VITAL TO QUESTION: Supporters of President Jacob Zuma celebrate as delegates to the national conference of the ANC begin voting for their leadership in Bloemfontein on Monday. Zuma was challenged by his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe for the position of president of the party. It is when we are challenged by others that we recognise the weaknesses in our arguments and assumptions, says the writer. Picture: Reuters

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma recently told the National House of Traditional Leaders that those who were critical of the Traditional Courts Bill were Africans who had “become too clever” and “most eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions and everything”.

Msholozi reportedly further argued that Africans without cultural self-consciousness would not be able to raise self-respecting children because they would be lacking a cultural foundation.

While one embraces Msholozi’s concern about the preservation of Africans’ cultural values, one disagrees with the dismissal of critical Africans as being “too clever”. That is because self-criticism among Africans, when occasion demands it, is a necessary sign of maturity and an indication that Africans can apply self-corrective measures.

Engaging with one another as Africans in discourse will help in sharpening our intellectual tools of analysis. It is when we are challenged by others that we recognise the weaknesses in our arguments and assumptions.

Criticism, with particular reference to African culture, should be welcome as an opportunity to strengthen and clarify our viewpoints.

Msholozi’s stance reminded one of Jacob Carruthers’s Essays in Ancient Egyptian Studies, where he observes that “the key crisis in black life is the cultural crisis, (that is) the view and value crisis”. In urging us to rectify Africans’ cultural crisis, Carruthers reminds us that our ancestors taught their children thus: “Teaching by elders and learning by children is the only method for preserving the culture and for passing on the wisdom. If children are to achieve greatness, the elders must teach them.”

When we teach our children African history and culture they will realise, as Kwasi Wiredu in his book Philosophy and an African Culture points out, that: “Those who seem to think that the criticism of African traditional philosophy by an African is something akin to betrayal are actually more conservative than those among our elders who are real thinkers as distinct from mere repositories of traditional ideas.”

A close and careful reading of African history and culture reveals that in meetings where our ancestors discussed issues of national importance, they argued for days on a single subject until they reached consensus.

If they were automatically in agreement about everything, the reported long debates would never have occurred. But because they initially held opposing views, they did not shy away from disagreeing with one another.

It was on the basis of these initial disagreements, and subsequent consensus, that they were able to mould and develop a “communal culture” that they could claim as their own since they participated in its creation. Imposed values are alienating.

In his book Abantu Besizwe: Historical and Biographical writings, 1902-1944, edited and translated by Jeff Opland, national poet and historian SEK Mqhayi makes an interesting observation about the chief warrior Maqoma: “At Maqoma’s court no opinion or voice was barred… The opinion of poor people was encouraged. If there was a law, or if a case proved difficult, women were informed of the situation, and their opinion was sought.”

Therefore, the questions raised by concerned rural women, supported by learned people with expertise in legal issues, have precedence in African history.

Instead of cautioning chiefs against “clever blacks”, African leaders should be encouraging traditional leaders to listen more to people’s concerns, as Maqoma did.

The wisdom of listening to the powerless is best appreciated when one reads the logic of ancient Egyptian philosopher Ptahhotep in The Teachings of Ptahhotep: The Oldest Book in the World, edited by Asa G Hilliard III, Larry Williams and Nia Damali: “If you are a person who judges, listen carefully to the speech of one who pleads. Don’t stop the person from telling you everything that they had planned to tell you. A person in distress wants to pour out his or her heart even more than they want their case to be won.”

Dismissing people’s concerns antagonises them. The fight for women’s rights among Africans is not, as is often suggested, a feminist import from the West.

History shows that when African women felt that their male counterparts were encroaching on their space, they waged valiant struggles to reclaim their space.

Writing about Queen Mother Nandi, the mother of King Shaka, Mazisi Kunene, in his book Emperor Shaka The Great, observes that she “was far from being an obedient, domestic and subservient woman. She regarded herself as a representative of her family and just as entitled to respect and political authority as any male member of society”.

She not only attended the Zulu National Assembly, but the court historian tells us that she was in constant confrontation with the men of the assembly (one would think with a sense of contempt for the often meaningless rhetoric of the assembly).

So when some African women and supportive African men object to some clauses in the Traditional Courts Bill, they are following in the footsteps of the great Queen Mother, Nandi, in reclaiming their space. Instead of being perceived as betraying African culture, they must be seen as raising legitimate questions that must be attended to.

African intellectuals must interrogate themselves about why Msholozi finds it easy to dismiss them as “clever blacks”.

If truth be told, many among us, the educated African class, are contemptuous at worst, and condescending at best, towards those who are lesser educated. We are dismissive of traditional African institutions without even making an effort to understand them. Msholozi knows this well, and that is why he knows that his solidarity with traditional leaders will be reciprocated.

Msholozi himself has been an object of derision from some members of the educated African class who, instead of engaging his arguments, point to his lack of formal educational qualifications, as if it was his fault being born a poor African.

If the African educated class seeks to defend the rights of the poor, as it claims, it should humble itself by making an effort to study African culture and history, so that challenging traditional leaders is done on the basis of understanding African traditions.

If we fail to do this, we would have failed the future of our children, to whom the image of Africa will be evil, dark and ugly.

Chinua Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart reminds us that this has happened before.

Writing about a young man, Nwoye, who deserted African traditional religion in favour of Christianity in the early days of colonialism, Achebe observes that it was not the logic of Christianity that captivated him.

No. Instead, Achebe informs us, it was the abandonment of twins in the bush, which the people of Umuofia believed was an abomination. Haunted by the cries of those children who were left to die on their own, Nwoye saw the religion of his ancestors as merciless and sought refuge and comfort in a Christianity which promised relief to burdened souls.

The embracing of communalism by African culture and its rejection of individualism has been misconstrued as suppression of individuality and independent logic. Utterances made by the likes of Msholozi confirm this misrepresentation of African culture.

African intellectuals, in defence of our culture, which promoted critical thinking, must challenge such claims, even at the risk of being called “clever blacks”.

We must do this especially for our children who must learn to look at themselves critically at all times so that African culture will advance dynamically.

l Dr Sesanti is a senior lecturer in Stellenbosch University’s Department of Journalism. He writes in his personal capacity.