The naked truth about our culture | by Simphiwe Sesanti

by Jun 4, 2012All Articles

This week the world witnessed a heated debate around Brett Murray’s painting exposing SA president Jacob Zuma’s genitals. Those in defense of Murray argued that this was purely an artistic act, while those in favour of Zuma argued that it was merely the work of a racist. The ANC’s secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, went as far as saying that while black people have shown a gesture of reconciliation after suffering the brutality of apartheid, some whites have not reciprocated. While one is not sure whether or not this is an act of racism, one is certain that this is a cultural act that seems inoffensive to the Western world but certainly horrifying to those who subscribe to African culture. 
When recently I bought the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s ‘The Use Of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, volume 2’ I was shocked by its front cover which exposed the erect penis of a naked man lying on his back while a naked woman was mounting him.
I immediately blotted out the erect penis with black ink so that my curious children would not see it. As an African child I was taught that children should never look at an adult’s naked body, especially their private parts. That is considered disrespectful. It goes without saying, therefore, that children who are artistically inclined are not allowed to draw or paint a naked adult’s body. In terms of individualism, which is accepted in the West, it is perfectly normal to have arts for art’s sake. But in Africa, where traditionally individualism (not individuality) is frowned upon, and a sense of community (communalism) is promoted, art is not for art’s sake, but for life’s sake.
This means that an artist cannot simply do as they wish without considering their art’s consequences for the entire community because the survival of the community at large is more important than mere pleasures of an individual.
It seems, unfortunately, that Murray did not have these considerations when he exhibited his art. I guess that it is against this African cultural sensitivity that Gugu Zuma, our president’s daughter, an artist and actress of note in her own right, wrote recently that the “painting is really just the straw that broke the camel’s back in this notion that a black man who is associated with African cultures and traditions, and who does not fit the ‘perfect’ mould of Western values and beliefs, is less human than the next person”.
Her words express not just the sentiment of Msholozi’s biological daughter but of every child brought up in the African cultural way. As an African child whose culture taught me that Msholozi is my own father, even if not biologically so, since he belongs to my father’s age group, I share Gugu’s pain. But Gugu, as well as Msholozi, should note that African children were hurt when, in trying to protect himself in his rape trial, Msholozi denied the father-daughter relationship with his rape accuser, Khwezi, who was the daughter of his late comrade. The fact that Khwezi was biologically not Msholozi’s daughter did not make her less of his child – according to African culture. But when it was convenient for Msholozi, he violated this African ethic, and thus exposed his cultural nakedness to the world. Msholozi rubbed salt into the wound later when news broke out that he fathered a child with Sonono Khoza, his friend, Irvin Khoza’s daughter.
According to African culture, Sonono is Msholozi’s daughter. It is this behavior that makes us Africans exposed to others, and, consequently, “painted” naked. When the media exposed the Sonono incident, some of us felt culturally naked and exposed to ridicule. While one does sympathize with the anger that has been expressed by Africans, one is of the view that we, Africans, should partly take the blame for this state of affairs. That is because as Africans we have failed to clearly articulate and put into the mainstream African culture in public discourse in a proactive, not defensive way.
Let me explain.
Early this month ANC MP and constitutional review committee chairman Phathekile Holomisa came under fire for suggesting that Parliament should remove a clause in the constitution that protects people on the grounds of sexual orientation. Holomisa is reported to have argued that the last time the issue was discussed in the ANC caucus most of the people present “were opposed to it, but then Luthuli House and the leadership instructed us to vote for it”.
The media reported that Holomisa said that if the ANC failed to address this issue, the majority of the people voting for the ANC might decide not to support the ANC in the polls. Whether or not some people agree with Holomisa, the truth is that generally Africans are not comfortable with homosexuality. This is borne out by the fact that SA is the only country in Africa that constitutionally gives a right to same-sex marriages. So uncomfortable are Africans with this, what Ghana’s President John Atta Mills publicly declared that his country would rather go without Britain’s aid if that country carried out its Prime Minister David Cameron’s threat to withdraw aid from countries with anti-gay legislation. The ANC, on the other hand, for reasons best known to itself ignored the African sentiment on this issue and imposed its will without seeking Africans’ consent. This stance exposed the ANC’s insensitivity to cultural concerns. If the ANC leadership thought that it was ahead of the rest of Africans in seeing the light, it should have taken them into their confidence and enlightened them, so that it can take them along on this journey. At one stage Africans in the west and south of Africa thought that the birth of twins was an abomination and killed them directly or indirectly. But later those Africans saw the light and realised that the birth of twins was a natural thing and one of God’s mysteries. Maybe one day Africans will learn to accept homosexuality as a normal thing.
But that comes with education, and Africans must be given the space to come to terms with this in the same way that US President Barack Obama took his own time to make peace with same-sex marriages. Initially Obama struggled with same-sex relationships, until his daughters enlightened him. It is hoped that instead of reacting the way it did to Holomisa, the ANC will see the error of its ways and show respect and sensitivity to Africans. If it fails, chances are a black artist may expose the ANC’s cultural nakedness, and charges of racism will not stick this time.
The ANC has proven that it can, at times, recognize its own mistakes and rectify them publicly. Its public statement towards the end of last month that its leadership was reviewing its insensitive act of eating cake in front the masses when celebrating its birthday, is one indication of its ability and willingness to admit wrong done. This was after the ANC’s deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, at the organization’s centenary celebration shocked culture-conscious and sensitive Africans by declaring that if the ANC supporters gathered at the stadium did not have champagne they could take photographs of their leaders drinking on their behalf.
Along with the drinking of the champagne went the consumption of cake. This act by Motlanthe exposed the cultural nakedness of the ANC. That is because, as Maulana Karenga in his book, Selections from The Husia: Sacred Wisdom of Ancient Egypt, reminds us, our ancestors taught us that it is repugnant to enjoy a meal in front of a person who is not eating anything. Someone brave inside or outside the ANC must have pointed out to the ANC that Motlanthe’s insensitivity had exposed the ANC’s cultural nakedness.
It was welcome news to hear ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu saying that the ANC is considering how to “tweak this culture and make it less insensitive”.
It is better late than never.
Dr Sesanti, a lecturer at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Journalism, writes in his personal capacity.
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