Last week I wrote about how the term “cultural appropriation” lacked depth in the United States. Now, I want to look at a situation in South Africa, where an act of “cultural appreciation” was deemed counterproductive to the evolving culture. Here, the depth is in the details.
Recently, in South Africa’s East Cape region, a male choirmaster led what he called a “cultural tribute” to South Africa’s second largest ethnic group—the Xhosa. The tribute involved teenage girls wearing a traditional “inkciyo,” a small apron that exposed the breasts and buttocks of the teenage girls.
The teenage girls conducted what’s called “The Reed Dance.” This semi-nude dance is performed each year in Swaziland, which is its own sovereign state within South Africa. (In other words, what happens in Swaziland should stay in Swaziland.)
In 2016 a Guardian headline asked if Swaziland’s Reed Dance was a cultural celebration or a sleazy royal ritual? The report stated the annual Umhlanga—Reed Dance—Festival was a cultural tradition that celebrated virginity and chastity. The event “attracts” tens of thousands of women, and on the last day of the festival, the young women parade bare chested at the royal village. Traditionally, the king chose one of the women as a wife, but now, the festival is about preserving “cultural heritage.”
However, human rights organizations assert this “cultural ceremony” is actually enforced by the state. A 29-year-old woman school teacher said, “They say we’re not forced, but we are. Families who don’t send their daughters are fined.” She also stated she attended the festival during her youth and enjoyed it, but as she got older she grew uncomfortable with certain things. “The girls sleep in small classrooms or tents without proper sanitation. Also, there are many rules you have to adhere to when you attend…This is the 21st century. We shouldn’t be forced to wear certain clothes.”
Apparently, the East Cape region’s Reed Dance was digitally recorded. The semi-nude images created a demand for the choirmaster to be fired. (It’s still unclear whether the parents of the students gave their approval.) The choirmaster responded to the backlash. He said, “We are proud of our Xhosa tradition, and we are proud of Xhosa women and girls.”
But Angie Motshekga, minister of basic education, denounced the choirmaster and said, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with being proud of your culture and heritage, but there was absolutely no need for these children to perform completely naked. That goes against the values of our culture.”
What values did the choirmaster’s “cultural tribute” go against?
Last week the Ministry of Basic Education published a report on how history is taught in South African schools. This report was ordered by Angie Motshekga three years ago. The report stated before Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, the historical emphasis was on “great White men,” but after Mandela the emphasis simply switched to “great Black men,” and little attention has been paid to “gender issues.”
The culture clash here is between cultivating the empowerment and dignity of women and preserving pride in some tradition that is demeaning to women by 21st-century standards.
The angriest response to the choirmaster’s defense of The Reed Dance came from a reader of The Daily Dispatch’s website. This person wrote, “All this needs to stop. When people blindly follow ‘culture’ they do not even know the origins or reasons for the culture. The origins are usually exploitative. How is this not pedophilia masquerading as culture, and why is it a man saying that he is proud of Xhosa women and girls as if they were his objects? A choirmaster gets schoolgirls to strip. Why is he not in jail?”
Now, the depth and the devil are in the details.
(J. Pharaoh Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier. He blogs at firstname.lastname@example.org)