Kevin Ritchie is a media consultant. Picture: Cara Viereckl/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

In 21st century South Africa, who can speak about culture? Do you have to belong to that culture? Or can anyone have an opinion? Must all culture be respected in terms of inclusivity even when practised harmfully? What is culture even?

Sometimes culture reminds me of the old sub judice excuse that journalists have come up against ever since Gutenberg invented movable type.

What sub judice actually means is “under consideration”. It was a mechanism to prevent the court of public opinion (in those days the traditional media) swaying the court of law (specifically the juries and sometimes the presiding officers) where only evidence pertaining to the case could be heard, weighed and judged.

The abandon with which the phrase was used by everyone, from brand new police constables to Steinhoff-esque chief executives as a cop-out to avoid commenting in any form, made a total mockery of it. Then social media drove a bus through the entire concept of innocent until proven guilty by a properly constituted court of law with the Oscar Pistorius trial.

Culture has become a little bit like that.

We’ve seen an animal slaughtered on a beach in a cleansing rite, only for cultural experts to condemn it as opportunistic showmanship for social media. Then we’ve had a whole clamour about animal rights - by meat-eaters.

Fireworks are similar: There are those who decry their use to celebrate Diwali, but set off their own to see in New Year. Others want a ban to protect their pets but throw long and loud parties when it suits them.

Then there’s the ubiquitous highveld thunderstorm that’s far more terrifying than a couple of hours of fireworks once or twice a year - particularly for your pets.

There’s a lot of subjectivity in culture and even more selectivity of sensitivity and outrage. Everyone jumps on the bandwagon to signal virtue over the low-hanging fruit, but very few say anything when the issues get serious.

We are not just the poorer for that and the lack of proper, honest debate, we’re spinning even further away from being an inclusive society.

We have a serious issue right at the moment - the number of initiates who have died and the many others maimed during the current circumcision season.

The issue is not about initiation - or the critically important role it plays in culturally preparing young men to be responsible adults in society - but about the associated tragedy because of the continued use of non-sterile knives and unqualified traditional surgeons.

No one needs to die and no one needs to be maimed for the rest of their lives. This cultural practice doesn’t have to be disrespected in any way to achieve this. But not enough people are speaking out. There’s certainly nowhere near the level of outrage that there is for other issues, all the easy ones. Just like there’s no real outrage for gender-based violence.

Maybe that should be our resolution for 2019 - to stop using the sub judice rule on culture.

* Kevin Ritchie is a media consultant. He is a former journalist and newspaper editor.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Saturday Star