You are here

Seminude school performance sparks debate about tradition in South Africa

Bhisho, Eastern Cape

SOUTH African cultural traditions collided head-on with modern sensibilities recently when a choirmaster in the Eastern Cape region had teenage schoolgirls give a seminude traditional performance that was widely shared on social media.

The choirmaster defended the performance as a cultural tribute to the Xhosa ethnic group, but it drew the ire of the minister of basic education, who described it as exploitation.

Others called for the choirmaster to be fired.

sentifi.com

Market voices on:

The tempest exposed the ambiguous treatment of gender issues in a country whose Constitution guarantees wide-ranging equalities that conflict with a high rate of rape and other violence against women.

And it coincided with a broader debate about the way history is taught in South Africa's often-troubled state schools - where cultural issues have often assumed political importance - and with a push to make the subject compulsory.

Much about the seminude episode remains unclear, such as whether the parents of the students gave their approval, and whether officials planned to take any action.

The choirmaster was quoted as saying on the website of the newspaper The Daily Dispatch: "We are proud of our Xhosa tradition," and "We are proud of Xhosa women and girls."

But the minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, denounced the performance as "completely inappropriate", saying that educators "should know better than to expose teenage girls to this form of exploitation." She added: "There is absolutely nothing wrong with being proud of your culture and heritage. But there was absolutely no need for these children to perform completely naked. That indignity goes against the values of our culture."

The choirmaster apparently had aimed to illustrate the traditions of the Xhosa - South Africa's second-largest ethnic group - by having the teenage schoolgirls dance in small aprons known as inkciyo, exposing their breasts and buttocks.

The performance raised questions about the uneasy balance between cultural appreciation and modern views of dignity and female empowerment. The episode also highlighted the unintended consequences of digital technology, which, in this case, spread local images to a far-wider, even global, audience.

The reed dance is performed each year in seminudity in other rural societies in Swaziland and in South Africa's KwaZulu Natal province. The form of dress using a small apron is also widespread in traditional Ndebele culture.

But a reader on The Daily Dispatch's website said: "All this needs to stop. When people blindly follow 'culture' they do not even know the origins or reasons for the culture. The origins are usually exploitative.

"How is this not paedophilia masquerading as culture, and why is it a man saying that he is proud of Xhosa women and girls as if they were his objects? A choirmaster gets schoolgirls to strip. Why is he not in jail?"

A report published this past week by the Ministry of Basic Education on how history is taught in South African schools, ordered by Ms Motshekga three years ago, highlights an issue at the centre of the dispute.

In a land long haunted by its past - from the depredations of colonialists to the imposition of apartheid cementing white rule - "little attention has been paid to gender issues," the report said.

Decades after Nelson Mandela became the country's first black president, in 1994, it said, "the previous emphasis on 'great white' men has simply been replaced with 'great black men'."

The Ministry of Basic Education report recommended that history lessons be compulsory up until university entrance exams from 2023 onward.

"History is considered to be a critical subject in advancing the ideals of a democratic South Africa while fostering social understanding and cohesion," said Pule Rakgoathe, an education specialist. Currently, Mr Rakgoathe said, history was compulsory only in earlier years and was an optional subject in the three years before university entrance.

"The popularity of history is declining in some provinces, leading to the decline in the number of learners choosing to study the subject," Mr Rakgoathe added. "Eventually, young people will know little of their country and the society in which they live. As a result, the youth will lose a sense of nationalism, patriotism and national unity."

Ms Motshekga rejected suggestions that the compulsory teaching of history would serve a political agenda. "It's not going to be the history of triumph, the losses, victimhood, but it's going to be a history of Africa and the beauty of us, ourselves as Africans," she said. NYTIMES