Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What the President's view on culture says about his politics

The honeymoon is over.

South Africans desire a government that gets the basics done: education, health care, effective policing, infrastructure, clean water, affordable eletctricity; support for business, workers, and households. In other words, the things that a modern state is supposed to do.

Continuous street protests indicate that too many, especially poor people, no longer believe that government will deliver.

Already in the dying days of the Mbeki regime, such was the declared focus of the men and women in charge.

As the Zuma presidency takes shape, it remains to be seen whether these goods will be delivered.

Instead, what clearly stands out under the Zuma regime is a decisive tilt towards conservative, cultural politics. It is as if the Marxists had it right. The world of discourse and ideas is a mere reflection of the materal basis. The failure to improve on the material basis, the living conditions of people, is matched with the take over of conservative cultural politics - is this a ploy to throw sand in the eyes of the public and the masses?

Mbeki was applauded for having united two strands within the liberation movement: the Congress tradition, with its non-racialism, and the black consciousness tradition. While the black consciousness tradition was driven by the youth, the Zuma presidency now seems to add the black African nationalists and traditionalists, as represented by an elite group of mostly older men who rule over the countryside.

The Traditional Leaders' Bill, currently with the Appeals Court, made the ouverture to patriarchal, if not authoritarian 'traditional' leadership explicit - from this perspective, the ruling ANC had given up its claim to progressive politics, in the style of European social democrats, as Mbeki claimed was the ideology of his party. The usual political incantations of working for non-racialism, non-sexism, and against any form of discrimination remain just that - incantations, detached from the realities of power and the desire to govern a diverse, unjust, and unequal society.

It is in fact astonishing that the large support of the ANC for conservative 'traditional' leaders has not drawn more attention. It also makes sense to see this trend in Thabo Mbeki's and his health minister's, Manto Tshabala-Msimang, support for traditional healers in the face of an HIV/AIDS crisis. While it would make sense to mobilise and combine all health providers that people use, the benefit of traditional healers, especially for women's health, is not established.

Rather, with a bias towards men, traditional healers, with traditional leadership, can be seen as a conservative-traditional complex that works against women. Women are usually blamed by the traditional healers when things go wrong in the household. The leader of the association of traditinal leaders, Patakile Holomisa, only gave a mealie-mouthed condemnation of the practice, in the name of tradition, that abducts young women and sells them off to old men. Clearly, the interests and practices of traditional healers and leaders do not sit well with the Constitution.

In the buil-up to the ANC Polokwane conference in 2007 and the power contest that Zuma won, his statement that he would beat up a gay man in front of him could be interpreted as an exageration surfacing during heated campaigning for rural and conservative support. Zuma apologized. However, it is increasingly becoming clear that with Zuma in charge, the ANC is veering to the right. Culture is the most visible victim of this new celebration of conservative 'values'.

At the opening of the first Zuma parliament earlier in 2010, the leader of the opposition party, the IFP, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, asked all men to stand up in honour of Madiba. Zuma, including all ANC men, obliged. A lonely Naledi Pandor was ridiculed by laughing men across the party lines for protesting the exclusion of women from parliamentary ritual, even tough it was not routine.

Last week, Lulu Xingwana, the minister of Arts and Culture, reportedly stormed out of the opening of an exhibition that displayed photographs of women who love women and failed to give her speech. She said it was immoral and unsuited for children to see such photographs. A press release made the outburst even worse by declaring the photographs were undermining social cohesion and nation building.

The minister's outburst and her ministry's declaration fly in the face of the country's Constitution that aims to protect people in their diversity. It is even more worrisome in that it supports a mindset that views discrimination against gays and lesbians as normal for their lives and loves are supposedly immoral. Hate crimes against gays and especially lesbians are at an all time high, according to recent reports, and perpetrators must feel affirmed in their intolerance and hate by the minister.

In the same way that the 'war talk' of the Minister of Police supports officers who break the law and use lethal force in an indiscriminate manner, Xingwana's statements support those who believe same-sex relations are wrong and give free reign to their hate.

Zuma's usual defence against criticism has now become the claim that such is 'his culture'. Before taking off to London for a state visit, Zuma responded to his stance on Zimbabwe's new law limiting foreign ownership of companies to 49%, that it was not his culture to criticize the laws of other countries.

While there is much to be said and thought about tradition and culture in the post-colony, the elevation of culture as a catch-all explanation for anything and everything by a President who faces many obstacles, many of which are by his own doing, does not augur well for the realisation of progressive and democratic politics.

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