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When Culture and Civilization Collide: South Africa’s So – called Outdated Traditions

When Culture and Civilization Collide: South Africa’s So – called Outdated Traditions

“If the Negro is not careful, he will drink in all the poison of modern civilization and die from the effects of it.” Marcus Garvey

Civilization and culture juxtaposed....Image by Hein Waschefort

Civilization and culture juxtaposed….Image by Hein Waschefort

I spent the early years of my childhood living with my maternal grandparents in Umlazi township, Durban. They were priests at The Salvation Army church. As a result of my religious upbringing, it would be some years before I discovered the knowledge of ancestors, totems, rituals or anything else related to the traditional aspects of my identity. As a black African child, the genealogical dimensions of Ubuntu were ingrained in my DNA. However, even though I did not realize it for some years – the void left by my oblivion of my cultural heritage loomed large and would have dented my character had I not come to realize Self to the fullest extent in my early years.

My loving grandparents whom I’m still fortunate to have, were born in the 1920s – a century after one of the first explorers, a missionary whom some dare call a philanthropist by the name of David Livingstone, had come to Africa. His mission? To convert her people and provide them with his three methodical Cs which he presupposed they were in desperate need of. Those according to history books were Christianity, Commerce and Civilization.

David Livingstone

David Livingstone

All Hail Pseudo-saviors!

The opinion of some is that David Livingstone and his contemporaries were arrogant, self-righteous, self-appointed pseudo saviors whose mission to ‘save’ Africans, apparently from themselves, was part of the plan to colonize the continent and control her people’s wealth by making them believe that theirs was an inferior, savage and barbaric way of life. They upheld the Western lifestyle as the moral and religious barometer by which Africans had to abide.

Yet, there are others, Africans among them, who believe that these efforts herded Africa in the right direction – towards whatever they deem to encompass the definition of a ‘sophisticated’ civil society.

It was not long before explorers’ annunciations of the Western culture as a superior force achieved the desired outcome, driving many an African farther and farther from knowledge of self, to the point that he too began to believe that his identity was unrefined and ungodly. The implications of this indoctrination are manifest in a contentious abolition of culture where instead of it undergoing a natural progression owing to the changing times, many blaspheme its very nature as blasphemy, which is rather ironic.

The Diametrical Character of Current Culture

My paternal family is among millions of South African families today practicing both tradition and Christianity. Although I was a love child, my parents got married when I was seven years old. Some years later, I would reunite with them in Pietermaritzburg where in keeping with tradition, my mother and I had to live with my paternal family for some time after they wed. It was through this arrangement that I was introduced to tradition on a practical level.

My new life as a teen living with my parents for the first time was very interesting. There was my mother – a priest’s daughter who’d had to gradually learn, adopt and practice the ways of the family she had married into…and my father – who’d never set foot in a church until his wedding day. In this way, I guess my family is a true reflection of a cultural and religious juxtaposition as can be witnessed in most of South Africa today. It’s often within the same family unit that this fragmentation occurs.

Christianity was the channel through which the said civilization was introduced to African people before apartheid or democracy. All three have significantly impacted traditional practices throughout Africa. Many are of the opinion that certain cultures need to see their end. So when the elderly succumb to old age, the younger generation begins to reject certain traditions, if not all. In recent times, there’s been some debate over whether or not, the following traditions are still ‘relevant’. Most of them vanish silently, both in the physical sense and in memory.

Ancestors: Getting the Rite Understanding

Most people falsely use the term ‘worship’ when referring to the communication that occurs between ancestors (amadlozi) and the living. The false term that emerges is ancestral worship. However, such a term does not exist in African culture.

A collection of traditional African items. Image by Gustav Mützel

A collection of traditional African items. Image by Gustav Mützel

The core of traditional practice; sacrifices and prayers made through ancestors are fast becoming a thing of the past. This is especially common in established and developing urban areas and even more, among born again Christians. Most people shun tradition due to the misconception that ancestral rites are an act of underestimating the word of God or God himself. One of the most commonly quoted biblical texts used against such rites is Exodus 20:3 – “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

However, according to oral tradition which has always acknowledged the existence and the mightiness of God (uNkulunkulu – He who is everything, all-encompassing), ancestors have always been the medium through which God can be reached. It’s an age old belief that ancestors – just like ‘angels’– are intermediaries between God and man. The forefathers who go on to become ancestors, are believed to be resting (not dead) from the physical realm but awake in the spiritual.

Ancestors as mediums

Praise poems, songs (always themed around an occasion), regalia, herbs, animal sacrifices, traditional beer (umqombothi) and red ochre are part and parcel of any traditional ceremony. From baptism to funeral, some combination of these may be used in the interactive process between the living and the ancestors.

Ancestors are invited through the use of these items and once they avail themselves, they receive and deliver prayers to God on behalf of their mortal relatives. Prayers delivered through ancestors vary – they could be expressions of gratitude, requests for blessings, strength, safety or good health. African people ask forgiveness through the ancestors as does a penitent through a priest in a confessional. People do not pray to ancestors, they speak to them as a way of channeling their prayers to God.

Those opposed to ancestral rites employ the argument that there are priests, prophets and apostles for that. With the world being what it is, however, the pro-ancestor side will steer home the very valid point that some priests and prophets also perform ungodly deeds and are themselves far from infallible therefore no better suited to be intermediaries in one’s interactions with God (also known as uMvelinqangi – the first ever being, the first One to create, the Creator).

Burning impepho (incense) for ancestral rites

An imperative part of any ancestral rite, is the burning of the sacred herb known as Impepho – a Helichrysum herb with an array of medicinal and spiritual uses. The role of imphepho in ancestral rites, is to make the place of prayer sacred, to invite the ancestors and help the living communicate with them ‘in the spirit’. It is also used by traditional healers (izinyanga) and diviners (izangoma) for ritualistic ceremonies, divining or healing.

A sangoma (diviner) communicates with the ancestors over imphepho. Image by

A sangoma (diviner) communicates with the ancestors over imphepho. Image by

Are ancestral rites a form of idolatry? Are African people who still perform them uncultured heathens? Does God like people who buy meat from the butchery more than those who slaughter livestock themselves? Is Africa’s God not sophisticated enough to qualify as ‘civilized’?

An objective observer in this debate would soon realize that both sides are determined at being right or righteous. Frankly, we could debate this issue for another 400 years. Yet regardless of who’s right or wrong, the harsh reality for Africans who are still proud to be the children of Alkebulan is that the cultural side is losing this battle. Not just to Christianity but to colonized minds and their civilized ways. Every tradition mentioned in this article involves some kind of ancestral rite so really without them, the authenticity of culture and therefore of being, becomes questionable.

Three Beautiful Cultures Under Threat of Dying

The following are three of the most meaningful traditions that survive among the Zulu people. Their existence, however unpopular, is a source of pride and a true reflection of the depth with which African culture is structured. All three traditions signify unity, compassion, generosity and an unmeasured amount of love that African parents have for their children. Elders spend time and resources to celebrate the gift of children.

A Zulu teen receives motherly blessing during her Umhlonyana ceremony. Image by Tyler Dolan.

A Zulu teen receives motherly blessing during her Umhlonyana ceremony. Image by Tyler Dolan.

1. Umhlonyana – Guidance for a Zulu Maiden Entering Puberty

Zulu culture celebrates its women through almost every important milestone from birth to death. One of the most beautiful traditional ceremonies Umhlonyana, is done in honor of a teenage girl (itshitshi) as she enters puberty and begins to experience her menstrual cycle.

The Umhlonyana ceremony is named after a plant indigenous to the KwaZulu-Natal plains. In ancient times, parents would use this sacred plant to cleanse the child as a way of strengthening her, keeping her healthy and safe as she begins her journey to womanhood. The herb can also be prepared for drinking, usually prior to the ceremony.

Before the big day arrives, the young woman and her bridesmaids (omakotshana) undergo counsel at her home, a period referred to as umgondo. Older women in the family, as well as others in the community gather to advise the youth on how they ought to carry themselves, what puberty means, what being a woman means and what dangers lurk for their kind in the outside world. Men and boys are not allowed in the premises (normally a hut) in which umgondo takes place. The maiden and her peers are not allowed to leave this hut except to bath etc. throughout this period as doing so would hinder the process, possibly exposing her to foul spirits before she’s been fully prepared and fortified for the journey ahead.

In addition to these critical life lessons, the kids are treated like royalty. For an entire week, they do not run errands, instead learning and bonding while being served their meals and pampered by the elderly. It’s song, dance, prayer, folktales, laughter, counsel and celebration all week long.

When the day finally arrives for the official ceremony, the young girl and her entourage are awoken before sunrise. They head to the nearest lake or river to wash off Ibomvu (red ochre) that is put on their faces during the preparatory stage. Red ochre plays a very critical role in spiritual matters and it has many medicinal purposes, not limited to the ability to arrest bleeding. The cleansing symbolizes the expulsion of whatever bad spirits may have inhabited the child before, giving her a new lease on life.

Upon their arrival back home, a ritual involving goat sacrifice is performed in honor of the young girl, after which she must show off her Zulu dance skills (ukusina). The party joins her in song and dance, which signals her official welcome into puberty. After midday the rest of the neighborhood also joins in the celebrations – food and drink are plentiful. Although there are no obligations, part of the ceremony is gift-giving. Most people give cash to the itshitshi and two or three other girls who form part of her official party. The notes are pinned on her traditional beaded headband and the better she can dance the more money she gets. The best part? She gets to keep all of it and use it how she sees fit.

There aren’t any criticisms for umhlonyana as such, apart from those directed at anything that involves ancestral rites. Yet, beautiful as this tradition is, few people really participate in it anymore. I am one of those people who never had umhlonyana done but my mother and I did have a life-changing heart-to-heart when I was 12. I remember that as one of the most important conversations I’ve ever had in my life. It shaped the kind of woman I would become.

I reckon if this very humble tradition was still observed by everyone to whom it applies, it would bring about a lot of positive change to young girls today. We live in a society where parents entrust their children’s upbringing to schools or friends, often shying away from discussing important matters or simply too busy to engage them. umhlonyana is one of the most important traditions in raising young women to be self-respecting and confident human beings. It encompasses some of the best gifts a parent can give to a child – guidance, gratitude and blessings.

2. Umemulo – Honoring a Courteous Maiden

This is one ceremony I was fortunate enough to have done in my honor. It is a tradition similar to umhlonyana but done at a later stage of a woman’s life. In Western culture, this is a close equivalent to a 21st birthday celebration – but it only honors young women. When a Zulu maiden coming of age, has not had children outside of marriage, her parents give her the gift of umemulo. This ceremony serves to show her gratitude for her good conduct, give her their blessings to explore the possibility of marriage and prepare her for it.

The events leading up to the ceremony are not unlike those of umhlonyana. Of course, the purpose is different and the ceremony itself more spectacular. The maiden is given counsel along the lines of marriage and later life. More affluent parents may buy her big gifts (in modern day, a car is one of most common). Gift-giving is part of the ceremony and can happen throughout the day.

A Zulu maiden receives blessings from her father during her umemulo ceremony...Image by Greyling B

A Zulu maiden receives blessings from her father during her umemulo ceremony…Image by Greyling B

Traditional beer and a sacrificial animal are part and parcel of preparations. During mid-week while the grooming continues, the maiden’s party sings traditional songs themed around her growth and readiness for marriage as they venture out into the neighbourhood handing out invitations. Formerly, this process relied on word of mouth but today, invitation cards and letters are more common. As with umhlomulo, once preparations begin, the maiden has to go through ukuqonga (indoor grooming) with some of her peers, their faces protected by red ochre. A spear that symbolizes the continuation of great morals among the women in the family, is collected from her maternal family and brought to her father for the celebrations.

Upon returning from the river on the day of celebration, the eldest woman in the family or in the village communicates with the goddess of Zulu women – an ancestor called Nomkhubulwane, a Zulu virgin maiden through whom blessings are offered to the maiden. Isibaya (kraal) is where the maiden’s father awaits to adorn her with umhlwehlwe – a veil of oils from a cow sacrificed in her honor, which she then wears around her neck over her traditional regalia. An isiphandla (unrefined leather wristband) is put on her wrist to keep until it becomes old. This is to keep the ancestors close to her even after the ceremony. From then on, food, dance and song are the order of the day.

Image by Kwang Cho

Image by Kwang Cho

Young man plays inkos'tina (flute) - Image by Lemubarby

Young man plays inkos’tina (flute) – Image by Lemubarby

3. Lobola or bride price

Lobola is one in a number of ceremonial processes which take place before a man and a woman can get married. It’s a formal process through which a groom makes a contribution towards his bride’s family in exchange for her hand in marriage – similar to the bride price concept. It is also one of the most nerve-wrecking experiences for both the groom (umkhwenyana) and bride (umakoti); who not allowed to see her man until her wedding day, can only wait and pray that all goes well.

Traditionally, lobola could be paid in livestock because one of the ways affluence was measured, was by the amount of livestock a man possessed. Although there is a negotiation process between the two families, the bride’s family has the final say as to the amount of cattle it wants paid. Other processes such as ukucela (asking for a woman’s hand) are observed before lobola is paid. It is the final step before the wedding takes place. It is also the most secret of the wedding processes in that it is kept within the family and close relatives. Only males are involved in the first stage of lobola – negotiations between the two families.

The groom-to-be’s uncles, older brothers or friends known as abakhongi are carefully appointed by the groom with the counsel of his elders. For negotiations, the representatives have to get to the maiden’s home early and wait by the gate until they are invited in. This is to enforce respect and patience to the bride’s family that it is hoped will be translated to his future wife – you don’t just force yourself onto your wife, you must obtain permission and wait if needs be. A grand lesson in marital matters.

Due to the complexity of this tradition, the groom needs to communicate each and every detail to those who represent him in this regard. If they miss even one thing, their request could be rejected and they can be either fined or instructed to start all over again. This also entails that they have a thorough knowledge of the bride’s family traditions including the proper recital of praise poems.

A beautiful view of a homestead in a KwaZulu-Natal village. Image by

A beautiful view of a homestead in a KwaZulu-Natal village. Image by

Once the groom’s party is invited to sit down, they need to place a bottle of brandy before they are spoken to – a lesson in courting. This is called imvulamlomo (the mouth opener). The purpose of this gift is to formally open negotiations with everyone in a relaxed state. Sometimes the brandy itself is never opened.

It may be days before the negotiation process concludes, at which point these cows or their equivalent must be paid:

  • Ubikibiki – a gift for the mother of the bride (umkhwekazi)
  • Umumba – a second gift for umkhwekazi
  • Ingquthu – a third cow for umkhwekazi
  • Imvula – paid before the rest of lobola cows
  • Ubhaqa – for the bride’s father
  • Unozungeza – paid in conclusion of lobola
  • Isibhoma – for the wedding ceremony
  • Inhlabisamthimba – the cow that gets slaughtered on the wedding day
  • Ibheka – for the entire family
Xhosa initiate looks after cattle in rural Eastern Cape village...Image by Rodger Bosch

Xhosa initiate looks after cattle in rural Eastern Cape village…Image by Rodger Bosch

Contrary to popular belief, the wife’s family also contributes some cattle after the lobola is paid. The following are the cows given to the bride by her father:

  • Isiqodo – for the wedding ceremony
  • Umbeka – a gift for her to take to her own home
  • Imbeleko – a gift for the inlaws
  • Umthothongo – for the ancestors to take care of her in her new home

Lobola is one of the most exploited of the African traditions today. In some cases, a woman will oppose her lobola for fear of being treated like a product. It’s not always ignorance of its meaning that drives some women to that conclusion – sometimes men do bring it up to try and force women into things they might not agree with. It is equally unfortunate that in modern days, some families also exploit this fine tradition by treating it as a get-rich-quick scheme which just goes to defeat its every purpose.

In South Africa’s young democracy, where black people are confronted with the challenge of achieving economic freedom and play catch up with the white people in whose hands the majority of the nation’s wealth still lies, lobola is beginning to lose favor as being an unnecessary expense.

Lobola is also unpopular among some Christian families who argue that even though the pride price is mentioned in numerous biblical scriptures, there was never any obligation from God that it be paid, unless the woman was a virgin.

The purposes of lobola cover all the important aspects of a marriage between two people. Firstly, it is during this process that the two families get acquainted, opening the communication channels. Secondly, by gaining an understanding of each others’ heritage, they are able to create and maintain harmonius relations. Thirdly, Zulu culture so treasures the woman child, that her parents use this process to gauge the kind of family she marries into. Lobola strengthens trust, for it is said that if a man can successfully and peacefully get through this process, it is likely he will be able to provide for his family and future generations. Through the process of lobola, the young man soon learns that to achieve anything, he must work hard. He begins to understand the responsibility that comes with being in a marriage and what it takes to be a good husband right from the onset.


Keeping one’s culture does not require that one be unadaptive to the changing times but as an essential part of identity, the practice of certain rites and rituals is critical to the survival of a people. Without an embrace of one’s heritage, there isn’t much to celebrate – no authenticity in being, no language, no expression, no identity. If the African renaissance continues to be just a form of rhetoric exhibited through nothing more than dress code, these traditions will die sooner than another savior from the West can conjure a rescue plan. The African identity will die along with them. What used to be African pride, will again be turned to shame as it has through history. Africans are responsible for defining their own odyssey through time – it is up to us to redefine and reclaim our meaningful heritage – celebrate it, honor it and preserve it for future generations. One’s relationship with God whether observed in solitude or collectively, cannot be depleted by insults that it does not comply with the characteristics of civilization. Who defines civilization? What godly power does he possess that gives him the authority to place judgment on how people interact with God?…In the wise words of the late father of African literature, Chinua Achebe, “Nobody can teach me who I am.”

This article is courtesy of Sirius Cen and won an Editor’s Choice award in 2013 on Hubpages.


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