Africa / African / Blacks / Culture / Tradition

“Some Africans Who Become Too Clever”

Here is the first draft of the piece that appeared under Mbuyiselo Botha and my name in the City Press of 11 November 2012.

First, though, I should say that the piece is a response to these impromptu remarks by President Jacob Zuma in his address to the National House of Traditional Leaders on the Traditional Courts Bill in Cape Town on November 1, 2012

In his remarks Zuma makes an ill-advised departure from his prepared text, perhaps betraying his real beliefs and insecurities about critical, or educated, or smart, or unruly blacks. It is the phrase he used to characterize critical black citizens as ‘Africans who become too clever’ that I found objectionable and moved me to respond to him. When, one must ask, did being intelligent become a swearword? Critical thought is bad?  

But, now, one thing that strikes me is that to read the prepared speech (which can be found here and listen to Zuma’s off-the-cuff remarks on African identity, raising children, culture and tradition is to be reminded of the doubleness that haunts African consciousness, the enduring, terrible double visions that troubles our lives.

I think that I want to write a more extended piece on the matter of being critical of one’s tradition. For now though, here is the promised first draft of the published piece.


“Tradition is a source of power, but Zuma and other traditionalists are to be feared

Kopano Ratele and Mbuyiselo Botha

In light of what Africa has withstood since European imperialistic expansion, there is no doubt that there is great resilience and beauty to be found in tradition in need of better understanding and preserving.

However, it is no secret that many traditions, in Africa and beyond, can hurt the very people who identify with it. Practices such as ukuthwala, female genital mutilation, and in general, the unearned power of men as a group over women are some of the traditions inimical to the general development of African cultures.

Over a week ago in his address to the National House of traditional Leaders President Jacob Zuma attacked black people who dare disagree with some of the precepts of their self-avowed traditions and culture. He called them ‘Africans who become too clever’ and, with a phrase strikingly similar to the one his erstwhile supporter Julius Malema used when he spoke about the woman Zuma was charged with raping, that they are pursuing the white man’s way.

There is much to fear when zealous traditionalists like President Jacob Zuma attempt to make black people offer unreflective obedience to his views of what constitutes tradition, and make what are subjective retrogressive views as the total of tradition.

While there is some positive consequence from having a president who does not hide his identification with his tradition, best exemplified by his polygamous union, which are of course permitted by our constitution, traditionalist like Zuma should not seek to foist their beliefs and practices on all black people.

Many black men and women make different choices, like marrying one spouse or not all, and no president or traditionalist should impose his views on them.  

For Zuma to speak disparagingly against black people who critically engage their culture and tradition by calling them clever black is more than merely unfortunate or ironic. Zuma of course is deliberately conflating his own views of tradition with tradition in its entirety, suing tradition for short-term political gain.

In the long term, lashing out against critical black citizen is bad for the future of black traditions.

The irony is that Zuma is channeling a colonialist discourse by calling critical citizens clever blacks and wishing they were an undifferentiated and dumb mass even when they are disagreed with what they consider detrimental to the collective and oppressive or folly in their traditions and leaders.

Zuma is not alone in views and construction of black traditions as beyond criticism and static or desire for black to be homogenous. The reason his views seem to have found resonance with the traditional leaders is because many in the House share similar sentiments.

Ordinarily, tradition is a much abused, or at best misused, word, but traditionalists are the worst abusers.

Whilst some of the abuse is willful, another form arises from self-induced ignorance. Jacob Zuma exhibited both types of abuse of traditions for the benefit of and in collusion traditional leaders in his address.

To appreciate the abuse of the idea of tradition, we have to understand the two overlapping meanings of the word.

First, tradition refers to something handed down from generation to generation, for example about the right number of spouses a woman or man deserves to take, acceptable sexual acts, or how best settle a dispute.

Second, tradition means a belief, practice or value from time immemorial. Polygynous relations, veneration of ancestors, respect for elders, ubuntu, and chieftancy are a few examples.

If what Zuma exhibited was abuse from self-induced blindness, he needs to be reminded that in any generation there is always bound to be differences about any practice considered to be traditional. Compared to many other projects, it will be money well-spent if Zuma were to commission a survey to ask about their support of different traditions like polygamy and men as heads of households he and other traditionalists believe all black should obey. At least that money will go into expanding our knowledge about our society and its cultures.

The fact that Zuma doesn’t seem to appreciate for his own private reason is that anyone who takes time to ask people about their traditions quickly finds that any practice considered part of tradition and culture is never wholly supported by all. It has nothing to do with a white man’s agenda or any other conspiracy, just the complexity of modern societies and individuals how live in it. We just believe in different things, even if are all Zulus or black. Tradition is always contested by those it is intended to subject to its dominion. 

Why should black women and men not exercise their native intelligence by contesting some of the precepts of their culture and tradition they don’t agree with?

Professor Ratele heads the Programme on Traditions in the Institute for Social and Health Sciences at Unisa, and Botha works in media and government relations for Sonke Gender Justice Network.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s