My son’s interest in my penis, and what it means for African culture

A few but significant lies about African tradition and culture made news headlines in May and June in South Africa.

This is not, of course, the first time personal shame, prejudice and anxieties about children and what they can’t see, hear, or know have been submitted as a defining part of African culture. Or any culture. However, this time the anxieties were about penises and their cultural status. Children seeing their father’s penis and what it all means in African culture. But do beware of modern African primitivists. They come in all shapes, colours, sexes, and genders.

For readers not familiar with the big penis story, it started with Brett Murray’s painting, The Spear, which features a figure that resembles the ruling African National Congress’ (ANC) and South African President Jacob Zuma with his cock exposed.

The Spear, from Hail to the Thief II by Brett Murray, shown at Open Forum, May 24, 2012

The painting was part of Murray’s exhibition, Hail to the Thief II. The works were exhibited at the Goodman Gallery. The gallery’s synopsis on the exhibition stated: ‘This body of satirical work continues his acerbic attacks on abuses of power, corruption and political dumbness seen in his 2010 Cape Town show Hail to the Thief. In this sequel show, Murray’s bronzes, etchings, paintings and silk-screens form part of a vitriolic and succinct censure of bad governance and are his attempts to humorously expose the paucity of morals and greed within the ruling elite.’

Two images from Hail to the Thief II, by Brett Murray

Zuma’s and his comrades saw the work when it was published in Sunday newspaper, City Press. Racial hell did break loose. And it seeped into daily culture.

Protest marches were organised against the gallery. Calls were made for the newspaper to be boycotted. The artist was labeled racist. He went into hiding, it was said. Threats of violence against the editor were made. Goodman Gallery, City Press and Murray were hauled to court. A nation was divided over a painting. The painting was defaced by two unrelated men, one white and another black. The German buyer of the painting, having paid R136 000, wanted it anyway. The paper and the gallery caved in eventually. The painting and image of it on the paper’s and gallery’s sites were taken down. Apologies were made. Press conferences were held. The ANC declared victory. Hail to the chiefs.

It was all very artistically anarchic really. If it weren’t for the uncontained anger, insensitivity, ignorance and all-round stupidity the interest in art would have been cause to celebrate.

Even then, the space opened up by the row around Zuma’s exposed genitals has had an upside. We can now talk again freely, I trust, and to a wider audience, about how we understand African traditions and culture.

One of the things I found to be of interest about traditions and culture was the court application by Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, one of Zuma’s twenty-odd children. She applied to join the proceedings as co-applicant against the gallery, newspaper and artist. The application was brought on behalf of all the Zuma’s children.

In the application Zuma-Sambudla submitted that “the public display of a portrait of my father with his genitals exposed is the most humiliating and degrading experience for the children.” She contended that “the publicity given to the exposed genitals in that portrait is intended and/or has had and is having the effect of not only humiliating my father but us his children as well.”

Anyone with any feeling of humanity cannot but take Zuma-Sambudla that the painting of their father hurt and demeaned them. I can imagine how Zuma or her children may have felt, but never having been shown in that light, the imagination cannot equal what they experienced.

But then Zuma-Sambudla went further in her founding affidavit and maintained that “in my culture, and I believe that it is an universal attitude, displaying of sexual organs of any person is intended to demean the inherent dignity of that person.” What universe? Ever heard of Amsterdam and other cities with their red light districts? What of the work Robert Mapplethorpe? Rotimi Fani-Kayode rings a bell? Deborah Poynton? Zanele Muholi? Surely nudes in art are not meant to demean but to celebrate the human form and creativity. And porn actors, are they all demeaning their dignity themselves?

Image of Deborah Poynton's Candidates

Perhaps the most startlingly interesting claim by Zuma’s children was where the affidavit stated that “in our culture it is abominable to speak or even see the private parts of our parents”. I can’t resist it: my father’s stubby penis, my mother’s vagina. I said it, there. I am an abomination. A cultural apostate.

I am not quite certain what culture Zuma-Sambudla referring to. It may be Zulu culture. Even though I claim a part of Zuluness through my grandfather, perhaps all 100% Zulus don’t dare speak of their parents’ genitalia. Anyhow, the figure of culture that was used in the controversy was variously spoken of by Zuma’s supporters and those against the artwork and its display as Zulu culture, black culture, and African culture, collapsing all of these into one category called our culture. Now, how can I not disagree with that?

My understanding is that some of the claims made by the traditionalists in the name of Africans and their bodies are just absurd. Absurd, backward-looking and possibly detrimental for the cultural health of Africans. That is, if it is true a culture needs to be healthy, self-confident, both comfortably derivative and inventive, encouraging of creativity, and receptive to new influences in order to flourish.

The unwitting or purposeful aim of such claims as Zuma’s children about culture is to retribalise us in the fashion of colonial and Apartheid ideology. We are one, repressed, tribal mass.

Let me tell you why we have to say no, some of us at least. Better still, allow me to tell you about my most recent lesson about how, I think, culture works and tradition develops. It’s possibly my most practical and greatest lesson I have had. And it has not come from Cheikh Anta Diop, Cabral, Biko or the Africana encyclopedia. I also didn’t get it on the internet, even though I find it a terribly absorbing thing the primitivists might find would immensely contribute to African cultures were they to appropriate it.

Actually, it’s my relationship with my son. I am learning a few new things from that. More specifically, I am getting lessons from his interest in his “doggie” and mine. That is a name I playfully used for a penis when he started speaking and he has not forgotten it, the bugger, even though he has known from that first moment when he enquired that mama and girls have vaginas and dada and me have penises.

In any event, a few months after he was born and could touch himself I started to notice while changing his nappy that my son finds pleasure in touching his penis. I mean immense pleasure. The boy would pull his doggie all of the place, I would a little feel sorry for the penis. Just a bit.

Of course I know from studies – those foreign influences – of children that they do not merely need food and sleep and being taken care of. They actually find bodily pleasure in a host of things in their environment adults have long forgotten to find interesting at all. Using boxes as caves, eating dirt, jumping up and down, running around in circles, tasting their own snot, climbing trees for its own sake, are all part of the fun.

But it was still a surprise that sometime after he could walk and follow me around the house my son developed a wonderfully strange interest in my doggie.

He wants to know when he will be able to see the head of his penis. He follows me into the loo. He finds a good position to have a clear view while I urinate. What are you trying to see, I would ask him? His answer would come: I want to see. He was going for two.

This interest of a boy in his father’s penis is said to be disallowed by African tradition and culture, some have argued in the media and courts lately.
I am unable to confirm whether African tradition and culture discourages children learning about their bodies. I missed that lesson.

My son’s interest in my penis has waned, although we bath together as often we can. But last week his mother informed that he asked her again when he might get to see his penis’ head.

The boy’s fascination with his penis and mine would in turn fascinated from the first moment. I think his fascination stemmed from observing a difference even though we both have a penis. Like all of the things he is interested in, and his growing competence and knowledge from one day to the next, I consider his learning about bodies as an opportunity for me to understand more about how as people we become the way we are.

I watched him learn to jump onto the grass from the first step of the stoep and moved to leaping from the top step. I remember I couldn’t wait to tell his mother and he couldn’t wait to show her.

I just can’t get enough of how he sits us down and makes us tea from his little tea set he got from his uncle. Indeed, the boy likes to make us tea; should I worry?

I observed him, and was flabbergasted, in his preference for Cinderella over other stories, although from that too I learn how preferences get nourished and reinforced. Lately, he has taken to listening to stories on his mother’s phone. That’s why I know that it is whole new world altogether – when I see his little finger swipe the screen to page over.

Let’s play kung-fu dada, he says. That is a lesson in itself. I have gotten to know far more than I ever could from empirical research on child development that, contrary to simply being rough play, when a boy and his father play kung-fu, sword-fights, boxing or any of the sort, the child is in the process of learning to control aggression and to know when he is hurting another person.

I feel privileged to be in the ringside seats and to see each one of these small steps in his developing years. I take each one the moments I am around him as an unrepeatable moment for me to pass on something useful for him when I will not be around.

My mother says that when I was around three I saw my father’s penis. She also says he took a bath with me while we lived together. I have no memory of his bare body. That might because from some point there wasn’t any of him to see, let alone his nakedness while we bathed together. Consequently, there was forgettable tradition handed down from him to me about whether or not seeing his penis was unSotho, circumstances about fathers and their offspring common to that of over two million African children in South Africa today.

However, I can’t say I have suffered very much for seeing my father’s penis or taking a bath with him. I think things turned out well, and I have been told, on the whole I am pleasant company.

I know that I could have used some generative fathering when I needed to learn about homework and hormones. I know that many boys and girls can use some positive nourishing traditions about being rejected, dealing with anger, and self-esteem.

I would have liked my father to have been present to tell me before I started having an interest in girls that it is cool not to rush things. I could have used some home work around feelings, like it is actually good to have strong feelings, I mean near-death like feelings for a girl, and not be unnerved by them. I would have saved myself and others a lot of unnecessary trouble of finding out for myself, and that was well into my adulthood.

The open, constant attention of a father, it seems to me from raising the boy and observing his curiosity about the world around him, especially when it comes to things like penises, is undeniably important. Fathers matter. I don’t mean more than the simple fact that the psychological presence of. Being there. In the front seat or beside the child. Watching. Listening to their hearts and not only what they say. Handing down the critical lessons. Answering the interminable why. Learning, playing, feeding, doing the homework, or just taking a walking.

Of course this is not the same things as saying children raised by single mothers or a lesbian couple will suffer because they have no immediate access to seeing real penises.
The father, to be sure, does not have to be biological. He doesn’t have to be married to the child’s mother. He doesn’t have to be gay or a president.

However, if a man wants to learn about intimacy, about how it becomes part of family traditions and wider culture, especially that man who didn’t have much of it from other men while growing up, there is nothing to beat availability to his child: open, vulnerable, consistent presence.

Man giving boy a hand at a children's park, Mouillie Point, Cape Town, March 21, 2012

The traditions of intimacy I have in mind imply that a man has to be willing to prepare the bottle. It might not be non-stop fun, but if he sticks with it, a man who wipes the bum, changes nappies, and potty-trains soon realises how vital this stuff is to learning about how you learn to be comfortable with your body.

He can grumble. In fact, unless he is some kind of Gandhi he must complain. But waking up in the middle of the night to soothe and rock the child to sleep is part of it. And, the thing is, even that is not just about raising a healthy child, but also building a tradition about fatherhood. Let’s not forget making time to take the child for his vaccination shots, it’s in there too.

Then there is the bit about reading to him, doing puzzles, taking him to the park, the football games, and going to the parties where you meet parents of his school-friends whom you would not choose to know if you had a choice.

Fatherhood, in a word, has its own traditions. Their defining paradoxical characteristic is their changeability and consistency. I have learned much from this about him, myself and culture. That lesson is that my son needs me to be consistently around; but his world as a growing boy is one of continual new things; and I better be prepared for that.

Fatherhood is about learning to fail – repeatedly. Failing to live to all those great expectations you embody for yoru daughter or son. And let’s be clear, you will fail, superman. Over and again.

The lesson about raising a child, I think, comes down to learning about your own limits of knowledge and skills and capability. Your apprehensions, ignorance, hurt, and imperfections. Learning that you don’t know anything about art, building a treehouse, calculus, the history of slavery, your own ancestry, football, rugby, kungfu, tennis, basketball, or any damn sport. Actually, you don’t know much about anything big daddy. So don’t go making large claims about traditions or culture or blacks or Zulus that you can’t back up except by saying that’s what you got from your parents, and they got from their parents, for all that doesn’t answer the question why does it.

It’s about failing to satisfy many of the child’s needs, then, this child-rearing business. About saying I don’t know how this works, I don’t know why, over and over again.

There is no mystery to differences in fatherhood in different cultures, then: it is daily practice, daily accidents, daily failures, daily little wins. That’s where you get the elements of culture and, hopefully, pass on to the next generation the best of the lessons from that daily life.

It is my view that the view of modern African primitivists with or without hyphenated surnames, most of them in positions of power in government, universities, and what are called traditional communities, that tradition and culture prohibits children from learning from seeing their father’s or mother’s undressed bodies is, plainly put, an ignorant lie. But it may also be doing an injustice to our future lives. Clothing themselves in the garbs of culture and tradition, but driven by repression, fear, miseducation, defeatism, racist wounding or God knows what, I think they suspect children will see that many of them, many of us, are really small. That we are existentially naked. Worse still, we fear that we are still unworthy of anything more than donating sperm and eggs or giving money for grocery.

Speaking as if they represent all of African tradition and culture, these retrogressive traditionalists want us to think that all Africans have a natural disinclination to look at their bodies and call it tradition and culture. It is not true.

However, to be fair, perhaps the retribalisers have seen the rapidly changing society and can’t make head or tail of it. Or they just don’t like the look of it. Of they don’t like themselves in it.

The problem is that instead of being open and saying, “I don’t know what the hell is going on, son, but let’s try to figure it out together”, they want to close the gates to all this wonderfully new and strange knowledge. Instead of letting children see them naked and truly as they are, some men tend to prefer displaying a kind of erect fatherhood. Any other time, they hide behind culture for not showing themselves as they really are. Guess what the children are likely learn?

A short version of this piece was first published in on TimesLive| 31 May, 2012 12:42

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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