Invented tradition a useful defence when all else fails
TRADITION and culture are being wielded as cudgels with which to beat critics. Invoking "tradition" to justify present power arrangements has a long history. Now President Jacob Zuma’s spokesmen increasingly resort to this malleable defence, without having to marshal any further explanations, every time Zuma makes a gaffe or a contentious statement.
Culture and tradition have been invoked to defend the vast public expenditure on Zuma’s Nkandla homestead, his trivialising comments on dogs and white customs, as well as his provocative claim that businessmen who support the African National Congress (ANC) will prosper. When Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko questioned this as appearing to be an invitation to corrupt practices, the ANC spokesman said she didn’t understand African custom — as if all blacks share the same customs, a new "tradition" in itself.
The seminal book The Invention of Tradition (1983), edited by the late Eric Hobsbawm, showed that much of the pomp and ceremony that surrounds the UK monarchy was devised in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The success of this invention lies precisely in the illusion that such rituals are ancient, even immemorial. Most of the global public that now devours royal spectacles on TV are convinced that these pageants have their origins "in the mists of time".
In the same book, historian Terence Ranger examined the ways in which colonial powers introduced European customs into Africa or interpreted African cultures and traditions through their own eyes, frequently codifying into rigid categories a far more complex reality. This tendency was spotted in South Africa more than 200 years ago by the great French explorer and ornithologist, Francois Le Vaillant. On three expeditions to the far reaches of the Cape between 1781 and 1784, Le Vaillant noticed that the Dutch regularly "created" local chiefs and gave them new and arbitrary powers.
The Frenchman, who was extremely critical of settler brutality towards indigenous people, wrote that such an imposed, bogus chief "then becomes a stooge, a new spy, a new slave to the government, and a new tyrant to his own people". This practice became standard under apartheid. In many cases, that remains a "traditional" conundrum yet to be resolved.
Most people have experienced some kind of recourse to instant tradition, whether from insecure teachers or peremptory bosses seeking to assert an unearned authority. Much of South African history might be summed up in that thoughtless and condescending attitude. For more than 350 years, the self-righteous, largely unquestioned trinity of culture, custom and tradition was stridently employed to justify not only rapacious European conquest, but white supremacy, which culminated in legislated white lordship. Many whites have still not grown out of this racial delusion. That tradition, of whatever hue or culture, is routinely invoked to sanctify power.
Pallo Jordan pointed out on these pages that this year marks the centenary of the Natives Land Act. It was not only the infamous culmination of statutory robbery, but a triumph of invented "tradition": white sovereignty wilfully destroying a long tradition of thriving peasant farming. Sol Plaatje recorded it thus: "Awakening on Friday morning, June 20th, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth."
A century later, we are still paying the price of that theft. Cautiously, Jordan concedes that the ANC "vacillates between asserting the rights of rural dwellers as set out in the constitution and acknowledging the claims of chiefs, rooted in precolonial traditions that are of little relevance in the 21st century". Presumably what he is alluding to is the ANC’s proposed Traditional Courts Bill, which threatens to, in effect, disenfranchise about one-third of South Africa’s citizens, particularly rural women, who live in areas defined by the former Bantustans.
It has aroused tremendous opposition, not least from organised groups of rural women and Lulu Xingwana, the Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities. Xingwana denounced the bill as oppressive and discriminatory to women and "an apartheid-era piece of legislation". She also asked: "Why are we taking our people to the dark ages?"
Zuma’s furious riposte came a couple of months later. In Parliament, tackling opponents of the Traditional Courts Bill, he angrily denounced "clever blacks" who "become most eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions and everything".
Increasingly, the one thing that you are not allowed to question, it seems, is tradition — however ambiguous, ill-defined and reinvented, or even reactionary, it is. To do so as a black person risks the danger of being denounced as "un-African".
It is a form of verbal thuggery — a clear racial smear designed to intimidate and muzzle debate. This tactic is not so different from apartheid-era insults deployed by defensive whites against opponents of apartheid: "unpatriotic", "un-South African", and more explicitly unpleasant, racially offensive invective. Patriotism, it used to be said, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. The unthinking invocation of "African tradition" is rapidly becoming a new sanction to silence critics.
Phathekile Holomisa, the president of the Congress of Traditional Leaders and an ANC MP, leads the way. Last June, he wrote an article in the City Press defending the Traditional Courts Bill with this unpleasant threat: "Our opponents must not make it necessary for traditional leaders to prove their strength. If need be, though, they are quite capable of demonstrating their support and, you can be assured, such a demonstration would not be pretty."
It has to be asked: If "traditions" can be sustained only by intimidation and abuse, can they really be either so respected or as entrenched as self-proclaimed traditionalists like to assert? If the influence in these matters is left to verbal bullies such as Holomisa, while ANC stalwarts such as Jordan merely hint at their objections, then this year may one day be seen as another act of grand larceny: robbing millions of South Africans of the struggle for constitutional rights.
In the UK, much of the "immemorial" royal pomp and ceremony was created in the hope of reversing a growing public hostility to Queen Victoria, as she seldom appeared in public in later years. This instant public ceremonial, with the theatrical props of apparent age-old tradition, worked wonders — and still weaves its illusory magic.
Hobsbawm said such "invention of tradition" is often a nation-building strategy.
"However, we should expect it to occur more frequently when a rapid transformation of society weakens or destroys the social patterns for which ‘old’ traditions had been designed, producing new ones to which they were not applicable, or when such old traditions and their institutional carriers and promulgators no longer prove sufficiently adaptable or flexible," he wrote.
Tension between traditionalists, populists and progressives can only intensify. That may well become the defining clash of the Zuma era. After all, any tradition worth preserving is too important a matter to leave to a clique of shrill gatekeepers reliant on threadbare, racially reductive rhetoric.
• Rostron is a freelance journalist and author.
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