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Demystifying ‘our tradition’.

By Hadebe Hadebe

Fusi Mabikitla from Lesotho looks after cows that are grazing in South African land, 2009. PIC: Mdu Ndzingi

Most people would be shocked to learn that what they always consider as ‘traditional’ things in black communities are nothing but a fallacy. This will include even some people who consider themselves African history enthusiasts as well as culture aficionados. Furthermore, the staunch supporters of ‘tradition’ do not even recognize that their beloved customs like lobola, weddings and funerals are biggest poverty creating schemes.

If truth to be told, even experts on the so-called African culture or tradition struggle to separate original customs to those which developed at the same time with colonial conquest. Zingisa Mavuso reasons that he “would like to think most of our supposedly hard core [culture] changed at this time.” This implies that the texture of African societies today is an illusion that has been pushed down our throats as authentic and thus cannot be challenged. The concept of African culture that people rave about, at least in the South African context, is highly contestable.

When talking about colonialism and its effects, this is one area that is always overlooked in favour of downsides of oppression that are easy to explain including wars, land dispossessions and brutality of colonialism. However, most scholars have not really focused on ‘soft’ issues like cultures, languages and traditions that possibly disappeared as a result of European conquest. It is therefore very possible that thousands of nations, languages and cultures were destroyed in the construction of the South African state that has always treated Africans as orphans and subhuman.

This article argues that the African in South Africa is about a people that were battered and defeated after many years of colonial rule. Hence, it is impossible to imagine that they could have resisted the onslaught, including protection of their cultures and heritage. Colonialists altered the character of Africans in identity, belief systems, food and how they view their surroundings. The Africans were displaced and dispersed up to the point that they currently struggle to recount where they originated and cannot even recall their history to the fourth or fifth generation.

As a result, this ravaged community tries to make sense of its existence and or identity amid all the confusion and misinformation that continues to define it. Unfortunately, there has been no success as pseudo-traditionalists insist on being the authority of what constitutes traditional or cultural practice.

The stories about the cultures, be it Zulu, Xhosa or Tswana, are made up in the form of the megatribes that we see today. Thus, there is nothing called Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana or Ndebele cultures.

First and foremost, it is quite questionable what exactly black South Africans salvaged of their culture when they are today carrying identities that were imposed by European colonialists. For example, past articles went at length to refute the notion of megatribes such as Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Sotho, Tswana, etc. To create megatribes, European settlers amalgamated different nations and kingdoms that they had chased around and destroyed during protracted wars.

Secondly, much of the historical account concerning the African peoples has been narrated by the Europeans who used fake science and scholarship to narrate history and to interpret anthropology, biology, etc. Today, we have an artificial division between the so-called Bantu and Khoisans, which continues to shape how people look at themselves. Eurocentric science claims the Bantu originate from the ‘north’ as a form of distortion and to justify land dispossessions and internal slavery.

Then there is something called Khoisan. Evidence suggests that there has never been a race or tribe that carried this name in the past. In fact, German zoologist Leonhard Schultze first used the term ‘Khoisan’ in his book titled ‘Zur Kenntnis des Körpers der Hottentotten und Buschmänner’ published in 1928. Schultze is responsible for the falsification that created a myth that Africans in southern Africa belonged to different races. This is something that continues to divide relatives to this day. The mission was easily accomplished, even though different groups and nations are mixed with each beyond what anyone can measure.

Thirdly, European linguistics such as Karl Meinhoff and CM Doke are Europeans who are credited for ‘creating’ African languages and for separating what was perhaps one language group to create isiXhosa, isiZulu, isiSwati and isiNdebele. The artificial linguistic differences are just too visible to ignore. These language classifications helped to create the megatribes and homelands at a later stage. Today, we are stuck with Africans who are no different from their cousins who were exported as slaves, in the Americas. They simply cannot remember anything about themselves except for documentation that was produced by their oppressor.

If the picture is so complex and difficult to even explain, how do Africans insist that they have an authentic culture that survived colonial conquest? There were no means and attempt to preserve the cultures and heritage. It is therefore unlikely that anyone can claim to know how African societies looked and lived before the invasion by the Europeans. It is the European masters who reformulated settlement patterns and ‘culture’ of Africans to fit their rule.

Starting with traditional rule. No African clan, tribe, kingdom or nation within the borders of the territory that is called South Africa (including Lesotho, Botswana and eSwatini) can claim to have escaped white men rule and destruction. Beginning with the invasion of the western Cape and Frontier Wars in the early years to Zulu defeat in 1879, the European domination over the natives was completed. What later emerged as traditional rule was meant to support the colonial rule. For example, the paramount chiefs and chiefs were noble public servants of the colonial administration.

The situation gets even more muddied with many customs and traditions that developed through the colonial and apartheid periods. Although some of the customs and practices may have existed in the pre-colonial era they were manipulated to fit the preferences of settlers.

Such things as lobola and inzilo/ukuzila (which is wearing black) are neither traditional nor African but a white man’s construct.

Inzilo was designed by colonial authorities to identify widows in cities where blacks were not permitted to stay or visit. So, a female with clearly identifiable clothing, say blue or black, would be discernible in crowds. Today, this practice is treated as ‘African culture’ while it was imposed on widows for purposes which have nothing to do with mourning (ukuzila) but for influx controls to the cities.

Even a grave and how people relate to it is a European creation. African societies never had settlement patterns of Europeans, whose organisation and socialization meant fixed permanency in the form of towns and cities. Therefore, this explains the prevalence of graves in most European cities and villages that date hundreds of years. Dead bodies in pre-colonial societies may have been disposed differently.

Nonetheless, death today is a hype of activity which features some of the most repugnant of practices, that are quite difficult to understand, such as the ‘after-tears’ and ‘ukuhlamba amapiki’ in places like KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. The funeral economy is one of the lavish and costly activities in the black community today. In the name of tradition, the natives go full length doing useless and unnecessary things that have absolutely no meaning including night vigils and feasting.

Another corrupted practice is that of lobola, which may have existed or not existed in some pre-colonial communities but today is widely practiced. Those who support this meaningless custom argue that it is meant to merge families of the bride and the groom. At the same time ignore the fact that it is closely tied to capitalism and its vicissitudes. Money is an essential part of a well-functioning capitalist economy.

Family of the bride at a wedding in Mt. Ayliff, Eastern Cape. 2018. PIC: Mdu Ndzingi

Although it is acknowledged that the custom of lobola may have existed in ancient times. The current practice was heavily shaped by colonialists in efforts to integrate Africans into the global economy as it happened with food and head-tax. The latter links directly with forced labour and meagre salaries that were paid to African men so that they could pay taxes that were used to fund colonial administrations. As a result, many people cannot imagine life without a salary.

Historian Jabulani Maphalala argues that in the past “people could get married after a goat is produced or without paying anything.” In pre-colonial Zimbabwe, lobola was in the form of a hoe (badza) and was therefore materially worth little, if anything at all. The notion that lobola is necessary and therefore compulsory is a deadly poverty trap that ensures blacks are forever preoccupied with poverty creating schemes while thinking they practice ‘culture’. Young men therefore forego opportunities to build wealth and save to pay lobola.

Today, it is uncommon to hear stories of people paying over one hundred and fifty thousand rands for lobola. The lobola economy is rife and families demand cash for their daughters. This form of exchange is quite lucrative because it brings some economic relief to families and is not taxable like other incomes. On the flip side, the practice of lobola and related activities of wedding and marriage weigh heavily in young people who have intentions of building families.

The commercialization of lobola traces its origins to colonial times where authorities were desperate to commodify livestock, among others, and to develop the agriculture industry. In Zimbabwe it was trade with Portuguese for guns and gold as well as slaves. In South Africa, it is part of complex process of building the modern South African economy and tightening controls over blacks. Colonial rulers created artificial scarcity of cattle to force men to work in the white economy in order to accumulate cash to pay lobola, which had been institutionalized by the colonial authorities.

Theophilus Shepstone, ex-governor of the Natal Colony and after whom the south coast town of Port Shepstone is named, reportedly took personal interest to manipulate the market value of cattle. In 1859, he set the ‘bride price’ at £5 a cow. He also directed that eleven cows were payable for a daughter of a commoner, fifteen for a chief’s daughter and thirty for a king’s daughter. These magic numbers have been retained to this day because lobola is a ‘traditional’ practice that cannot be avoided.

This article contends that colonialism is not buried but is very much alive and practiced by the so-called liberated people and no one has ever bothered to interrogate how deep the colonial project went, not only to influence African societies but also to entrench the capitalist culture in people. Practices like lobola are carefully intertwined with weddings, marriage and religion in African communities to form a dog stew that is now difficult to untangle.

Funerals too follow the same pattern; the dead are put through rituals that are capped with church sermons. The funerals economy and weddings economy are worth billions of rands in food, clothing, funeral parlours, stokvels, life policies, priests, certifications, etc. It is doubtful if any of this money contributes to the wellbeing of the African societies. Without life insurers, banks understand the gullibility of blacks and have created products for all these unnecessary expenditures.

It will take some serious undoing for the Africans to unlearn or free themselves from practices and customs that have absolutely nothing to do with their culture and which also throw them deep into poverty. Decolonization should extend to cover not only what is discussed above but also initiation (ukwaluka), diet and much more.

Perhaps modern and liberated individuals can reshape the practice of lobola. For example, it can involve joint contributions by the families of money and other assets to help young couples to start up instead of taking from them. This will help families and couples to be committed to their social endeavour rather than leaving the burden on the shoulders of young grooms and brides. In a country with scarce opportunities for good employment such interventions can provide the much need relief.

Siya yi banga le economy!

3 thoughts on “Demystifying ‘our tradition’.

  1. This is an amazing piece! Started out quite well and strong but slowly lost momentum going in… I digress.

    These notions are very formidable in and of themselves, I agree with the great lot. Please provide the references for these arguments.

  2. Thanks for the article,
    It is what it is regarding historical information. We’ve lost a lot of rich and insightful inputs from the elders as the society failed to document their knowledge…. We are at the mercy of the colonial documentation.

    When it comes to customs vs tradition it’s always a matter of “as a family this is how we do it” we are happy with it and we know those who have passed on will appreciate it as well…. That’s how we know it and that’s how we will do it – we give leeway where and how we can.

  3. I always contend that the ‘traditional practices’ we are engaged in as Africans in South Africa are fallacious. A lot does not add up if you take a closer look at them. Imbeleko for example was practiced purely to ensure that the newborn gets a blanket from the goat’s hide to keep warm. As time went on it was converted into a must do by the capitalist market. Very good article. Kudos!

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