By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation

President Zuma’s recent comments in the House of Traditional Leaders on the need “to solve African problems in the African way” and his rejection of the “white man’s way” go to the heart of many of the misunderstandings that continue to divide our society.

The President said that black South Africans should not “be influenced by other cultures and try to think that we have the wrong values”. He observed that lawyers dealt with cold facts but “what they don’t tell you is that these cold facts deal with warm bodies”.

President Zuma urged the House of Traditional Leaders to “solve African problems the African way – not the white man’s way”. He added that some Africans “who become too clever” were “most eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions”. He called on the House of Traditional Leaders to “to help all of us” to avoid a situation where “we do not understand who we are… because if we are not an African, we cannot be a white, then what are you? You don’t know. You cannot understand. How then can you grow children? And then the nation cannot understand who this nation is”.

President Zuma concluded by saying that “freedom gave us the opportunity to redefine ourselves as to who we are. We are Africans and we cannot change into something else. Even if I live in the highest building … I am an African.”

The President’s remarks dealt with the struggle that many black South Africans experience between their African identities and the powerful influence of western culture. Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending the fifth wedding of King Goodwill Zwelithini. The ceremony, which lasted over five hours in the stadium at Ulundi, began when the bride arrived in a late model Rolls-Royce dressed resplendently in a voluminous white lace wedding gown. The King looked most elegant in his morning coat and top hat – as though he had just slipped out of the royal box at Ascot. The couple were then married in a Christian ceremony – despite the fact that the King already had four previous wives.

After the Western ceremony the bridal party withdrew and then returned some time later dressed in their traditional attire. The new queen led a shuffling parade of Zulu maidens around the arena and the King appeared in his traditional regalia with leopard skins, sporting the highest feather of all his courtiers. There followed a long period of dancing and singing of ancient Zulu hymns. One of them was about a successful cattle raid againsteHobelani (who, according to my interpreter, was actually a Boer farmer by the name of Grobbelaar). The ceremony reached its climax when the clans of the bride and groom met in a large scrum in the middle of the stadium to hammer out the details of the marriage contract.

A similar dualism is reflected in the behaviour of our President. When he is addressing foreign leaders or businessmen he is dressed immaculately in a business suit. He slips easily into the western idiom and addresses audiences within the framework of Western values and preconceptions. On other occasions he revels in his Zulu traditions, dressed in his traditional regalia; singing Zulu and ANC war-songs (with quite a good voice); and rejoicing in his status as the husband of four wives and the father of many children.

Widely differing attitudes and approaches are linked to the two identities. The African identity is synchronised with the rhythms of nature. As Léopold Senghor put it, the African approach was ‘diametrically opposed to the traditional philosophy of Europe’ which in his view was ‘essentially static, objective’. European philosophy was founded on ‘separation and opposition: on analysis and conflict’. By contrast, African philosophy was based on ‘unity’, ‘balance’, negotiation and an appreciation of ‘movement and rhythm’. It rejoiced in “sensuality, rhythm, earthiness and a primeval past” which were precisely the characteristics that had for so long been criticised by Europeans.

At the heart of the South African dichotomy is the fact that ubuntu is based on communalism, co-operation and sharing – whereas western civilisation has been constructed on individualism, competition and the accumulation of property. The dilemma is that the Western approach is indispensible for the economic progress on which we all depend – while ubuntu – and compassion for “warm bodies” – might be equally essential for our humanity.

These differing cultural attitudes were reflected in President Zuma’s impassioned defence of his African identity. They may also lie at the root of divergent approaches to the problems of South Africa. What whites regard as corruption some blacks might view as a moral obligation to share good fortune with their friends and family; what whites regard as the illegal enrichment of senior office-bearers, black traditionalists might regard as the natural perquisites due to leaders; what whites regard as their own hard-earned land and property, some blacks might regard as unfair sharing of South Africa’s land and wealth.

Our Constitution is broad enough to encompass the aspirations and concerns of all South Africans. It makes provision for customary law and traditional leaders. It assures the right of all South Africans to use the language and to practise the culture of their choice. However, it also protects the rights of all citizens, regardless of race, culture or gender.

It is not “white man’s law”. It is the distillation of our own experience and the experience of successful societies throughout the world regarding the requirements for freedom, justice and success. That experience leads us to conclude that:

  • corruption, under any circumstances, fatally erodes the state;
  • competition and the protection of private property are indispensible for economic growth; and that
  • government – and everyone else – must be subject to the law.

However, the Constitution is also suffused with the values of ubuntu. 

  • It declares that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity;
  • it requires us to improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
  • it establishes as foundational values human dignity, equality, the advancement of human rights and freedoms, non-racialism and non-sexism.

If we wish to achieve success as a society we should follow neither the “African way” nor the “white man’s way”. We should follow “the constitutional way”.

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
This entry was posted in Articles from South Africa, Politics, philosophy and other perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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