our heritage as reclaimed.