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In the name of culture

Fifteen years into liberation and democracy we should be guided by the way South Africa’s citizens created an inclusive human rights culture that values every person. Our Constitution upholds the right to religion, culture and language as long as these do not undermine the values enshrined there. The values of our democracy are clear: human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.

Under apartheid the lives of the majority of South Africans were devalued — life was cheap and ”culture” was used by the apartheid state to divide, exclude and dishonour. Despite the state’s oppression, a culture of resistance nourished poetry, art, music, theatre and dance, and people retained and evolved rich oral traditions. Culture as the values, beliefs and art that people use to define themselves changes and adapts as people change and adapt. However, apartheid attempted to calcify culture as a tool to divide and rule and had brutal success in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Many men in KwaZulu-Natal were mobilised or coerced into a ”cultural” organisation on the basis of Zulu identity. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the apartheid state funded and armed this ”cultural” organisation. Members of the Israeli security trained its deadliest members. The conflict that followed almost escalated into civil war in parts of South Africa. The TRC confirmed the ”impi” had gone on a killing spree not just against other men, but also against women and children. Independent research into the violence confirmed that women’s and girls’ bodies were targeted in particularly vicious ways. This was not peculiar to these attacks — this viciousness was very much in line with that of the apartheid masters on women detainees, women on streets and farms and women in their own families.

A recent book on marketing, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin, is premised on the belief that almost everyone is driven by a need to belong, to follow a leader and to have a song that our ”tribe” dances to. He describes what spin doctors and strategists employ to build the power of the leader over the tribe.

Under apartheid in KwaZulu-Natal ”culture” came to encompass not just what men wore and what music and food they loved but their right to carry weapons — to ”kill for the king”. For many, culture became conflated with the inequality of women who were relegated to ”minors” under apartheid law, thus ensuring women’s dependence on patriarchs in local communities, leaving them vulnerable to abuse by those who had been put into power by the state. Today many from that ”cultural” organisation have crossed over to their previous enemy, often carrying much conservative baggage and their weaponry.

What is the relevance of all of this for the current situation? All indications are that the ruling party will retain its majority in Parliament and its conduct in this period sets the tone for the future of our constitutional democracy. What its leaders say and do is critical for all of society.

In South Africa large numbers are unemployed and experience ­poverty daily through a lack of decent housing, water, sanitation, food and healthcare. Over the past few years infant and child mortality rates increased and adult life expectancy rates decreased. These are socio­economic human rights that must be addressed. Yet those who have held and continue to hold state power appeal to the frustrations of young men, using these issues as rallying points. ”Culture” is invoked in potentially dangerous ways that are too resonant with our painful past.

In the making of a new voting tribe culture is being used and defended from attack because it is ”Culture” with a capital C, calcified, beyond question or criticism. In a time of peace the song Umshini Wam, a military song that means Bring Me my Machine Gun, is sung at campaign rallies across South Africa. It has other meanings that became explicit when it was sung outside Jacob Zuma’s famous rape trial, where photos of the complainant were burned to chants of ”burn the bitch, burn her” by women and men — in the week of International Women’s Day.

The biblical archetype of evil — the snake — is used to describe other human beings with the advice that the ”snakes” should be ”beaten” to death. ”Witchcraft” is used to explain veteran women leaving their party, during an election speech, in a context where too many older women and men have been killed as ”witches”. Institutions critical to democracy are attacked and undermined if they challenge the interests of powerful individuals. A leader of the youth says things to outrage and is an easier target than the source of his legitimacy.

We know that across the world women and children (girls and boys) are the invisible victims of hidden wars in war and peace. The women’s movement broke the silence that women who were raped and battered experienced under apartheid. They came in their numbers to speak out. How can spin doctors and strategists who devise populist messages not see the continuities with a history we all fought against and not care about the long-term damage that is being done? Who carries the consequences for how men use umshini wam — their ”weapons of war”?

There are very dangerous consequences in a world that provides confused messages and limited choices to young men about being a ”real man” and expressing anger and frustration in non-violent ways. The rape and domestic violence ­statistics exemplify this danger.

Too many still believe in the authoritarian idea of the omniscient leader that was perfected under colonialism and apartheid and maintained in many post-colonial societies. The children who die daily of poverty and HIV/Aids do not deserve the cold, uncaring leader who rationalises away their suffering or the tragically flawed leader whose weaknesses lull us away from the lifelong challenge of transforming ourselves. We are a deeply damaged society that will not change unless we change ourselves alongside making the necessary structural changes in society.

Those elected have an opportunity to use power and position to build real equality and a culture of human rights — by accepting responsibility to address socio­economic rights. Through a commitment to clear policy and practice they can begin to re-establish the integrity of politics as the possibility of and commitment to real change in people’s lives.

We can recognise the inherent dignity of every human being. We can use our voices and power to end oppressive silences and speak with love and courage. Building equality and dignity requires a paradigm shift. It is the only way that those elected to power will be able to account to their own conscience. It is the way ordinary citizens can hold them to our constitutional values and their election promises in the years ahead.

Pregs Govender was an MP from 1994 to 2002 and sits on the Human Rights Commission. She is the author of Love and Courage, A Story of Insubordination

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