Best of 2012 | What Jacob Zuma does on weekendsby Dela Gwala / 05.01.2013
Originally published 05 June 2012
My cousin was the uppermost corner of a Zulu love triangle. The woman who got him is affectionately known as ‘Winnie’ but her future sister-in-law calls her “the Winner”. It was doctor versus accountant – the doctor won. The loser’s consolation prize was her current husband and her young child. Blocking the doorway of a flat in Pinetown was a large three legged potjie, plastic packaged shirts, gift-ready alcohol and miscellaneous items of food. The stragglers, in a collection of blankets, barricaded the other items. The rest of the blankets were stacked up in a bedroom – a mountainous presence with a foreboding price tag. These blankets are the honorary gift of tradition, custom and choice in one of the most scorching regions in the country. They are a sign of impending nuptials. After years of digging coffin-sized holes in the ground, our family was preparing for something actually worth celebrating – a marriage.
The promise of a 6am start was pointless, the thought to leave only occurred to everyone at 9. Parked outside was a truck loaded with everything that was previously on my aunt’s floor, once again the blankets kept it all in place. The truck was squeezed in by three cars and a taxi, which rounded off the convoy. The groom-to-be set off at a blazing pace down the highway, leaving behind the vehicles carrying the offerings for the ceremonies and his guests. We got lost somewhere past Umzinto, after ignoring an instruction to only turn when we’d driven past two bottle stores. The view from the window looked like something out of Lord of the Rings; the tall trees on the roads beyond Scottburgh seem as mythical as anything that could have come from Middle Earth. It is the kind of misty pocket of rural KZN that make potholes seem like part of a greater experience. Our little sporty black car shook on the sloped and muddy road until we stopped by a closed gate with a white tent on the other side.
As the groom’s family, we had to stand outside and wait to be invited in. A Zulu folk song that repeatedly asks if we can come in became the proverbial doorbell. While we waited, they dressed the three sheep and a solitary goat in blankets, pinafores and headscarves. They were dressed the same as the honoured guests, the difference was that they would be eaten. The animals were subsequently undressed and given back as offerings to our family. The future sister-in-law asked for cash in exchange for her sheep – tradition now has a commodity value. And so began a day long game of ‘you take it’, ‘no, you take it’. When you’re Zulu, the idea of gift giving isn’t taken lightly. A symbolic marital bed was laid out and it was surrounded by half the contents of a Woolworths. But the main business of the day was the blankets. They were placed on the shoulders of the respected women of both families.
“Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which roughly means ‘people are people because of the way they treat others’. This is the saying often thrown around to point out what it means to be African. There must be a hidden clause somewhere that excludes women and gays. According to poster boys of patriarchy, if you’re either then you are simply not a person. If you happen to be female and ‘queer’ then it’s okay for them to rape, stab and leave you to bleed to death because of a ‘difference of opinion’. Gender equality must be another colonial conspiracy those goddamn white liberals brought to Africa to keep the black man down. The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) has decided that human rights are just not African enough. This band of traditionalists and the drafters of the Traditional Courts Bill, have determined that women may only be heard if their standing beside a man because clearly her lips can’t speak her truth without his permission. It is not enough to put blankets on our shoulders and tell us that we’re being honoured.
The age in which it was universally acknowledged that you had the right to make decisions simply because you have a penis is gone. Someone needs to tell Patekila Holomisa and his comrades that they missed it. Holomisa is the head of Contralesa and the chairman of the constitutional review committee, that combination is probably the worst joke I’ve ever heard. He wants to tippex out gay rights from our legal books because: “the great majority does not want to give promotion and protection to these things.” According to this self-styled stalwart of democratic thinking, we should hold a referendum and let South Africans decide. If popular opinion has become the foundation of justice then we should also hold a referendum in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape about rape. In a survey done by the Medical Research Foundation, stats indicated that 1 in 3 men said that they have raped a woman and many said that they’d done it out of boredom. Would Contralesa then say that the law should get in the way of such a popular pastime? Our apologies Mr Holomisa but the constitution is not going to change because a group of people have offended your ideal of ‘manhood’.
Let’s stop pretending that patriarchy was our idea or Africa’s great gift to man. Until a couple of years ago, it was simply the world’s way of being. Some nations figured out that it was wrong and have learnt to do better. We need to stop waving around the placard of African culture to excuse arrogance and entitlement. We need to teach the bigots, racists, homophobes and religious zealots that we aren’t frightened by the depths of their stupidity. Our judicial system isn’t a toy box which they can shake around and then toss away when they break it. We are not going to play a game of luck and chance with the lives of rural women; cross our fingers hoping that the chief in their particular area is a nice man. The Traditional Courts Bill proves that you only get justice in this country if you can pay for it. If you’re a poor, single or widowed woman in a dusty corner of this nation, then you don’t even have the right to open a bank account or bury a loved one without lining the pocket of a ‘khosi’. If you can pay these levies, the ‘administration’, in these parts, can still turn you away because the courts “don’t speak to women”.
Chauvinistic traditionalists are hoarders of the worst kind. They want to hold on to what’s old and not what’s good. We can’t accept customary law the way it is purely because it has the word ‘tradition’ attached to it. Culture can’t just mean waving a finger of legislative might over vulnerable people. At my cousin’s umembeso or gift giving ceremony, Zulu culture meant a man had get on his knees and prove his worth. I watched an accountant wield a spear in a show of strength for his future bride. She laughed and she danced – everyone else did the same. Why can’t we just keep that?