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By Jabulile Mbatha

Journalist


Cultural traditions vs. modern values: The spokesperson dilemma

What my family has been practising might be regarded by some as ageist and patriarchal, but I denounce appointments based on financial exclusion.


I don’t think it’s fair that the person with the most money or the most learned in the family gets to be the spokesperson and decision-maker because of their financial and educational status, instead of earning that position by gender and age.

This view I hold may be flawed but it comes from growing up in a cultural and traditional family.

The teachings were tied with patriarchal practices, meaning the head of the house is a male and age played a significant role because in traditional ceremonies, the oldest man in the family holds the most power.

Sometimes even his peers wouldn’t call him by name and to some he is only ever known as big brother. His name was not ever known.

Now, because of this upbringing, I can’t help but question why some families give authority to someone who isn’t the supposed “head of the house” by age and gender.

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This I have seen in my experience as a journalist when we are the first to arrive to a bereaved family to cover the story and a spokesperson of the family addresses the media.

But it doesn’t end there: this spokesperson suddenly becomes the decider of things like when the funeral will be held to accommodate either the media or a political figure.

I have a problem with this because the spokesperson in the family always happens to be the one with the most money or the most learned, speaking English to the journalists… as if we couldn’t get translators if needs be.

From as early as I can remember, my Zulu family upheld patriarchal practices, especially when we held traditional ceremonies back at our homestead in the rural area of Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal.

Simply put, men and women had different roles. Women were inferior to men and men were decision-makers.

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At these ceremonies, men dictated what should be done while women carried out the domestic duties.

Once that was done, women served the men with food while they cleaned up.

Back home, there are multiple houses in the same yard belonging to one family. While the houses were normally square, there was one rondavel which was known as a sacred house, belonging to our ancestors.

In Zulu we call it umsamo.

Perhaps there’s some spiritual significance to the round shape of the house, too.

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We gather in this rondavel before the slaughtering of an animal for a ceremony and burn incense before an elder relays messages to our ancestors to declare why the ceremony is happening.

When this happens, it is the eldest male in the family that speaks to the ancestors.

Women and men are seated at opposite ends of the room. The women cannot even enter the room if they are not dressed “like women”, meaning either in a skirt or dress, shoulders covered and the hair on their heads must be covered too.

Their voices in that room carry no significance and most importantly, it is the eldest man in the lineage who speaks and who then makes most of the decisions about how the ceremony proceeds.

Seeing this play out over and over again at home made me think it is the norm, so I was shocked when I was covering stories where someone my age was speaking on behalf of the family.

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I know that what my family has been practising might be regarded by some as ageist and patriarchal but, at the same time, I denounce appointments based on financial exclusion.

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