Writing in The Times on 4 June 2012, columnist Justice Malala criticised President Jacob Zuma’s claim in Parliament last week that all (cultural) rights are equal and therefore should be respected and treated as such.
Zuma told Parliament that: “No right is superior to other rights. In similar vein, we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that certain rights are more important to certain sections of South African society than to others. Freedom of expression is as important and as understood in Constantia as it is in Gugulethu. No right is absolute. It must be exercised with due regard to the rights of others.”
The president went on to say “no right is so important that it can be used to undermine others with impunity”, said Malala. Although this was an important contribution to the debate, the columnist believes the president’s defense of oppressive “cultural rights” towards women was not helpful (my emphasis). These “cultural rights” include Zuma’s claim (or rather his supporters’) that polygamy is (in) his culture and therefore part of it. This is despite the fact that culture is progressive and that certain practices of it might be seen as oppressive and abusive towards women and children especially in polygamous relationships/marriages where women’s voices do not carry much, if any, weight compared to their polygamous partners’.
Malala says he’d been told several times that “in Zuma’s culture – and allegedly in black culture in general” polygamy is a “right that men [likeZuma,Swaziland’s King Mswati, etc] have enjoyed for ages and can continue to enjoy today”.
But (and I agree with Malala) such rights do not mean they are in accordance with non-racialism, non-sexism and equality just because they are “part” of my culture or part of black person in general especially black Africans – although this is also practiced in a few parts of the world.
“Polygamous marriages do not accord with the dream of a non-sexistSouth Africa. The reasons are simple and compelling. No woman can have two husbands. When the day dawns when a woman can take two men as lovers, and she is not called a slut or a whore, then perhaps we will have reached equilibrium in our society”, said Malala, adding that they remain a “throwback to patriarchal, sexist structures in which men dominate, socially and economically” – something most traditionalists will obviously disagree with.
This is mindful of the fact that not all women are in monogamous relationships because some of them are economically independent unlike those who are in these relationships and many of whom, if not all of them, rely on their polygamist partners. “That is the norm in the marriages and we should not shy be about it”, adds Malala.
And “just because it is part of my culture [it] does not mean it should lie before me unexamined. Culture becomes stronger, more meaningful when it is examined and interrogated. It is an insult to logic, to intellectual progress, to say that a practice must remain a part of society simply because we have been doing it for centuries. This argument is inherently anti-education,” says Malala.
Much as there is a lot to admire in any culture, there is a lot, too, that not only is in accordance with, but underlines why we have fought for a humane, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic country, says Malala. “There is also much that needs changing. Women have for centuries been oppressed, not only as women but as workers. They have been used as sexual objects. They have been used as workers for no pay and even today in many industries earn less than their male counterparts. Black women have been oppressed in triplicate: as women, as workers and as blacks.”
Malala says a lot in many cultures, especially blacks’, polygamous relationships still “perpetuates this oppression of women” where boys would often inherit their fathers’ wealth while girls would be expected to get married. This is despite these marriages having been practiced for centuries yet not making it any right. He said Zuma and all the polygamists’ commitment “must be questioned in the light of… greater commitment to the practice of a clearly sexist and oppressive cultural right”.
It is only when these polygamists – but Zuma especially – let a woman from Nkandla take a second husband and is not “quartered, tarred and called names” that their [polygamists’] commitment to a non-sexist South Africa will be “truly tested”, says Malala (my emphasis).
But until then…
This is an edited article which was first published on my Facebook Notes on June 5.