Let’s talk about the African ways of doing things

A heavily edited version of this appeared in City Press today. Quite some meaning was lost or changed in the edit. Here’s the full version (with some of my own edits):

Let’s talk about the African ways of doing things, because they exist. African ways, plural, for I acknowledge that this is a large continent with many different groups of people who do things in many different ways, yet the close similarities in languages, cultures and ways of being link us all who call this continent home.

Let’s also have this conversation separately from that on how president Jacob Zuma invokes African culture and traditions to obfuscate his misdeeds and failings. Just as how the conversation on economic freedom can be (and should have been) separated from Julius Malema’s co-option thereof, so too can the cultures and traditions indigenous to this country, the assault they’ve come under, and the value in restoring them be discussed separately from Zuma’s attempts to usurp them.

As with the vast majority of cultures, norms and traditions the world over, those indigenous to Africa are not without their problems. The inequality many hold between men and women, which isn’t unique to this continent, is an example. But vigilant of the pitfalls of exceptionalism, I am emphatic that the African ways of doing things—which long ago recognised that human beings coexist, are interdependent and share linked fates—are radically progressive in many respects and can make a significant contribution to how our society develops.

It feels absurd, and maddening, to justify why indigenous African customs and traditions should hold a significant place in a country located in Africa—but such are our times. Which is why I feel obliged to point out: You don’t chart a path to becoming Mobutu Sese Seko by questioning the influence of colonialism and looking to indigenous African practices for better ways to do things.

I am concerned at how some commentators and newspapers took African customs to be automatically counter to the values in the Constitution or held that it’s somehow scandalous to look to them for solutions to the problems we face today. I assume in these instances, the messenger—Zuma—and the disingenuous manner he conjures culture and tradition tainted for these audiences the parts of the message worth considering. That the unconstitutional traditional courts bill loomed large may have also contributed to the nature of some of the responses. I can only hope.

It cannot be denied that imperialism, colonialism, apartheid and missionary work on the continent suppressed African customs and traditions, and created an anomalous situation where the institutions of this country are in essence culturally European, with too little of the cultures and practices indigenous to this country present.

Perhaps an example will help this along. Based on how I was raised, I am mortified when I see elders go on the way they do in the National Assembly.

“This is not so bad. You should see how they carry on in the British parliament,” comes the reply when I express how appalled I am.

And that’s the clincher. Our Parliament is heavily influenced by the British parliamentary system, not only in operation, but also in the culture and practices of the House. Debates there are, by design, a game of one-upmanship and party point scoring, with little regard given for finding a solution or resolving an impasse. These debates are sound and fury signifying nothing. They are a cultural hangover of colonialism.

Even the design of the National Assembly, a quadrilateral where an open floor separates the majority party and the opposition, with a referee in the middle, is a boxing ring. It’s positively barbaric.

Sometimes I wonder, in a haze of nostalgia for a past that never was, how my grandfather would chair the proceedings. He often mediated discussions of competing interests in his village. It certainly would not be adversarial and aggressive by default, as is the case now. Mutual respect would be the norm, and bad behaviour would chip away at the respect as in a demerit points system. This contrasts with current cultural norm where you start as a nothing and have to build up credibility.

Europe says respect must first be earned. Africa says respect yours to lose.

Can you see how the nature of discussions could change? Can you see how this would fit better with how the majority of our parliamentarians were raised? I don’t think this a path to obsequious deliberations. Quite the contrary. More earnest, robust and progressive conversations will result if all sides did not default to attack and defence modes.

Presently, however, the nature of deliberations in our African parliament is, dare I say, unAfrican.

This change cannot be effected through House rules. This is cultural. It is the softer set of instructions built up from centuries of socialised practices.

But Parliament is not alone. Other institutions, too, are afflicted with colonial hangovers and us, Africans, suffer effects of the painful day-after of a party we did not want. Perhaps when we stop looking upon the West as a bastion of civilisation and look within, at our own ways of doing, will we find a cure for the searing headache.

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