By Gayleen Cornelius
Southern Africa is home to a diverse population that shares Khoi, Griqua, San, Bantu and European heritage. The culture varies from country to country with mixtures of Bantu, Khoi and European customs. One cultural aspect that sticks out anywhere you might end up in this part of the continent is Ubuntu/ Unhu, which translates to Humanism. This is what characterizes what many have come to know as African hospitality and it has been the unwritten bill of rights, across various tribes and peoples, despite a few tribal wars that resulted from power struggles or tribal splits. This cultural phenomenon was eroded throughout the 400 years colonization happened in the region. Various scholars talk about how African proverbs evolved from humanistic ones like, “Every child is our own, we will see to it that he gets what he needs for the journey” to proverbs that express mistrust about human beings like “You shall eat whatever you find with your blood relatives because foreigners forget the good deeds you do to them.” Most of Southern Africa today bears a striking resemblance to feudal Europe and the sad part is very few people are willing to talk about it.
South Africa is the biggest country in the region with an estimated population of 57 million people from numerous ethnic backgrounds. The country has a dark history of racial segregation and oppression, which still haunts it to this day. Racial segregation and hate crimes between those of European and Bantu descent continues to be the biggest human rights concern. There are numerous cases of white farmers who mistreat their Bantu workers for sport, and a lot of workers retaliate and do the same. Cases have been documented of such inhumane instances, where workers will be forced into a coffin for the amusement of their employees. As frightening as this race war is, there are Afrikaner (Dutch descendants) churches that encourage racism, preaching about how the segregation must be enforced in all public spaces. Churches like these are common in small towns like Mossel Bay in the Western Cape and they protect the murderer farmers while demonizing anyone who retaliates. Racist churches have gone away with grave atrocities because of their exclusive nature.
Amongst the numerous Bantu tribes in South Africa, the Xhosa are well known for their emphasis on traditional cultural practices centred around patriarchy and aggressive masculinity. It is considered in Xhosa families mandatory for boys to go initiation ceremonies, survive the harsh forest conditions, get unsafe circumcisions and get indoctrinated with toxic masculinity or “how a man should act” as they call it. A lot of deaths are recorded every year at these ceremonies yet the government tiptoes around the issue since tackling sensitive cultural issues can cost them votes from those demographics.
South Africa, however, is arguably the most progressive society in the region. While some cultural norms will raise eyebrows, secularism and LGBTQ rights are upheld. There is no safer place in Southern Africa where anyone can live the lifestyle that suits them without any fear of being segregated against. The same cannot be said about neighbouring Zimbabwe and Zambia however. The Zimbabwean constitution is very secular, but the people are not. The government gives the religious zealous population a free pass to secure support, even wearing religion on their sleeve to become popular. In the recent presidential elections, the opposition leader Nelson Chamisa had to campaign to be a pastor at his very homophobic church in order to gain more religious mileage in the presidential race with that religious title. In response, President Emerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa went on to wear the robes of the John Marange African Apostolic Church just as his predecessor Robert Gabriel Mugabe did. It is interesting to note that the Zimbabwean ministry of health has recorded the highest rates of child mortality in the country are recorded in regions where this sect is dominant. This is because scientific medicine is not allowed in their doctrine, let alone vaccinations and so a lot of children die from measles. They also conduct child marriages with brides as young as 11 years of age and most of them die in childbirth. It is heartbreaking that the ZANU PF led government is willing to let this go and endorse the sect to secure votes.
Zambia, on the other hand, considers itself a “Christian Nation” despite having a visibly large secular community that continues to be demonized. Their very religious president Edgar Lungu always encourages prayer as a solution to economic problems setting national days of prayer making the country one big church. He even appointed a Minister of Religious and Spiritual Affairs! That ministry’s relevance has more to do with religious bigotry and superstitious trivia rather than progress. It is ironic that it has been hailed as the most effective ministry by the vast majority of Zambians because it always comes out to slut shame people involved in sex scandals, condemn public display of homosexuality or cross-dressing and endorses actual witch hunts. Anyone caught partaking in “homosexual activity” also gets a 5-year jail sentence in Zambia!
Mozambique is a very unique case that is worth a mention. The former Portuguese colony has Christians in the minority while the African Traditional Religion (ATR) is dominant. ATR brings its own set of problems a lot similar to the Xhosa initiation ceremonies but only diverse and complex. The Tsikamutanda witch hunting phenomenon which happens at a small scale in Zimbabwe, is the order of the day in Mozambique. While the Zimbabwean Republic Police do their best to enforce the law in arresting these traditional witch hunters, Mozambican Tsikamutandas are protected by law and they can walk into any workplace, house or school and accuse anyone of witchcraft demanding payment from their victims to avoid persecution. They even receive bribes from politicians and traditional leaders to overthrow their opponents by accusing them of witchcraft. Mozambique is also plagued with the problem of polygamous child marriages, female circumcisions, the custom of killing one child when twins are born and killing albino children too. ATR has such a stronghold in Mozambique such that anyone who fails to respect the ancestral customs of any given place is sure to face the consequences. It is important to learn about the ancestors of any community before visiting it since the locals always consider it sacred. Disrespecting any areas customs almost always results in mob violence.
There is a need to educate and raise civic awareness in Southern Africa above all else. The abuse of human rights in the region is enabled mainly by the low level of civic awareness amongst people and communities. There is also a need to empower vulnerable groups such as the women, humanists and LGBTQ in ultra-religious communities. A lot of groups have tried to fight against these odds despite their lack of resources, most notably the Zambian Atheists who have been running a vicious awareness campaign about secular concerns, various secular groups in South Africa including the South African Secular Alliance that have made so much progress over the years Gays And Lesbians of Zimbabwe organisation that has been persecuted and victimised for daring to stand up for the LGBTQ community and the Zimbabwean Atheists who have fought against the John Marange Apostolic sect and Tsikamutanda witch hunters despite lack of support or allies. It is important that all these groups mobilize to compliment each other’s efforts and advocate for progress in the region.
Image Credit: Gayleen Cornelius.