When Modernity Trumps Tradition: King reportedly had sex with a bull beaten into semi-consciousness.

Posted: December 27, 2011 by PaanLuel Wël Media Ltd. in Junub Sudan


JOHANNESBURG — The Southern Africa Report recently ran a story alleging that as part of an annual ceremony called Incwala King Mswati III of Swaziland has sex with a bull beaten into semi-consciousness. I have no way of confirming the report. But it did serve to raise what is a very real issue in this part of the world: the clash between tradition and modernity.

Cattle being tended in preparation for Ukweshwama, the Zulu tradition.Benedicte Kurzen for The New York TimesCattle being tended in preparation for Ukweshwama, the Zulu tradition.

In South Africa, in a Zulu ritual called Ukweshwama, 40 or so young members of a regiment kill a bull with their bare hands — gouging out its eyes, mutilating its genitals, and ripping out its tongue, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

How do you square these obvious wrongs with respect for local customs? The question applies not only to the torture of animals but also to such traditions as polygamy: President Jacob Zuma has several wives.

South Africa has a rather schizophrenic approach to such questions. In 1994, it adopted a constitution that explicitly recognizes customary practices so long as they don’t violate fundamental values like equality and dignity. Polygamy has not yet been challenged under the Constitution, but in a society rife with sexism and sexual violence, the practice undermines the equality and dignity that women are entitled to. And so either the practice should be declared unconstitutional or substantive gender equality should be achieved by also permitting polyandry.

A similar tension regarding the bull killing ritual also needs resolution. Dismembering or violating a living bull contradicts basic standards for the treatment of animals, as well as South Africa’s Animal Protection Act, which outlaws animal cruelty. But the law is routinely ignored because the Ukweshwama tradition is so deeply embedded: even Zuma, himself a Zulu, has attended the event.

In the only court challenge to the ritual so far, from early December 2009, the judge correctly identified the centrality of the tradition to Zulu life but failed to weigh that interest against the legal entitlements of a sentient creature. (He argued that declaring Ukweshwama illegal would be like preventing Roman Catholics from receiving Holy Communion.) A court that properly balanced the competing interests of tradition and animal welfare would have declared the ritual illegal or mandated that the Zulu community find other ways for its young men to bond and demonstrate their prowess.

A people’s sense of community is not fundamentally threatened if it abandons a ritual; human history is testimony to our ability to adopt different ways of being. On balance, therefore, it makes sense to reject traditions of this bull-killing kind rather than allow them to endure simply because they have persisted thus far. Many wrongs are customary and have been custom for too long. King Mswati III’s power may be absolute in Swaziland, but bestiality is nonetheless patently unethical.

If a tradition is compatible with fundamental values like equality and dignity, then it has a place in a modern African society. If it clashes with fundamental values like equality and dignity, then it must be scrapped, unless an appropriate modification is found.

Eusebius McKaiser is a political analyst at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa.


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