Black men and women are the most post-modern subjects of all

The Spear, a satirical art piece by Brett Murray, caused controversy in May 2012 in South Africa

References to African traditions and culture in the context of the controversy over The Spear, the painting portraying South African President Jacob Zuma with his penis showing by pop-satirist Brett Murray, brought back to mind one of the relatively big media stories of 2011 in South Africa.

That other story was the the story about the ‘over-supply of coloureds’ triggered by the comments made by Mr Jimmy Manyi, President of the Black Management Forum and current Head of Government Communication and Information Services.

Like the controversy evoked by The Spear, the ‘coloured over-supply’ story went big because of the central actors involved in the story. In addition to Manyi, the other central protagonists involved in the event, were the minister in the presidency Mr Trevor Manuel, and Mr Paul Ngobeni, at the time legal adviser to the minister of defence.

The Manyi-Manuel and Ngobeni story got traction also because it was, like the perceived insult against African traditions by the depiction of Zuma’s imagined penis, yet another dreadful replay of the effects of the inherited misunderstandings of the racialised and tribalised pasts that made black South Africans into who they are.

Black South Africans as a whole did not come out well from that story too. Like other ugly stories of race, Manyi’s words and the exchanges that followed entrapped South Africa’s collective imagination because they played on the masochism and misrecognition that have become, since apartheid at least, an unhappy part of what is erroneously called African tradition or culture.

Even then the story was a salutary lesson on the unrealised hopes and persisting uncertainties of what it means to be African or black in this suspended present moment in South Africa. Naively, I think, black South Africans had hoped freedom would free them from feelings of racial and cultural insecurity. Alas, it has not been. They remain in suspension because South Africa today does not look like the future they dreamt of.

Yet some of the insecurity is self-caused.

Occupying the position of director-general of the Department of Labour at the time, Manyi had expressed the view on KykNet‘s ‘Robinson Regstreeks’ show the previous year that coloured people “must stop this over-concentration situation (in the Western Cape) because they are in over-supply where they are so you must look into the country and see where you can meet the supply”.

Jimmy Manyi, president of the Black Management Forum and current Head of South Africa's Government Communication Services

In stark contradiction to the black consciousness philopsophy propounded by Steve Biko, a philosophy to which his own organisation the Black Management Forum subscribes, even if indirectly, in Manyi’s view coloured people apparently were not black.

One of the political figures who was angered by the comments and publicly responded to Manyi was Manuel. To Manuel, Manyi was “the worst-order” racist, formed “in the mould of HF Verwoerd”. That wasn’t very helpful in taking us further down the road of black consciousness.

In turn, Paul Ngobeni, known to have been part of the “brains trust” that helped President Jacob Zuma during his corruption case, came out guns blazing in support of Manyi. Ngobeni said Manuel was a gangster and racist.

Not much help there either.

Trevor Manuel, minister in charge of South Africa's planning commission and former minister of finance

The tone of the whole affair was rather unsavoury, from start to end.

As illustrated again by the row over The Spear, it is sometimes inevitable that such eruptions will happen. Freedom in South Africa has its price. Given the continuing trauma inhering in black identities, it is difficult to keep a straight head when you can’t always distinguish the past from the present or the political left from the conservative right.

Still, because of what this regrettable exchange says about black and African identities, I found it instructive about precisely how not to think about others, about unproductive ways of talking about race.

Even though the subject of racial feeling and thought is something one does not carelessly broach, we could still have taken the opportunity to learn from the Manyi event. We could have taken time to teach other, especially younger people, about how we got here. Perhaps we might even have avoided some things of the new controversy. In any event, we could still fruitfully use the apparent possibilities even while recognising the hurt that Manyi, Manuel and Ngobeni caused or perpetuated in the hearts of many people.

I am aware that, as all the central actors in the Manyi story might well be, there are many older people of all hues and creeds who could use some considered lessons about what apartheid racialising and tribalising traditions we employ to identify ourselves continue to do to our language and interior lives.

The Manyi-Manuel-Ngobeni affair first came back to mind last November while listening to discussions at Traditions II, held in Africa Hall at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Traditions is a travelling pitso on work on traditions and their transformation. The biennial travelling pitso emerged, among other things, from the observation that there tends to be an incapacitating conflation of tradition and traditionalism. Traditionalist positions about culture tend to be confused for traditions per se.

Traditions and cultures are made of not one single narrative but several competing ones. What often is called tradition – like the notion that in our culture it is abominable for children to see their parents naked – is one conservative take on culture and tradition. Even though such a view might be dominant one, it is only one in a range.

During the discussions, when highly emotional disagreements as well as serious distortions became apparent, I was reminded of one statement by Ngobeni that should have been questioned, but never got much challenge. Ngobeni said Manuel acted as though he was “the king of coloured people”.

Clearly intended to offend, the sentiment plays on the untruth that those who claim a coloured or mixed race identity do not have a cultural tradition.

This unfortunate miseducation about tradition and culture which parses coloureds as cultureless and, by implication only, for instances, Xhosas or Zulus have culture, is one which one encounters in my interactions with coloured-identified individuals. But I am afraid the sentiment is far more common than that though, widely believed among many old and young people identified as African and white.

The belief that a people who have roots traceable to at least more than 450 years old in South Africa can be without tradition or culture is plainly incorrect, besides being offensive.

Similarly, the idea that only Africans have tradition is absurd. Perhaps more worrying is the notion that there is something fixed and easily identified as African tradition that all those who were referred to as natives or Bantus under apartheid agree on.

Yet these falsifications that only some people can claim the right to be recognised as a having traditions is the very one freighted by the South African laws related to the tradition and custom. These laws as well as interventions such as those by Ngobeni and Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla and her siblings in the The Spear case have the unwitting purpose of primitivising or retribalising ethnicity on the one hand. It also denies the equal fullness of the traditions of others.

Perhaps what the increasingly dominant discourse on African traditions wants to convince itself of is that those who were once Bantu are more strongly tied to their cultural traditions than others. But that is not true, for white South Africans or Europeans may be said to have stronger traditions precisely because these tend to go unremarked, and often do come under the rubric tradition or culture.

It is when a tradition does not call itself a tradition, such as in eating with a fork and knife, that it is almost unchallenged in its power over us. In my calculation, this is what the dream is for African and black traditions. The aspiration of all of us is for our traditions to become commonplace.

Yet it also needs stating that to be African or black is a very modern political tradition, but a tradition nonetheless. Furthermore, being African, because it is a political identity, does not have ready correspondence with ethnicity. As racialised and geopolitical identities being African and black are first and foremost modern political identities.

The fact is while all rituals are part of a tradition, not all practices within a tradition are ritualised. Tradition is not about primitives, pure tribes, traditional communities, kingships or whatever object a person or government wishes to employ to refer to the alienating Otherness we have become used to and use on ourselves.

Tradition is the basic question that all of us try to work from the moment we become cognitively capable of recognising both our individuality within and connectedness to our families.

It is what remains unarticulated in our interactions with each other.

Whereas we tend to think of tradition as that practice, rite or custom we do once a year or in a longer while, like koma (being initiated into manhood), celebrating Christmas or Eid, paying mahadi, or burying the dead in a particular way, at its most productive moments tradition is what goes unspoken. Like gravity, tradition is the force that holds down the responses of the insiders to the tradition to the everyday problems of being human.

Though they may be out of sight, traditions are always an underlying dynamic in any practices where one person consciously or otherwise seeks to hand down the usable parts of a culture, whether that behaviour is what to eat, how to pray, who to love, the best way to raise children and how to raise them, and, above all, how to be a person in the world of others.

Now that I have turned my research attention onto traditions, I have become even more aware that there is a great deal of ignorance, confusion and distortions that exists about what our traditions are and what the idea of our culture also means.

It is especially when one tries to square up the very modern, highly improvised, daily lives of black men and women in the Africa of today with how tradition is apprehended that one comprehends the misconceptions, myths, and caricatures that dog their lives.

Because of the history of displacement they have endured over centuries and having to learn to live on the move, black men and women are perhaps, and rather ironically, the most post-modern subjects of all. That is to say, since post-modern identities are characterised by multiplicity, fluidity, and decentredness, black identities are radically post-modern.

Of course that does not negate that they can and may need to recognise where they have been and their umbilical cords are buried. Yet the framentation, movement and displacement (even if often forced) that defines African lives can’t be ignored.

The paradoxical pull for many black people to define traditions in barely concealed tribalistic or racialised terms may of course be due to the uncertainties first provoked by imperialism, colonialism and white cultural hegemony. Our run for cover under tradition thus stems out of the search for an elusive, old wholeness that perhaps existed before those colonising race ideologies gutted our cultural life-supports. The question as to what these true traditions are is one to be worked out empirically.

For all of us who remember and continue to experience the effects of racist traditions and culture of white superiority, the response to the perceived racist insult and sense of misrecognition is not vengeance. It is to set time aside individually and collectively whenever we can to help each other to more carefully think through what tradition means, and even better what meanings we want to give African traditions.

Professor Ratele is the head of the Programme on Traditions and Transformation at the University of South Africa. An earlier version of this opinion piece first appeared on May 29, 2012 on

Kopano is Professor in the Institute for Social & Health Sciences at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and co-director of the Medical Research Council-Unisa Safety and Peace Promotion Research Unit. Best known for his work on African men and masculinity – specifically in relation to violence, sexualities, identities, culture and tradition – he has published a number of books, scholarly papers, and popular pieces on a range of psychological, cultural and social topics. His latest book is There was this goat, co-authored with Nosisi Mpolweni and Antjie Krog. He is editor-in-chief of African Safety Promotion: A Journal of Injury and Violence Prevention.

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