Those who would find fault with customary practices, should take a look at what’s on TV, says Jongisilo Pokwana ka Menziwa.
For many years, I’ve found it pathetic to watch soaps and drama programmes on SABC. Some evoke criticism; others flourish under the radar, ignored by the biased among our cultural commentators.
But TV plays a big role in shaping the perceptions of young people. The hours they may be spending in front of it are magnified by the number of unsupervised hours they spend with their peers, discussing and grappling with the things they see. New media platforms have also played a big role in facilitating what are, at times, graphic conversations between young people.
The negative effects of this are manifesting in violence at schools, rape, teenage pregnancy and other things society deems shocking.
However, the cultural experts who tend to pick and choose issues do not bother to comment about the dangerous programmes shown daily – to comment about the stuff that initially influences their debates and later their actions.
Let us take, for example, Vuzu’s The Bachelor. The age restriction is 13 years, which means my 14-year-old daughter can watch it. It’s a reality programme about a rich man looking for a wife. In his quest, he explores a great number of women who on each episode parade themselves, their emotions and their bodies before the man to try to impress him.
As each season draws to a close, women are eliminated. They leave broken-hearted, crying; some regretting the day they set foot in the house where they are held. When a handful of young women are left, the bachelor goes all out to be intimate with each one of them. Then he turns around and eliminates them until he is left with the one he eventually chooses, if he chooses one at all.
Now, is it racist to assume that criticism of this programme (which features a rich white male) would not be front-page news?
Is it better to criticise a Venda chief and the Venda culture, which may be perceived as soft targets, as well as customary marriage because it felt like that was the agenda – to attack African culture and custom – on the issue of SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng and his Venda bride, a gift to him from the elders.
Researchers and analysts such as Lisa Vetten at the Witwatersrand Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser) were speechless about the news.
The Daily Dispatch quoted feminist activist and scholar Melanie Judge, as saying: “This is another case of women changing hands like property. Of course, what can be bought, which is also effectively what this ‘gifting’ is about, can also be sold. ‘Gifting’ a woman is not only trafficking, it’s also the direct prostitution of women.”
Are we not putting the cart before the horse with such harsh and opinionated commentary?
Have we bothered to speak to the young woman who was chosen for Motsoeneng? Has anyone bothered to speak to the parents of the young woman to get their side or are we just pushing a narrow selfish agenda against anything labelled “traditional”?
Related to this story are other issues, such as the appearance of bare-breasted women. Motsoeneng was welcomed by young Venda women as part of the ceremony around offering him a wife and their images appeared in the media.
There seems to be some exaggerated curiosity and excitement about this, which is not easy for me to understand. I have no issue with it because with or without the breasts of a young woman showing, traditional dance, such as that to which Motsoeneng was exposed, goes on.
And there are young women who are happy to retain the traditional dress which reveals the breasts.
Who has the right to criticise them or their parents or even the chief for the bare-breastedness of the young woman?
On customary marriage and the constitution, it must be said that marriage in our culture is not just a union between two people, as it may be in Western culture. Marriage according to our custom and tradition takes place at various levels: the bride and the groom, the two families, the ancestors of the two families as well as the communities or clans of the families.
Distant relatives of either side will assume new roles, responsibilities and titles. It is a complex matter that at times is best left to those who understand it.
I must state that I am, and many of us are, against ukuthwala, loosely known as arranged marriage without the knowledge of the participants.
But if a parent together with their daughter who has come of age, decide that they want to form a relationship in affinity with another family through the marriage of their daughter to the identified groom, our constitution is not against that.
In fact, it recognises that custom should exist. Our customs withstood centuries of vicious attack by missionaries, white magistrates, apartheid and now a select few of the educated within the African community who have, for one reason or another, taken up the baton.
If it so happens that the young woman who is marrying Motsoeneng has consented to it, together with her parents, would these outraged commentators withdraw their vicious attacks?
A cohesive society will have to remain cognisant of cultural differences, the importance of respecting the cultural practices of others and the importance of general religious and cultural tolerance.
There is a great danger that the savage attacks on African traditions may evoke violent activity because there are young people who are beginning to try and find their roots in their historical cultural background – however few they may be.
As this number grows, the tensions between these young people’s cultural movements and the staunch critics of African traditions, could lead our country astray.
We must learn from what is happening throughout the continent in so far as deadly clashes between religious formations and cultural backgrounds are concerned. Many may think this is inconceivable here, but we must guard against it.