Written by Doreen Gaura for Africa on the Blog
On the 5th of December, 2013, Judge Azhar Cachalia of the South African Supreme Court of Appeals made a unanimous judgement where he ordered the reinstatement of Johanna Mmoledi, a section chef sacked by the Kievits Kroon Country Estate, near Pretoria, in 2007.
This judgement was met with mixed reactions with some people (the minority judging from comments on online news publications) celebrating this judgement and the rest of the people being highly critical of the judgement. It is worth mentioning that the majority of the negative responses to the judgement came from non brown (black) commenters who, to say the least, found it to be ridiculous which I in turn found very offensive.
For centuries Afrikans have been at the mercy of the dictates of others outside of ourselves and we have been forced to give up a lot, not least of all our identities and beliefs and this case and the responses to the verdict are proof of this. We have had to defend, on the battle field, in the churches, in the classrooms, at the ballots and everywhere else imaginable our identities and even today, we continue to be forced to do so, and in our own land no less.
A year ago, I attended a traditional ceremony hosted by a friend and colleague of mine who happens to be a sangoma, at her house in predominantly white suburb Observatory in Cape Town, South Africa and to say that her mostly white neighbours were not pleased is an understatement of note. Despite the fact that she had followed all the dictates of etiquette and sent out communication well in advance to all her neighbours notifying them that she would be having this ceremony as well as notified the police in the area of the event who in turn gave her the green light and a curfew of midnight and yet her neighbours kept knocking on the door every half hour (before midnight) asking us when we would be done and if we could keep it down; i.e. the drumming, singing and dancing. It is interesting to note that when my friend (who hardly entertains anyway) throws a less traditional affair which is more in line with western culture and has more or less similar levels of “noise” they never complain.
What is very apparent in these two scenarios is that it is still considered unacceptable for us to be truly ourselves in the land of our birth and that of our ancestors and we are expected to seek permission and validation from white “Afrikans” as to what parts of our identities and heritage get to survive and which ones should be done away with. In addition to this, based on the comments at the bottom of the article published in the Mail & Guardian reporting the ruling, it is very clear that there persists the ideology of white supremacy and notion that the only and best ways of knowing and doing are the western (read white)ways. In the one comment a man exhibits his ignorance and bigotry by infantilising traditional healers by referring to them as “naïve” as well as by stereotyping traditional leaders through his hard accusation suggesting that butchering children is what all traditional healers do:
“It’s no wonder we have one of the world’s highest export of trained medical personal, who would want to be campared to some naieve person with some animal bones and children’s body parts!”
Another frustrating thing about all this is that people know very little to nothing at all about Afrikan traditional spiritualities and yet are so dismissive of it to the point of discrimination never mind that a significant proportion of the population of the continent and most especially South Africa, identify, utilise and venerate this part of our heritage in one shape of form. Several commenters to the article substantiated their disdain by comparing the duration of the western medicine course and the traditional medicine course with one commenter saying:
“Surely the honourable judge cannot get away with dissing the medical profession so easily? Qualified doctors spend the better part of a decade learning their trade – how can a five-week “course” of traditional healing be considered an equivalent when it comes to the issue of a sick note?”
Again this highlights just how little people know or understand of indigenous cultures and processes and yet they want to come out being very superior and dismissive despite their gross levels of ignorance on the subject.
Others still argued that Mmoledi should have been a little more considerate of her employer’s needs but the same can be said for the employer. He does not need to believe in what she believes but he needs to be considerate of the fact she does, if for nothing else but for her Constitutional right to do so and for staff wellness on the part of the employer. One needs to be aware and respectful of the fact that they live in Afrika and that there are certain things that they may not comprehend but must respect nevertheless because not only are they revered but they are also borne of the continent and precede all else that exists in post colonial Afrika.
It is funny how a lot of white Afrikans identify as such and yet continue to disregard and undermine fundamental aspects of indigenous heritage and when they do recognise them it is usually in a disrespectful and self serving manner. They love Afrikan “art”, the Afrikan drums, dress etc; even to the extent of capitalising on and profiting from them by starting businesses around indigenous Afrikan effects and yet they refuse to accept that the physical and aesthetic are inextricably linked to the spiritual that they are so quick to dismiss.
When people purchase Kananga masks of the Dogon while on vacation in Mali they do not take into account that in a lot of cultures these same “artefacts” actually symbolise people’s ancestors or spirits; or when people go to (mostly white owned) restaurants with an “African” theme they do not realise that the very same mbirafeaturing in the “Afrikan music” they are grooving to, is more than just an instrument but is in fact believed to be a spirit by the Shona peoples of Zimbabwe; and yet the same people will vehemently protest a Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court finding in favour of the recognition of the legitimacy of ubungoma and its equality in status to the more modern and Western forms of medicine.
People need o take cognisance of the fact that the Judge Cachalia did not in his ruling demand that people (employers) believe in indigenous belief systems but instead said that people must at the very least acknowledge and respect them which to me is a very fair and just judgement indeed.