I have a confession to make. A very damning one. In April this year I knew more than 50 kids would die this month alone, and I did nothing about it. Nothing. Before you start judging, I suspect that you too knew but also did nothing. This makes us accessories to murder. The reason we did nothing is simple, in the past, when we raised questions about the issue, we got the age-old South African response “it’s my culture”. In the current South African Political and social climate those three words are uttered whenever one questions any morally-suspicious behaviour. For instance, if I were to ask some of our leader(s) why when they married a second, third or fourth wife, the wife tended to be a couple of decades younger than them, the retort is most likely to be “don’t question things of which you have no knowledge, IT’S MY CULTURE”. In other words, shut up, and stop insulting me with your perfectly sensible questions.
Back to my damning confession. In our country we have a myriad of cultural practices that are common amongst several groups. One of those is the coming-of-age rite, which generally includes circumcision for males. The primary aim of the practice is to prepare young men to assume their intended role in their communities, that of being primarily successful heads of households, knowing that the “training” received “on the mountain” has prepared them for any curveballs LIFE will throw at them. The word LIFE is capitalized here because that’s the primary focus of my argument here. Unfortunately, in recent years, across all groups that practice this rite of passage, horrible deaths and mutilations occur. So much so that we know before the start of any winter that boys are going to lose their LIFE in a process that purports to prepare them for it. Really, prepare them for a life that they may not turn out to have because the preparation took them away. Put another way, would you take an exam to become a better father or mother if there was a chance it might leave you unable to have children? I think not. So, why oh why, do we let the carnage go on? Well it’s simple, It’s my culture.
In the past week, listening to the current MEC for social services in Mpumalanga was a very painful experience. When asked why the provincial government could not intervene in a case where up to 30 boys had lost their lives she retorted, as a woman, I have no right to question certain cultural practices. Well, I’ll be damned, in certain cultural practices she shouldn’t preside over men because, wait for it, it’s my culture. I refuse to be part of a culture that refuses any parent the right to question why their child died, unnecessarily even.
There is this mistaken notion in our current climate that says anyone who challenges or questions aspects of culture is a lost soul. This notion exists because we are made to believe that culture is unchangeable and that’s that. Attempting to modify aspects of it is regarded as rejecting it. In his book, Outliers: The story of success, Malcolm Gladwell tells one particular story of the South Korean national air carrier. Where most countries were having 0,27 fatal crashes per million flights, they had 4,27 fatal crashes per million flights. In other words, boarding a South Korean flight in 1989 meant you were a 17 times more likely to die in a crash than boarding say, a British Airways flight. The investigation into why this was the case revealed that because South Koreans have a very deferential attitude to authority, subordinates in the flight crew found it almost impossible to question their captains’ actions. In other words,the South Koreans cultural make-up if you like, made their national carrier more dangerous than any other in the world. Do you know what the South Koreans did when they found out their culture was killing them? I’ll tell you what they didn’t do, they did not become offended because the experts conducting the investigations were white people from Britain and America, they did not feel insulted because South Koreans were found to have an unhealthy respect for authority. They changed that aspect of their culture when it came to training pilots. To save lives. They certainly did not say “it’s my culture”. Korean Pilots are now trained to question and challenge authority. To go against their culture. By 1999, ten years later, their airline was as safe as British Airways. Because they dared to question and modify their culture.(In less than 10 years one might add).
Why are we so caught up in this “it’s my culture” defense when kids are dying. People whom culture is supposed to protect. I have a few suggestions as to why, and many will not go down well with most people . Firstly, we do not value our own lives as much as we’d like others to think. We value being regarded as “culturally sound” more than life itself, leading many parents to sacrifice their beloved children on the altar of culture. And then they are not even allowed to question the circumstances sorrounding the death. Well, you and I cannot sit back any longer. Because we know that culture must serve people and not the opposite, lets engage in a learned way with culture. Jealously protecting those aspects that serve us, like lobola, modernizing those that don’t. Going to the mountain must preserve life, not destroy it. I’m tired of being an accessory to murder, aren’t you? Secondly, South African society has this tendency to require a person to “qualify” before challenging certain things. For instance, if this was written by a white person, we would be mightily offended, asking, what “qualifies” him/her. Or if I question why a leader who has no obvious wealth of his own continues to marry like it’s going out of fashion, I’d be told to mind “you own culture”. And then we wonder why the Guptas own our country. Or why some leaders continue to be MPs when they clearly are not interested or incapable of doing the job, the qualifying question will be, do you have any idea what she did in the struggle?
Every time somebody says to you it’s my culture or insuates that you do not “qualify” to ask a certain question, tell them “It’s my country too, and I respect the gift of life”. That’s the only way we are going to save the lives of those boys going to the mountain next year and beyond. Question and challenge, even if they claim you dont qualify.