When all else fails, culture prevails. At least, that’s what we think. A serious debate in my criminology tutorial hastened the hands on the clock, and before we knew it, the class was over. Yet with the splurge of diverse opinions and emotions, I feel as though I can speak for the class and say that not one person was ready to leave.
The issue of Ukhutwala, forced or arranged marriages with underage girls among certain tribes in Southern Africa, started the debate and it didn’t take long for opinions to stir.
Tensions rose when a few students contested these practices and saw them as unlawful. I’ll admit that I had the same opinion until I saw the fervor in many students’ eyes when they claimed that there’s a specific reason for each ceremonial ritual and it’s not for the sake of brutality, as many people view it today.
“If you take away part of our culture, you must take away our whole culture,” said Phillip Shekto, first-year criminology student.
“Culture is going to become an excuse for everything,” said Charlene Van der Merwe. “As different aspects of our modern world changes, unethical rituals must also change.”
One of the points presented was that the young girls are so accustomed to these cultural practices, that they don’t know any better, and that what might seem as cruel to us, is preferred and anticipated by them.
However, her argument was strongly refuted by another student who said that the fact that the girls don’t know any better makes the entire idea increasingly worse; there are so many more opportunities out there for them, if they were only given their deserved rights.
We came to the conclusion that there’s a very fine line between the traditions of a culture and the morals and ethics of modern society. The question is where to draw the line. Although some practices are meant for the past and will not necessarily fit in to today’s modern society, it’s essential to first depict the meaning and significance of them. Cultural practices are what makes this country’s background and history unique and therefore should never be overlooked.
In my anthropology class, one my classmates, who is a part of the Xhosa tribe, described one of their rituals where they are taken as young men into the mountains and circumcised to represent maturation and finally “becoming a man.”
Additionally, there’s an albino in our class who shared that albinos are degraded and looked down upon in many groups, and they have become very violent towards albinos in the past. She shares her experience of entering certain towns in Africa and literally feeling afraid for her life.
Never before have I sat in one room where so many backgrounds and languages have come together and where students have felt so passionate to stand up for what they believed in, even if they had to stand alone. South Africa has 11 official languages, including English and Afrikaans, the two main languages. The other tribal languages, including Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa, Ndebele, Tswana ect. each with their own traditions and rituals, are what make the diversity of the country so intriguing.
This debate has undoubtedly been the highlight of my time spent at The University of Pretoria so far. I’ve learned the most from talking with my peers about their distinct backgrounds. I must say, this experience has helped me to be more open-minded and sensitive towards other cultures. Although in the U.S. we may sit and learn through textbooks about the same situations, not many of my peers can say that they experienced a clash of cultures firsthand, and for this I feel truly privileged.