One of the ideals of the national freedom struggle in South Africa was to create a just, equal, non-sexist, non-racial, and democratic society. This is an ideal the Xhosa man of the abaThembu who became an international icon for progressive statesmanship and his fellow travelers stood for.
We have not achieved that society yet. But we are much farther than where we were in 1653, 1910, ‘48, ‘61, ‘64, ‘76, ‘85 or April 26 1993. Justice, equality, non-sexism, non-racism, and democracy are part of the foundations of the Constitution of post-apartheid South Africa.
Let me begin then where I stopped on Monday December 16; for I am still riding the inspiration from the man who did the long walk – and the other many men and women who went before, along, and after him and others who died for the cause of liberation.
It seems to me that were we to achieve the feat of making young minds believe that they don’t have to give up their senses of their homes in the villages and townships in which they were born or raised in order to become part of a larger modern world, it will infinitely contribute to the enrichment and longevity of the best in our traditions. It might seem too huge a mountain to climb. However, if we are able to convince in the existence of God, witchcraft, and Father Christmas, surely we can make them treasure their childhood even as they conquer the world.
The key is to inculcate in our children the notion that they are part of a nourishing tradition while using their talents to reach out for greatness in the big contemporary globe with its bright lights. What this prompts is to make black traditions beneficial to the greatest number of members. We are also spurred to reexamine what we really mean by tradition. Then we need to do the teaching of that which we consider the core of tradition very well. If the mainstay of tradition is botho then botho is what we need to teach more systematically, more consciously, rather than leave it to chance. We have to erect schools founded on the principle of botho. We have to teach teachers to be able to teach botho. Our curriculum must be expressive of the principle. If this deliberate cultivation is done right, nothing prevents a boy or girl from knowing that there is no essential opposition between deeply embedded with the culture of Basotho, Batswana, amaNdebeles, or amaZulu as well as being continentally African, egalitarian, sexual liberated or identifying with other values and struggles beyond ethnicity.
The assumption underlying such a project is simply that tradition and modernisation do not only live very comfortably together when one is conscious of the complementary strengths of each. In addition, the limits of both as well as their enjoyment are that much clearer where the binaristic, either/or, thinking is seen as a constraining construction. Jewish people have appreciated the kinship of memory and innovation for centuries. In the process they have produced some of the leading lights in many domains.
Modernity and tradition are not opposites, even if they are made to appear to be so. They are made to be so when tradition is regarded as stagnant and holding us back – a misconception about the nature of tradition, sometimes a deliberate obfuscation – and modernity as infinitely in flux. When tradition is conceived as open to change when change is necessary, and the contemporary is the context in which tradition endures, the two cannot be irreconcilable.
Unless one closes one’s mind and chooses death, then, there is little contradiction being an African man steeped in tradition and supporting feminist goals of women’s human right to equality. There is no essential antipathy between loving tradition and supporting gay, lesbian, transgender and queer claims for equality. Changing dominant gender relations doesn’t mean we have to stop being men and women and many things inbetween.
Transforming femininities and masculinities – most femininities and masculinities – towards happier and healthy forms and relations is essential of course. If we are going to turn the rage against racial, (hetero)sexist, and economic oppression and post-independence dictatorships that comes out in violent ways into creative outlets, there is no other way but to transform aggressive masculinities and patriarchal femininities.
Yet the imperative to shift the investment of African masculinities away from patriarchal dominance needn’t mean turning into white women in minstrel drag. Progressive black manhood doesn’t mean becoming lite, lesser, softer, darker, late versions of old white patriarchs. It doesn’t mean becoming yes-baas men and lackeys of white cultural hegemony. It doesn’t mean turning away from our traditions. It doesn’t mean giving up our fury whenever we experience or witness racial injustice and cultural prejudice.
Inhabiting a progressive African masculinity means that you can be angry at injustice, racism, corruption, undemocratic practices, gender, sexual and economic inequality and still live a life rich with laughter and love.
It means you can and must fight against racism, sexism, homophobia, and all injustices wherever and whenever they rear their many ugly heads.
You can work for the emancipation of women and remain awake to the vulnerability of men.
You can be a devotee of your culture and still be its fiercest critic.
You can be a tender and caring man and yet be strong and resolutely African in tradition.
This is what has not been said enough of about Mandela’s life.