Quote of the week

Universal adult suffrage on a common voters roll is one of the foundational values of our entire constitutional order. The achievement of the franchise has historically been important both for the acquisition of the rights of full and effective citizenship by all South Africans regardless of race, and for the accomplishment of an all-embracing nationhood. The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts. In a country of great disparities of wealth and power it declares that whoever we are, whether rich or poor, exalted or disgraced, we all belong to the same democratic South African nation; that our destinies are intertwined in a single interactive polity.

Justice Albie Sachs
August and Another v Electoral Commission and Others (CCT8/99) [1999] ZACC 3
5 March 2007

Culture and hatred

Sometimes I think that culture – and not patriotism – is the last refuge of scoundrels. In South Africa we are quick to appeal to our culture to justify prejudice and hatred of others. More complexly, we also use culture to assert our identity vis-à-vis other groups – especially groups we perceive to be powerful and oppressive.

Thus same-sex marriage is said to be wrong because “it is not part of our culture”. White people who throw a hissy-fit about, say, Tony Yengeni slaughtering a bull after leaving prison are told to shut up “because this is part of our culture”. Afrikaners who sing that awful De la Rey song while waving the old South African flag, likewise claim a right to cultural expression.

Culture – like religion – is a powerful tool because culture is mostly presented in essentialist terms – as something solid and unchanging, something that forms part of the very being of the individual who claims its protection. “If you challenge my culture, you are denying my humanity.”

But culture is not fixed and essential. Culture is ever changing and we “invent” our culture as we go along. People who appeal to a cultural belief or practice often imply that this belief or practice goes back hundreds or even thousands of years. But if we did an effort to look into it, we would often discover that a cultural practice is really just a justification for the prejudices or beliefs of the person claiming cultural protection.

I was reminded of this when I read Cyril Madlala’s column in today’s Business Day. In the course of making an argument about why Joe Seremane would be out of place as leader of the DA he states that somebody who is imbued with the spirit of ubuntu would not have made remarks about Manto Tshabalala-Msimang dying in office. Then he continues:

Similarly, black South Africans, irrespective of political affiliation, generally expect everyone to respect the office of the president of the republic, whether they like the incumbent or not

Here Madladla is invoking a monolithic African culture to justify reverence for the President. This is patently absurd. Until 13 years ago South Africa had a white President and few would argue that black people showed respect for his office, so there is no general culture among black people to respect the President.

Given the politics of race in South Africa there is, of course, some sensitivity among many black people (and some whites) about the way some white people criticise the representatives of the ANC government. Criticism – even of Thabo Mbeki – can often seem inspired by racism and hatred.

This does not mean black people have a culture of respecting the office of the President. It merely means many black people in South Africa in 2007 do not like white people criticising the President because they (rightly) suspect racism is often behind such criticism.

It would come as a surprise to anyone who has studied the press statements of Zwelenzima Vavi and other Cosatu leaders or the garbled mutterings of the aging youngsters of the ANC Youth League to hear it is part of black culture to respect the office of the President.

Moreover to claim that it is part of black culture to respect the office of the President is deeply troubling in an open and democratic society. The President is the servant of the people and his office is thus that of a servant. He should respect us and then we may also respect him.

To claim respect is inherent in the culture is to try and take disrespect for the President and his position outside the boundaries of acceptable political discourse. But I think a discourse in which showing disrespect for a politician is beyond the pale, is not a democratic discourse but a patriarchal and oppressive discourse masquerading as essentialist culture.

Every time I hear people say “it is my culture”, what I really hear is: “shut up, you have no right to feel or say that!”

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