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Arts & Culture Trust of the President

Hlonipha among the Nguni does not tarnish women’s image: a reply to CD Ntuli

Abstract
This article agrees with Ntuli’s (2000) view that there is indeed a tendency to use ukuhlonipha for wrong reasons. However, it is argued that the problem is not with ukuhlonipha per se, but with patriarchy, which is a male dominated system of privileges.

NS Zulu
Department of African languages
University of Stellenbosch
Private Bag X1
Matieland
7602

nsz@akad.sun.ac.za

The article “Respect and hlonipha among the Nguni and some observations on the derogatory tags that tarnish women’s image” by C.D. Ntuli, published in Southern African Journal for Folklore Studies vol. 11 no. 1, sees a problem with the Nguni system of respect, known as ukuhlonipha. The writer feels that ukuhlonipha tends to treat women with less respect and dignity as compared with their male counterparts (Ntuli 2000:32). Ntuli points out (p 32) that such a situation obtains because of the Nguni culture’s blind, biased and selfish consideration of the interests, mainly of men, above those of many Nguni women. This comes as the result of the Nguni society’s speaking “in tongues” and its “sudden amnesia” when it comes to mutual respect.

I would prefer to talk about the Zulu cultural system instead of what Ntuli calls “Nguni culture”. Ukuhlonipha in Zulu requires mutual respect — respect amongst women, elders, children, the elderly, royalty and everybody else, including strangers. The Zulu system is patriarchal (I shall come back to the definition of the concept of “patriarchy” below) — a problem of many systems in the world — in the sense that it apportions respect according to seniority first and sex second. If Zulus live in a compound family system, for example, the eldest male member in the family genealogy is the head, but if he dies, his (senior) wife automatically takes his place on advisory and decision-making matters. Her eldest son will do all the things his father was supposed to do, in consultation with his mother.

A fascinating aspect up to this day about almost all patriarchal societies of the world is that women, to a greater degree, are curators of these systems that entrench male domination. Much of what Ntuli calls derogatory remarks and tags about unmarried women, as far as I know, comes from the very women who are supposed to have empathy and sympathy for unmarried women. The practice of ukuzila for a dead husband by his wife that almost all African women hate, as I observed, is not enforced by Zulu males, but the very women who hate it, and the elderly women are leaders. The Xhosa ukungena that is always flung about as an epitome of male greed and wanting to own and possess women, does not often take place if the elderly women of that family advise against it.

Though I agree fully with some of the sentiments raised in the article, I am slightly worried by some generalizations for intention. The derogatory tags that apply to women are equally applicable to men, except that normally men cannot conceive, hence the stigma of barrenness is attached only to women. It is also not true that all men, despite age and marriage status, are praised and glorified for “promiscuity”. Only an unmarried young man would be praised for ubusoka, not for the western practice Ntuli (200:36) calls “promiscuity”. Married men — including the junior-most in age and status — ostracise an unmarried man and treats him as if he were a boy, not a man. The unmarried man is derided because as a normal man he can decide at any time to marry, unlike a woman who has to wait for the man who will choose to marry her amongst many other competitors. So being an unmarried man is taken to be some anomaly, and the unmarried man is derided as impohlo. Such a man is treated as if he is “abnormal”. If his problem is that he is afraid of women — something he would not easily admit — he receives, in addition, the contempt: uyisishimane. Some sympathetic men in olden days used to save the situation by finding a woman for him. This rare act of mercy used to remove the shame and stigma.

These were traditional practices. Today they are no longer serious in rural areas, and they are rarely emphasised in urban areas. I am inclined to believe that the issue of an unmarried woman and man in both rural and urban settings is also no longer important. An unmarried woman can become a source of ridicule if she flirts with the married women’s men in that specific area. This is clearly a result of hate, and the affected women will evoke tags such as those Ntuli is against regarding their use for women. Isoka lamanyala has a behavioural problem of failing to see that females are a group of women and maidens — including girls — because he indiscriminately makes advances to both groups alike, solely to cater for his insatiable sexual needs.

The Zulu respect system per se is not inherently male chauvinistic. The Zulu custom is grounded in the principle that all people deserve mutual respect. Women in Zulu culture have always been given the highest respect — as women — and not as something else in relation to men. The example of recognising that women are leaders — as women — was set by King Shaka who made some royal women caretakers of very senior Zulu regiments and custodians of some of his royal residences.

In patriarchal societies like the Zulu one — and many others like it — those who are interested in male opportunities twist the respect convention. The problem, then, is not with ukuhlonipha but with patriarchy that privileges men over women. Like apartheid, patriarchy is a system of exclusive privileges. The attack should be directed at patriarchy and not at ukuhlonipha.

Cowards (1983:7) points out that the term patriarchy, which has been widely used as the foundation for a specifically feminist investigation of sexual relations, sometimes is used casually, interchangeably with “sexism”. She further points out that patriarchy has also been used as a theoretical explanation for the subordination of women. It describes the political and social control of women by men.

What should be observed is that patriarchy is a form and function of male domination in the sense that in such a social system all modes of representation are centred on men. Ruthven (1984:1) calls such a system “androcentric”. An androcentric system, according to Ruthven (p 1) is “phallocratic” because the phallus in such a system is taken to be the principal signifier of male power and differentiates the male from the female and her powerlessness.

The broad object of feminism, then, is to counteract patriarchy in all its forms as Andrea Dworking, quoted by Ruthven (1984:6), avers:

    The feminist project is to end male domination [...] In order to do this, we will destroy the structure of culture as we know it, its art, its laws; all of the images, institutions, customs and habits which define women as worthless and invisible victims.

Feminism has indeed permeated all spheres of knowledge such as law, medicine, sociology and social work, anthropology, psychology and theology, to mention but a few. Gallop (1997:13) sees the objective of feminism as “the struggle to end sexist oppression”.

However — as Ruthven (1984:10) points out — apparently because of its political agenda and its tendency to be separatist and anti-male, feminist discourse, even in its milder forms, strikes men as being accusatory, as it is meant to do; and in its most uncompromising manifestation it is unrelentingly intimidatory.

Ruthven goes on to observe that

    Feminist terrorism is the mirror image of machismo. Unregenerately separatist — men are the problem, so how could they possibly be part of the solution — it offers vicarious satisfaction of retaliation and reprisal in war of the sexes for which the only acceptable end is unconditional surrender of all power to women. Terrorism polarises the sexes in such a way that men must either ignore feminism or attack it (p 10).

This perhaps explains the tendency to start with an apology when one adopts the feminist approach. There is also a habit to deny that one is arguing along feminist lines, when it is very clear from the argument presented that one is doing so. It may be difficult to detect scholarly ignorance on the part of the denier. The denial is therefore often seen as a deliberate strategy to derail the reader, and thus avoid much negative criticism and attack.

However, feminism is not perfect. It has it contradictions, ironies and internal strife and divisions caused by various issues of concern. Because its theoretical foundation is against men and male domination, its western proponents do not agree as to how far it should go in relation to men. There is the issue of unmarried women against married ones, and also of the younger white sisters who accuse their mothers of being lenient to their fathers, but the younger African sisters object to this stance, because they claim to be very close to their African mothers. Black sisters accuse their white sisters of wanting to be like white males, whilst they treat them like slaves. Black sisters also complain that the feminist academic discourse of their white sisters is always objectifying them as “the untouchable black woman” — the antithesis of the “white woman”.

The situation has deteriorated to further rifts. The tension was more evident in The First International Conference on Women in Africa and Diaspora: Bridges Across Activism and the Academy, held at the University of Nigeria on 13 — 18 July 1992. The Conference is described as the “disparate and disunited group” (Welz, Fester and Mkhize 1993:3) and what divided them were colour, wealth and apartheid:

    At the insistence of a number of African-American women, the organising committee aborted the scheduled activities and threw the Conference open to the floor in an emotion-charged session that moved through three distinct phases:

    • all whites must get out
    • all whites presenting papers about black women must get out
    • all white South Africans must get out.

    It was mainly black women of various nationalities who spoke and even those white women who still felt they had a right to be at the Conference mostly held their peace. Let some of the participants speak for themselves:

    A Nigerian woman:
    I hope the white South African women who are here have not been sent by their government but have come as individuals. I see them as people who are on our side — I don’t think they should be sent away — we should allow them to stay — we are all women (loud applause) .

    An African-American woman:
    A black South African sister was in tears [because] white women from South Africa are going to present [papers]. We are all slaves, on the African continent and in the Unites States. We are permitting Europeans to drive a wedge between us once again. If these white women are honourable white women they will step back and go back to South Africa [...] To let the whites divide us means we are still slaves.
    (Welz, Fester and Mkhize 1993:3-4).

The issues of black/oppressed versus white/oppressor have certainly ceased to be foregrounded in feminism since South Africa become a democratic country, and wealth versus poverty has become the dividing factor. Educated and rich black women in this country are perceived, fairly or unfairly, by their poor black sisters to be trying to move up to the highest rung of male status, power and wealth, and once they are there, they forget them. The rich sisters are seen to behave like wealthy men in a patriarchal social system.

Apparently because of this feeling and perception against rich and educated black women, there will arise one day a situation such as the Nigerian one within South African feminism when the poor black sisters will take kitchen utensils and march in the posh suburbs where their rich black sisters live. They will chant struggle slogans, “Down with the black misis, down!”

The situation above indicates that there is some form of hegemonic feminism that provides fertile ground for socially powerful women to oppress powerless women. Hegemonic feminism is based on the premise that there are women who own the means of social production and thus wield enormous power to oppress the women who do not own the means of social production. It also follows that there are women who oppress men as well because there exist many situations where there are countless women who own more means of social production than men and thus wield more social power. Such women therefore have more social means and capacities to oppress men. So there are men who are oppressed by women as much as there are women who are oppressed by men.

Hegemonic feminism in South Africa is historically linked to class and race. Though South African women have the social means to oppress men, white females oppress more black than white males.

But the fact that more women than men are oppressed in South African is the result of the historical imbalances of apartheid and patriarchy. My contention is that patriarchy, like apartheid, should be seen as the problem that affects all, and therefore needs a collective effort — of men and women — to eliminate it. As much as there were white people who fought the white privileges of apartheid, there are countless men — including Zulu and Nguni men — who are genuinely fighting exclusive male privileges. I am not talking about the liberals who are trying to be in the good books of feminism and other stances and politics in vogue, but about men who know the evils and pains of inequalities, no matter where such discriminations stem from. The shameful history of liberalism everywhere in the world, and in South Africa in particular, is well known, I therefore need not go back to it.

There are also thousands of Zulu and Nguni men who respect women and they are vigorously campaigning against women abuse, yet on the other hand there is deafening silence by the majority of today’s feminists — black and white — and most of the women who occupy some gravy “gender” positions against the abuse of men by women. It is as if when men abuse women, only that abuse matters, and the opposite does not. Is it because of — to reverse Ntuli’s popular phrase — the feminist culture’s blind, biased and selfish consideration of the interests, mainly of women, above those of many men? This comes as a result of — to use Ntuli’s words again — the feminist tendency to speak in tongues and its sudden amnesia when it comes to male abuse.

Yet abused men, on the other hand, should have themselves to blame. They become stolid because of the (inherently?) male culture of suffering in silence, and of stoicism. Silence then means that such problems do not exist, yet they do. So men in general lack the guts to shout every day, like feminists at the top of their voices, about male abuse until somebody begins to listen.

However, so long as feminism sees all men as victimisers, and seldom victims too, and wants to fight all men in order to reverse events in female favour, and not to level the playing field, then the battle against sexes will continue. Yet if patriarchy, like apartheid, is seen as the problem that must be eliminated in order to balance the female/male scale, then feminism will do a great service to mankind.

References

Coward, Rosalind. 1983. Patriarchal precedents: sexual and social relations. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Gallop, Jane. 1997. Introduction. In: Kemp, Sandra and Judith Squires. (eds). Feminisms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ntuli, CD. 2000. Respect and hlonipha among the Nguni and some observations on the derogatory tags that tarnish women’s image. Southern African Journal for Folklore Studies. 11(1):32-40.

Ruthven, KK. 1984. Feminist literary studies: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Welz, Betty, Gertrude Fester and Hlengiwe Mkhize. 1993. Introduction. Journal of Literary Studies. 9(1):2-13.

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