Yengeni ritual spearheads cultural row

Cape Town, South Africa - The Arts and Culture Ministry has lashed out at critics of the ritual bull slaughter by Tony Yengeni after his release from prison last week.

The animal was speared in a traditional cleansing ceremony at the Gugulethu home of Yengeni's parents at the weekend.

The SPCA has confirmed it is investigating criminal charges under the Animal Protection Act.

But Sandile Memela, spokesperson for Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan, waded into the controversy on Monday, accusing critics of racism, ignorance, hypocrisy and lack of respect for African culture.

"This is definitely not an SPCA matter, because it is not about cruelty to animals. Instead, it is about man's search for meaning, purpose and the redefinition of the relationship with the cosmos, God and his ancestry," Memela said.

"It is the constitutional right of all indigenous families and communities to perform rituals that reconnect them to their ancestors. That promotes peace of mind in their lives.

"The department upholds this right, including that of the Yengeni family, to practise their own cultural rituals.

"We would encourage people to accept that we live in a multi- cultural and diverse society, which will continue to be characterised by differences in how we do things.

"No one should rush to condemn those who practise their own rituals. What we know is that Christian religion, for instance, traces this ritual of slaughter back to the days of Abraham.

"Also, in modern society, those in Muslim and Jewish communities, for example, have their own way to kill animals in an effort to make the meat halaal or kosher.

"Strangely, this is not considered abnormal and their right to do this is rarely questioned. However, in the Yengeni family case, we observe what could easily pass for selective racism that condemns the practice of African rituals.

"What compounds this is that the criticism is based on ignorance, contempt and lack of respect for African culture.

"This is hypocritical because there is no universal standard to look at this matter."

ANC provincial secretary Mcebisi Skwatsha also jumped to the Yengeni family's defence: "The SPCA is very, very insensitive to the culture of African people. It's very, very important. It's fundamental to your being.

"We African people will practise our culture and no one under the sun will ever stop us. This is part of our being human," he said.

But the SPCA's Andries Venter said the organisation was obliged to investigate any allegations of cruelty towards animals.

"Once we have completed our investigation, we will have a meeting with the executives at the SPCA and forward the docket to the police, who will then hand it over to the State prosecutor for a decision," Venter said.

Asked what sanction an offender could face, he said criminal offences under the Animal Protection Act carry sentences of up to 12 months in jail or a maximum fine of R200 000.

Nokuzola Mndende, head of the Icamagu Institution, an institution promoting African culture and religion, said the SPCA was interfering with African religion and culture and it was "none of their business".

"I am concerned about their imposition on our religious beliefs - yet they do not make the same noise when the Muslims slaughter animals.

"The animal was not wounded when it cried. If the animal does not make a sound it will be set free and the person who the ritual was performed for would have to consult the sangoma, to find out from the ancestors why they were not satisfied," she said.

"Yengeni belongs to his clan. The decision to have the ceremony was not his own; his clan elders decided he must do the ritual cleansing."

Mndende said the assegai had to be used because it was sacred to the clan and Yengeni's extended family.

But Cape Town mayor Helen Zille said: "Lots of people say that discriminatory practices against women are part of their culture. They defend patriarchy as their right - does that mean that women have to accept that?

"We've evolved as a society and we have a constitution and laws for very good reasons," Zille said. "The constitution makes very clear provision for people's cultural rights.

"But where there is conflict head-on with the law … I believe the law must triumph.

"Otherwise you end up in situations in which people are above the law … otherwise we're on a very slippery slope."

Human Rights Commission head Jody Kollapen said : "The right to cultural liberty is a human right. Cultural liberty is an integral part of human identity.

"And cultural liberty is recognised by our constitution and at an international level.

"If approached, the HRC would be to say, let's start an important dialogue on what we understand by cultural liberty, what its parameters would be, and its limitations.

"This is just one instance of a dispute in the public domain," he said.

"I don't think we can simply take a simplistic approach, to say that by someone's definition this is unacceptable and must therefore be outlawed.

"We have to interrogate the question: what is diversity?"