Inxeba: Tradition VS Culture

Back when I was a journalism student at Natal Technikon now DUT I attempted, rather poorly, to articulate the continuous tension between tradition and culture which created a fair amount of conflict within my own mind and in the public sphere. I used the traditional practice of initiating boys into manhood in African-black culture as an example of when culture and tradition can be at odds.

In the piece I attempted to explain the practical reasons why male initiates went to the “mountain” during winter months for circumcision; first for privacy and second; the cold weather would speed up the healing process for their wounds. I argued that while living conditions and medical treatments had advanced to a point where male circumcision could take place almost anywhere in any season;  initiation schools continued to perform the rituals as they were done 200 years ago as if nothing had changed. My analysis was made in the context of a rising number of botched circumcisions which killed a number of boys and left many others injured and or castrated.

But it’s not that simple

This week a better example presented itself through the banning of Inxeba, – The Wound, a South African film which explores tradition and sexuality amid  Xhosa male rites of passage or male circumcision at some Cinemas in parts of the country.

The film hit a raw nerve among ( Xhosa) traditionalist who see it as a violation of a sacred tradition.  Lwando Xasa and Zukiswa Pikoli opined that the filmmaker, William Trengove, a white male had no right making a movie about us.

“Telling our stories through a white lens ensures the dominance and centrality of whiteness.We don’t know Trengove or his reasons for making the movie and showing it to a foreign audience. What we do know is that he made a movie on Xhosa initiation that is off-limits to him.”

The pair along with many who are opposed to the film argue that it is a  continuation of a white supremacists policy of demeaning and bastardising African cultural beliefs.

Others said the film, which I have not seen, is less about Xhosa initiation rites and more about homosexuality. A subject which was the motivation behind  the films’ creation according to its director  William Trengove,

“In writing ‘The Wound’, inspiration came, unexpectedly, from Robert Mugabe. Statements that he and other African leaders have made since the early 90s imply that homosexuality is a symptom of Western decadence that threatens ‘‘traditional’’ culture. And so, we thought ok, let’s use that idea. Let’s imagine ‘‘gayness’’ as a kind of virus that penetrates and threatens a patriarchal organism, and let’s see how that organism responds to being penetrated.”

Not very well it seems.

In the film, he used a cast of untrained actors who were all former Xhosa initiates who re-enacted some of the rituals involved in the initiation process including a sex scene which is the main bone of contention. The inclusion of the sexual act during the initiation ceremony has angered many people including the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (contralesa) who said the movie “wounds”  African cultural practices.  Contralesa’s Prince Manene said in a Mail&Guardian interview that they are not opposed to the film’s gay content.

“If people do that thing, they can do it somewhere else — not within our cultural practice. It doesn’t happen in initiation schools. This is ridiculing our cultural practice. We are being embarrassed. The things that are being shown there is not what is happening in the mountain. It is disgusting and disrespectful of our cultural practices. People making love in an initiation school is not something we see,”

And this is where the conflict between tradition; the passing of beliefs and customs to the next generation and culture; characteristics which describe a particular society at a particular time, takes place.

Trengove is well within his rights in a democratic society to use his imagination to explore and probe subjects which fascinate him which are not only limited to his own culture, tradition or lived experiences – irrespective of his privileged power position as a white male. The constitution guarantees him this right.  Despite his own admission that doing the film is problematic…

“As a white man, representing marginalised black realities that are not my own, the situation is of course complicated. Even highly problematic – It was important to me that the story mirrors this problem. The character of Kwanda is an outsider to the traditional world; he expresses many of my own ideas about human rights and individual freedom. He’s also the problem. His preconceptions create jeopardy and crisis for others who have much more to lose than him. This was my way of saying, ‘‘I don’t have the answers and my own values don’t necessarily apply here.’’

In this way Trengoves’ “The Wound” shares a similar narrative tackled by  Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene  whose last film Moolaade (2004) which depicts women’s’ resistance against the practice of  female circumcision (FGC) in a small village in Burkina Faso, was criticised for being a  ‘staging of a human rights drama;  a performance of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights by employing an “ethical and political category that takes as its departure point a modernity rooted in colonialism.” A slight supported by it being awarded UNESCO Felini Medal, for a long career depicting the struggle for Women’s rights, asserting the role of NGO’s and the United Nations as long-term supporters of Sembene’s films.

Through Moolaade we are made to understand that female circumcision prevalent in West African countries is a tradition clung to for no other reason than to maintain the status quo of male supremacy and patriarchy; by making females docile and marriageable. In Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, Amy Boden argues that by, “writing the Islamic male elders of the village as one-dimensional characters who seem to oppress their wives and daughters solely for the sake of religious tradition and their own sexual desires and egos, Sembène avoids staging a dialogue between the cultural factions advocating for and against genital cutting”

True, only those who are passing on traditional customs can speak highly of its merits both for an individual and community.   Yet this should not automatically disqualify them from performing such customs as a consequence of incidents of malpractice including accidents.

A character flaw 

Even though traditionalists might have a point about the inaccurate depiction of male initiation rights in the film, their protestations however valid make them appear mean and homophobic.

Similar to an incident in the UK, when the Australian teenage heart-throb and former Neighbours star  Jason Donovan sued The Face magazine in 1992 for claiming he was gay. Although he was successful in the case, he also successfully alienated the gay community which resulted in an overall loss of support from his fan base;  who saw his court action as petty and unnecessarily vindictive. Though by all accounts he was entitled to defend himself and his honour – doing so was interpreted as “hate-speech.”  His defence inferred that there is something intrinsically wrong or unacceptable about those people who are, in fact, homosexual.

If Contralesa and indeed all those negatively affected by Inxeba are seriously aggrieved by the film they should also approach the Film and Publication Board of South Africa, The South African Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the South African  Human Rights Commission including the courts, for remedy.

Because this is what we all signed up for

We wanted a democratic country which embraces multiculturalism in all its resplendent manifestations. So we must protect the right to freedom of expression so that we too can practice our traditional customs freely. We signed up for a country in which we could speak freely and have open and transparent discussions about topics and practices which concern us, including those we might deem to be sacrosanct.

So, by all accounts, traditionalist must protest and protect their traditional customs from ridicule and degradation by imaginative artists if they must, but they do not have the right to block others from practising their culture freely; i.e  their right to watch a movie of their choice at a cinema.

As “they” say: it takes more than balls to be a man.




There’s something about fitting rooms in clothing stores. There’s something about the way you brace yourself, subconsciously for what is to come. How you hold the items you spent hours or sometimes just moments inspecting, feeling, touching, close to your chest. As if in prayer for something miraculous to happen after you fit them. Some of the items you choose because they’re fashionable, because you love the look, you’re curious, you need them or you just want to try something new. At other times it’s an outfit you’ve wanted for a long, long time and have finally gathered enough courage to try it on for size.
There’s something about going into a changing room that is a little cathartic. 

Like going into a confessional booth for those of you who are Catholic. Not that I’ve done it before, I’ve always wanted to do it, wondered how it must feel to confess all your sins to another person, but since I am not catholic I never did. So the changing room is the closest thing to a confessional I can possibly imagine.  Because whether you like it or not, ready or not.  It is in this tiny little room in the middle of three full length mirrors with the bright florescent light that you can see the truth about yourself. You can see your body in all its dimensions, every bump, bulge, blemish or stretch mark. It’s like seeing yourself again with new eyes, comparing what you actually look like in reality to the latest version of what you think or hope you look like.

In today’s terms the fitting room can be  a place where you go to update  your “software”. 

Sometimes you find exactly what you’re looking for and it does everything you’ve imagined a garment should do for you when you wear it.  In those times you’re very happy, excited even, pleased to be yourself. You can even start dancing, imagining an occasion in which you’ll wear it and how awesome you’ll look. Or you could fall so deeply in love that you don’t even want to ever get out of this garment, it has become a part of you, essential like the air you breathe. Perhaps you start to dance and even strut your stuff. And smile, and the happiness that you feel draws people closer, because now you’re confident enough to walk out of the changing room, you already know you look good. You can feel it. The compliments you receive are just an icing on your already very delicious  cake.  It was during one of these rare but beautiful moments watching my mother change from one garment to another with youthful abandon, with each one bringing out a surprising side of her, from mature elegance to a youthful, sporty, dancing queen that I started to view the fitting room in a different light.

As a metaphor perhaps,  for life itself.

The changing room can be an emotional space. Where strangers commiserate with one another, like patients in doctor’s waiting room.  Here they can, if you allow them, bare witness to your struggle, tell you that you look good, or to try another size or colour or style, length. Or even notice something about yourself that you can’t see or were never aware of or  thought of as beautiful. I started to see it like a special space, a special time. And just as I was musing on this idea, the lady at the fitting room came to see what my mother was so excited about. They knew each other, because my mother is a regular at the shop.  Both in their late fifties they started talking about how age is nothing but a number. How they spent most of their lives taking care of husbands and children that they never quite had time to enjoy just  being, women.   The fitting lady went further and started to share her story with us in one single breath…

“I was not always this size”

She says with pride. “My breasts used to be double this size, my family used to call me Dolly Parton because I had such huge big breasts” she says motioning over her already large boobs tucked into a tight and short maroon store uniform. “You see my thighs?” she says pointing down at the legs “they were double this size, I was huge big! You see?” she says as she leans against the partitioning walls. “I was big because I had lost too many people in my life” She says and started counting, while my mother looked at her through the mirror “My first husband died at work, he was a head of the bakery at checkers, my second husband died just here, he was a Chubb security guard, My brother, My sister, My son, too many people. So I got depressed and I was on anti-depressants which made me bigger and bigger and bigger.  I was always ill. Until one day I said God help me and threw them all in the toilet. Look at me now!” she said showing off a long light skinned legs. “My sons are doing well, I’m happy. One of them is married to a Zulu Girl, another is  about to get  married now, and the other one just finished matric.  This just st teaches you to never give up on yourself, my house if full of people they come, even famous people come, and hang out with my sons, because I’m down to earth” she said in conclusion then she looked at my mother and said “ I’m proud of the woman you are, well done”

I was moved by her open confession, her vulnerability. 

Suddenly it become rather obvious to me, that some of the biggest changes in our lives, happen in small rooms like this one which I shared with my mom. Something spiritual, soul deep which, when it happens requires no endorsement or validation from anyone. I realized then that this is where some of the more imperceptible changes in our lives can occur. That  the very act of taking off the old clothes and putting on new ones can be a physical representation of what goes on in a persons heart, some kind of an unofficial ritual to prepare for change. It’s the place where you can decide that it’s okay to look in the mirror, to accept those part of yourself that you cannot change, that don’t make sense.   To love anyway to tell someone your truth, to be honest. I started to think how freeing that must be to  be seen, to be known to someone and to be loved and accepted with every scar, blemish, bump and curve. I started to think how beautiful that can be, to approach life with a certain naked innocence of a child. And when someone loves you like that, something happens behind the curtains that makes you want to change, to update your old software. You come out a little different each time.

I also realized that sometimes and I have found this to be true in my own fitting room experience, you’ll never know what you want or what you look good in, or how good a change can be until you try something on. And this for me is the ultimate paradox of this ever changing life, my own light bulb moment  in the chaging room watching my mother fall in love with her new software; and it is this –  real lasting change can only happen, once you commit to it. You have to  be committed, to change.  Needless to say, I’ll never look at a fitting room in the same light, again.


Today I’m sitting down writing these letters with Louis Armstrong the African-American Jazz Musician serenading me with his version of “You go to my head” in the background. His soothing trumpeting and delicate piano notes on which he lays his zesty voice is calming to my shot nerves. I need him you see, because I have been in over my head, trying to compartmentalized my life into neat little boxes, to sort out the papers and stories which have been piling up. I have been restraining myself,  refusing to let myself go and allow  my feelings to spill  like water all over the keyboard smudging the lines of stories stenciled with ink on paper. I need to know what I’m doing.


Naturally it’s been hard to ignore the news of David Bowie’s passing (69), last week.  This British pop, music,art, film and fashion icon of the 60, 70s, 80s and 90s seems to have shaped a lot of people’s lives and by extension mine. I was never part of his fan base and was quite frankly surprised to discover that he enjoyed a massive cult like following from every sector of society. His repertoire is impressive.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I didn’t know of David Bowie, I knew of him and heard his endless list of songs sung word for word by an ex of mine who had a near fanatical adoration for him. I now  realize that he emulated Bowie in every single way. Everything he did from the ways he dressed or more aptly how he curated the clothes he put on his body, to the way he approached and spoke about art, culture, politics, fashion creativity and life in general – including his androgynous nature,  were all inspired in the main by the Bow.

But I realize this, of course, only in hindsight.  David never meant anything to me, I had no cultural references to him. I never thought of him as an icon or followed his acting, singing or performance art career or played his music. The only song I know of his, is the more mainstream “Let’s dance”,  simply because that’s the one song my ex and I enjoyed dancing to together. Tellingly, Bowie confessed to the Interview Magazine  in 1995 that he had come to loath the success of this track in  particular “I went mainstream in a major way with the song “Let’s Dance.” I pandered to that in my next few albums, and what I found I had done was put a box around myself. It was very hard for people to see me as anything other than the person in the suit who did “Let’s Dance,” and it was driving me mad—because it took all my passion for experimenting away. [David Bowie, Double Trouble!!, September 1995]”. Ironically I ended up feeling the same way about our relationship, too, toward the end, essentially boxed in.

So when stories and news of David Bowie started flooding my timeline, I thought of him and how he must be feeling.  I thought of how we loved to dance together and how he was quite possibly the only person who could dance with me.   I thought of our life together, the moments that we shared, which at the time felt as if they were going to last forever but now seem like a flicker of light in an attic full of memories.  I danced once again in my mind with him enjoying his raspy laughter and seemingly endless energy and enthusiasm for life. In some far-fetched way, I grieved. I cared about David Bowie’s death only because I once loved someone who adored him.  There were times, private moments when he would sing along with David Bowie with such passion I wished he could love me like that too.  Or that I understood the sheer significance DB in his life. Nevertheless we shared a story together dancing to David Bowie and those were always, happy times.

It is incredible to observe how ingrained David Bowie’s lifestyle had become in so many people’s lives, from multiple generations and how his influence in their world left no stone un-turned in art, fashion, photography,  music, films etc. He was in fact, a movement, a revolution continuously evolving and re-inventing itself  in one single human body. I did not know when I first  met my ex, that I was in actual fact meeting them as a variation of  DB, and not really as they truly are themselves, because who are we if we’re not copies of each other to some extent? Even Bowies’ own style was “inspired” or copied from a colourful neighbour he once saw walking down the street when he was younger.

A sobering conversation about politics with my father brought on a rather insightful conversation about how culture is transferred, primarily though language and of course through music. My father relayed to us a story of his life in a remote part of Mozambique where he had to learn to speak Portuguese pretty fast in order for him to do his work efficiently.  That’s when, he said, he saw the power of language, and how it can open doors and break down even the toughest walls.   To clarify his point he used a long forgotten South African example of someone who was able to dismantle certain prejudices through music in a very tangible way. And this of course was not a minor achievement in Apartheid South Africa where in some areas it was illegal to speak African languages.


For many years many black South Africans despised Shangaan speaking people.  They referred to them as MakwereKwere,  foreigners, people who did not belong. In fact during the 60s, 70, and 80s comparing someone to a Shangaan was considered  the ultimate insult  among black South Africans living in Johannesburg Townships in particular.  Back then being a Shangaan was frowned upon, it was the lowest you could be as a human being. This discrimination and hate stemmed, according to some social anecdotes, from the Shangaan people’s inability  to adjust to township life. The men never brought their wives to live with them in the city, they never bought any furniture, anything of value or comfort such a bed or a humble bench to sit on because they considered their stay in the city of gold to be temporary. They always spoke of returning home.  The Zulu’s, Sotho’s Xhosa’s and others who had already acclimatized to township life could not understand the Shangaan people and their threadbare, nomad-like way of life, let alone their language. They were for the most part considered to be dirty people or people who didn’t  care for  personal hygiene.  With time Shangaan people began to assimilate to township life, brought their wives to live with them, they soon started families and their children attended local schools just  like everyone else, but the stigma remained.

Until Paul Ndlovu, of course,  known as the Shangaan Disco King came to the scene with a song that  single-handedly changed all if not most of the negative perceptions people held against Shangaan people and made the Shangaan way of life enviable to most. His most important contribution however, was not his dress sense which was quite dapper, nor his dance moves which everyone tried to emulate, nor in fact the traditional   (tutu/motsheka) dresses worn by his back-up female singers. His most important contribution was singing in his language, Shangaan, which made people want to learn more about the language and its people. Suddenly the hit song “hita famba moyeni Katanga” changed people’s perceptions of Shangaan people. Shangaan people were no longer dirty and despicable, they were people who travelled to Giyane or their hometowns  in planes, something which was unheard of for most black people at the time. Paul Ndlovu became a household name and his song became the soundtrack of people’s birthday parties, stockvels, wedding celebrations or Shebeen get-togethers’. Understanding the Shangaan language became a plus, a positive addition to the township lexicon.  But as quickly as he rose to fame his light dimmed just as fast. He was killed in a car accident but rumours surrounding his life and death sold newspapers and magazines for month’s even years after he was buried.

Today one cannot find a more prouder nation than the Shangaan and with them the Venda and Tsonga people who take pride in speaking their languages without demeaning other people. They have also since found their own music awards  for musicians who promote  their culture through language. Of course Shangaan people were not aliens who landed from far away planets as many believed. They are in fact descendents of the Zulu nation and are named after Soshagana, a Zulu Warrior, who was sent by the Zulu King, Shaka to conquer the Tsonga people in area of present-day Mozambique. Soshangana found a fertile place inhabited by scattered communities of peace-loving people, and decided to make it his home rather than return to Shaka.

With all this in mind I started to imagine what South African airwaves would sound like today, had the late-former-President Nelson Mandela elected to speak in his mother tongue exclusively during public speeches as a rule upon his release from prison in 1990 and throughout his tenure as President. And this not because he could not speak English or Afrikaans, but because that would have sent a signal to all black people in South ( Africa) including our former oppressors and colonizers  that our languages matter – to us the people who speak them, that our culture, our way of life and ways of thinking are just as valid.  Other people would have been  forced to learn our languages in the same way we were forced in the past to learn theirs. We would not be insulted for failing to pronounce English words.  Engela Merkel does not address Germany or the world in English, neither does Francois Holland, the Chinese president, or any number of statesmen who lead non-English speaking countries and that’s not because they can’t understand English.  It’s because they understand the power of language  as a primary tool to transfer culture and to change people’s way of thinking and points of reference. They know who they are speaking to.

Sadly there’s nothing online featuring interviews with Paul Ndlovu although I’m sure there are many in the analogue archives of the SABC, Bona and Drum magazine including the Sowetan newspaper.  And so, with respect to the dearly departed, perhaps David Bowie should have the last word. “You know you can’t put down anybody. You can just try to understand. The emphasis shouldn’t be on revolution, it should be on communication.”[David Bowie Tells All and More to Patrick Salvo, March 1973].


Julius Malema: Fictional Facts

Learning from the young

Before we forget.

Expelled ANC Youth League Leader Julius Malema, is practically emulating almost every strategy and tactic which his mentor and South African President Jacob Zuma himself employed when he outsted his then arch rival former President Thabo Mbeki back in 2008.

If we could take detailed notes, we would be forgiven when we give Malema correct marks point by point by point. One 100 percent full marks. Though we don’t know as yet if Malema will  make it to the ruling party ANC’s elective conference in Polokwane (sic) Mangaung in the North West Province in November.

The charges which the Hawks (South Africa’s specialist police) have been investigating since the beginning of the year could continue well into 2014.

History Repeats itself so What’s new?

The public is taken a-back my Malemas’ arrogant, disrespectful insults against President Zuma – who is ineffect his elder, a father figure (for) to him; who is to be respected. And in African tradition and culture what Malema is doing is simply “unheard” of! Out of Order with that natural flow of things.

No matter how wrong your mother, father, uncle and great grand father might be, however angry you are with them, however justified you might be in your righteous indignation, it is not correct to shame them, insult them and call them illiterate in public. Nothing they can do warrants the slightest disrespect from a youngster – “upstart” a friend once remarked.

Let’s look back at the “spear” debacle and the the moral anger it ignited even amongst the fiercest detractors of Zuma’s presidency today. Brett Marais’s painting infused such righteous anger in the public discourse it became a racial issue ( Black Africans and White Africans don’t read for the same morality book sometimes) in the public discourse. Yes many might agree that Zuma’s behavoir is wrong, but however wrong he might be, we can’t expose his manhood for all to see in public galleries even if they are of an artistic nature.

Young people are tickled by Malema’s utterances, but older folk are angered by them.  To the point of being Livid. To them it is like a child whose filthy nappies you changed turning against you and saying telling you that you are nothing. You know nothing.

It’s a very dangerous line to cross.

The recent elimination of Tshidi – a promising and should I add much loved contestant in South Africa’ talent search – Idols’ is a case in point. As part of the top four competitors she was followed back to her home town of Thokoza where she was met by scores of people including her family and friends, waiting to congratulate her on having succeeded and come so far in the most talked about singing competition in South Africa. But before she came out of her car, she nervously said: ” Please don’t jump on me, don’t jump on me please, I don’t want to fall over etc, please don’t jump on me” for at least five minutes.

Such a light statement that was.

Needles to say no one came near her, and the country demonstrated their displeasure at her “pompous” comments when they eliminated her from the race to become South Africa’s next Pop Idol. No votes for Tshidi.

Malema – if found guilty could loose everything.
One hopes for his sake, he has an uncle or friend some where who can help him pick up the pieces.