Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Elites abuse traditions to entrench their power

Nomalanga Mkhize, Business Day

THE "maiden bursary" offered by the uThukela district municipality affirms two points. First, it shows why the principle of constitutionalism is necessary in a pluralist society. By pluralist I mean a society in which many cultural institutions, customs and codes coexist and interact.

We can continuously debate and change the content of that Constitution over time, but a constitution is necessary to act as final arbiter lest we give way to extreme cultural relativism that can legitimise abhorrent practices.

Second, the bursary demonstrated a major ideological faultline of the postcolonial state. Not neocolonialism, but neotraditionalism. By this I mean the tendency of postcolonial political orders to express power and statecraft through a toxic mix of conservative politics, culturalist rhetoric and very masculinised political practice.

In our analyses of why postcolonial states fail we tend to focus on the structural aspects. But we have to see how the macroeconomic setup interacts with, and is shaped by, the confluence of daily power plays expressed through social norms, customs, gender relations and localised politics.

In uThukela, we see perfectly how big problems such as HIV/AIDS, poverty and unwieldy local government collide with deeply held social beliefs and customs to give local elites the opportunity to deepen their political traction by aligning state resources with conservative cultural practice in conservative communities.

In and of itself the act of reimagining cultural practice to tackle pressing contemporary social questions is not inherently wrong; culture is a rich intellectual resource. But often what is repackaged as culture is really a political ploy intended to entrench controlling ideologies.

Take, for example, the public attacks against African women for wearing miniskirts, deemed immodest and "unAfrican" by conservatives, even though most traditional sub-Saharan African attire exposes women’s body parts. Another is the way people insist that African women must take their husbands’ surnames on marriage even though this practice arrived with missionaries and Christian marital rites.

I was left bemused once when I debated with a prince on radio as he maintained that it was imperative for married African women to go by the title "Mrs". I tried to remind him that southern Africans referred to each other by clan, not this western concept of a "surname". He confounded me into silence with his defence of a practice first adopted by Christian converts who had abandoned their culture. Had I not been so amused, I really should have asked this prince why we refer to President Jacob Zuma’s wives as "MaKhumalo", "MaNtuli" and so on.

Neotraditionalists are not interested in using culture to liberate Africans, but to find culturally sanctioned avenues to increase power, exert social control and evade accountability.

Yet our history tells us stories of "cultural" defiance by African women. Take the famous Ingcugce Regiment Rebellion of 1876. The Ingcugce was a regiment of female regiment under King Cetshwayo ka Mpande. As the colony encroached, Ingcugce members were instructed to marry men in a senior regiment. Some young women found this unacceptable, and ran off with their lovers. Those who defied this kingly edict were tracked down and some were executed.

Neotraditionalists do not actively promote these histories of African women defying African men, especially not where it also relates to sexual liberty. Neotraditionalists would prefer for us to imagine that long, long ago in "our culture", "our women" were stoic and culturally compliant.

This brings us back to the principle of constitutionalism. It is unlikely that advocates of the "maiden bursary" will yield to reason. The most effective method will be to take the municipality to the Equality Court.