The great SLAUGHTER debate

Not in a long time have our newspapers dedicated so much space to what would seem to be a non-issue. I am, of course, talking about the so-called debate about ritual slaughter.

For years, black people have been slaughtering in the townships and, in later years, even in the suburbs as the demographics and complexion of these neighbourhoods have changed. It never made national news. Indeed, to many black people, slaughtering a beast is like going to church. It’s so commonplace you would be real daft or desperate to dedicate newspaper space to it.

I do realise that when black people made their first forays the clash of culture was highly pronounced. Whenever there was a large group of black people visiting a newly-arrived darkie in a previously white neighbourhood, the white neighbours would, sometimes correctly, be suspicious that the party that would take place would result in the slaughter of a beast.

I do recall the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals impounding some beasts, albeit reluctantly, to placate the righteous white citizens who had raised objections to a slaughter being committed in their neighbourhood. But I do not recall anyone being prosecuted for slaughtering a beast. The authorities were alive to the sensitivities around the issue, and that this might lead to reprisals, with the black people in question challenging such prosecution on the grounds of their cultural rights – and in the process invoking the constitution.

Over the years, whites who have black neighbours seem to have resigned themselves to the fact that you can’t stop black people from slaughtering. All you can do, if you are a sensitive white, is to lock yourself behind your gates and doors and shut your mind to the horrors – real or imagined – being committed at the house next door in the name of African culture.

Against this background, then, it was highly entertaining to see newspapers suddenly dedicating chunks of news print to the debate about slaughtering. Admittedly, the issue was sparked by Tony Yengeni, whose family slaughtered a beast as part of a ceremony to cleanse him after his release from jail.

I can promise you that countrywide, hundreds of beasts were killed in various townships, villages, and suburbs, that weekend, but none of those were reported on.

Personally, I did not think much of the initial stories published that weekend: they were simple and straightforward reports on the party. It could have been Gwen Gill writing about the Oppenheimers’ shindig, and so on. But the follow-ups, and the readers’ responses were revealing. There seemed to be consternation, on the part of the commentators, that Yengeni – an educated, seemingly ”enlightened” person – could participate in what was generally (from a white perspective, of course) described as barbaric.

Reluctantly, in my capacity as a columnist and insight editor of the Sunday Times, I found myself having to explain – some would say defend – the intricacies of ritual slaughter. The debate just grew, and grew, and some of the country’s top academic brains were made to participate.

On the surface, it sounded like a non-issue, but at a fundamental level it got the various cultures speaking to each other, and challenging each other beyond the misleading rainbow façade. All of a sudden we, as a nation, got talking passionately about things that matter to us. We suddenly started debating cultural rights versus animal rights (or anti-cruelty issues).

But more importantly, the debate showed that we are still far from understanding each other as fellow countrymen, with a common destiny in this country.

Through the debates, those opposed to ritual slaughter were encouraged, if not challenged, to go and witness a slaughter and decide for themselves if it had been carried out under barbaric circumstances, or under conditions that are cruel to the animal in question.

So, in that sense, the media played a major role in facilitating what promises to be a long-drawn robust and, hopefully, constructive debate about cultural and national identity.

A people without a culture is like a tree without roots, as Bob Marley once said. A press that doesn’t get people talking to each other passionately about things that matter to them and their destiny as a nation, is but a charade, a waste of paper and ink.

Fred Khumalo is an award-winning journalist and Sunday Times columnist and author of the autobiography Touch my Blood and Bitches’ Brew, a novel.

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