Of culture and cowardice

Intrigue and uncertainty of envelop South African politics. Perhaps that’s why traditional values are being employed now in the service of political interests. Consider Fikile Mbalula’s recent initiation.

How the Free State-based Mbalula landed in the bushes of Cape Town’s Philippi for his circumcision is still clouded in mystery. In the absence of Mbalula’s own account we are left with conflicting stories. One is that he went of his own volition; the other alleges abduction. The former is less convincing.

Why would Mbalula choose to practise the ritual so far away from home? Such things are done at one’s ancestral home (apparently in the former Transkei in Mbalula’s case). The other telling factor is the involvement of Tony Yengeni. Usually family elders take the lead in such matters and relatives ensure that all rites are performed properly to avoid cultural transgressions that might incur the wrath of ancestors. This is not a political issue. It is a delicate cultural matter.

Some argue the intention was to prevent Mbalula uncovering malfeasance in the auditing of branches before the ANC Western Cape provincial conference. Mbalula was assigned by Luthuli House to oversee this process, but then he went off to be initiated. Without his supervision, leaders were at liberty to manipulate the process to their advantage, as is now alleged by former leaders of the Dullah Omar region. They charge that 40% of the province’s branches were disqualified from participating in the conference that elected the new leadership, headed by Mcebisi Skwatsha, is a close friend and ally of Yengeni. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see why Skwatsha would have wanted to keep Mbalula at bay.

Yengeni’s masterstroke is that culture shielded him from legal censure. Had Mbalula’s relatives laid a charge of abduction it would have been bad for Mbalula’s reputation. It would have implied cowardice. No self-respecting man wants to be labelled a coward, especially a national leader whose political career is built on a militant posture. Initiation is a test of manhood.

Traditionalism is an effective tool in African politics. Even the urbane Thabo Mbeki used it just before the 1999 elections. Bantu Holomisa had denounced him as detached from rural reality and next thing Mbeki was undergoing a ritual at his ancestral village, Mpukane in Idutya, to “re-introduce him to his ancestors”. (This was more than eight years after his return from exile.) Mbeki assured locals that he, too, was a traditional man and a local lad.

But tradition can also be an imprisonment. The Inkatha Freedom Party sold itself as the guardian of Zulu culture, with a Zulu chief, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, at the helm to legitimise its claims to traditionality. The conservative rural populace of KwaZulu-Natal bought the idea.

But the IFP’s appeal did not stretch beyond this rural constituency, which cost it political power in the region. Urbanites don’t consider political leadership the birthright of royalty. Theirs is a language of equality, where positions are merited, not inherited. Yet the IFP Youth Brigade’s attempts to undo Buthelezi’s stranglehold on the party by electing the modernist Ziba Jiyane fell flat. The party hierarchy would not countenance an American-educated, twanging doctor in the role of a “Zulu guardian”. Now the IFP is effectively stunted.

Traditionalism is a double-edged sword. It is both enabling and stifling­. Invoking it brings short-lived benefits. Jacob Zuma may yet rue the day he allowed himself to be portrayed as a “100% Zuluboy”.

Dr Mcebisi Ndletyana is senior research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council

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