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Animal Rights Concerns in South Africa Continue Long After the FIFA World Cup

16 November 2010

NONGOMA, South Africa -- Last year’s 2010 FIFA World Cup brought worldwide attention to South Africa when Animal Activists rallied against the extremely cruel Ukweshwama ritual practiced by Zulu tribesmen that takes place as part of a festival that celebrates the first harvest of summer. Animal Rights Africa mounted a legal challenge to the ritual, which involves the bare-handed killing of bulls by a group of tribesmen who torture and kill a bull while causing tremendous, prolonged suffering.

All legal and diplomatic efforts to stop the ritual failed and the brutal ritual killings continue on the basis of a court ruling. A South African judge said that ruling against the ritual would prevent 10 million Zulus from practicing their “culture”.

Horrified witnesses reported watching a bellowing, groaning bull endure 40 minutes of being stomped and trampled upon by the group while others wrenched its head around by the horns, pulled its tongue out, stuffed sand in its mouth and tried to tie its penis in a knot.

Critics of the ritual have been accused of being neo-colonialists who want to destroy African culture. Proponents of the Zulu tradition defend it by maintaining that their opponents are misinformed. They say that the bull is killed quickly and without suffering by experienced warriors. Others condemn Animal Rights Africa and its supporters as hypocrites who should oppose “sport” hunting and fishing instead of established cultural traditions.

The arguments for and against the ritual have largely fallen out of the public consciousness but the ritual remains: on 4 December, another bare-handed killing of a bull is scheduled as part of the annual First Fruits Festival in Nongoma, South Africa. Dr. Anteneh Roba, President of the International Fund for Africa and native of Ethiopia, weighs in with his views on the controversial “tradition”.

Here are his thoughts on the subject:

The yearly ritualistic killing of a bull in South Africa brings up the age-old and pervasive issue of human mistreatment of nonhuman animals. A problem more acute and widespread in so-called "advanced societies" like the United States, where pigs, chickens, cows, and other factory-farmed animals are herded into confined areas so small they cannot sit, stand, or move, deprived of fresh air and sunlight, destined to die without ever seeing the outside world, than in developing countries like Nepal where hundred of thousands of animals are routinely massacred for religious reasons.

In South Africa the sacrifice of a bull in Nongoma, as part of the Ukweshwama ritual to offer symbolic thanks for the first crops of the season occurs every first Saturday of December of every year. It is presided over by the Zulu king and it involves 20 to 40 young Zulu men pushing a helpless bull onto the ground and for approximately 40 minutes of pure hell proceeding to stab his eyes, yank out his tongue, twist his genitals and then beat the poor animal to death . By torturing a bellowing groaning bull for 40 minutes and finally killing him, the so - called warriors are supposed to inherit the bull’s strength and courage while paying homage to their ancestors and creator.

The horrendous killing of a bull is permitted on the basis of honoring and preserving long-held African cultural practices. Killing proponents even argue that depriving the locals of the cultural right to kill an innocent animal manifested Western cultural imperialism.

What is done to the unfortunate, exploited bull in South Africa, and what is done each day to the animals in Nepal, the U.S., and most other countries, is rooted in speciesism, a failure, in attitude or practice, to accord any nonhuman being equal consideration and respect.

Speciesism, placing humans above the other animals, was promulgated by Plato and later Aristotle in the “Great Chain of Being,” later still by Thomas Aquinas who emphasized that animals exist to serve humans, then by Descartes who equated nonhuman animals to automata making a noise like a clock when struck, not crying out in pain.

Before civilization, nonhuman animals and humans co-existed in peace. Humans’ subjugation of other animals started in earnest some 11,000 years ago. Formerly-peaceful matriarchal societies in Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere had respected animals and at times worshiped them. With agriculture, settled living, and civilization, these societies took up patriarchy, war, and nonhuman-animal exploitation. The advent of enslavement/domestication of nonhuman animals, with its domination, control and manipulation paradigm, might have generated societies that were hierarchical, socially stratified based on race, class sex, and other invidious distinctions and that resolved disagreements through war. 

Nonhuman-animal exploitation is not an East/West or a North/South problem; it is a basic component of the subversion of natural selection into social Darwinism, rationalizing ruthless oppression based on race, ethnicity, religion, class, and species. Sharing social Darwinism’s might-makes-right-based rationalization of oppression, speciesism is a universal human problem that informs all societies, cultures, and religions, with rare exceptions like Jainism, some branches of Buddhism, and arguments that cultural rights justify killing innocent creatures attempt to rationalize one form of oppression as preventing another.

Universal moral laws transcend human laws. Humans’ capability to subjugate others is not a right to do so. To say otherwise is to condone human slavery as justified by the mere capability of some humans to subjugate others. Nor does nonhumans’ not behaving as humans justify oppressing them. The facts that a dog cannot play a traditional African instrument and a kangaroo cannot read the bible do not negate their moral right to live unmolested by humans. If we Africans apply to the treatment of nonhuman animals the same logic used against us by colonizers, then we are as guilty as enslavers of humans.

That humans and nonhuman animals experience their lives is sufficient reason not to oppress, mistreat, or kill even one, or to deny every individual respect and dignity.

As Jeremy Bentham put it, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Let us hold ourselves to a high standard, knowing that imitating the oppressor is not the way to justice or enhanced well-being.

Anteneh Roba, M.D.
International Fund for Africa

About the International Fund for Africa

Founded in 2006 by Anteneh Roba, MD and Seble Nebiyeloul, M.H.A., International Fund for Africa (IFA), is a non–profit organization dedicated to preventing, alleviating, and abolishing suffering through the principle of ahimsa. IFA works to alleviate suffering by providing medical care, shelter, supplies and many other types of support to those who cannot help themselves -- whether they are human or nonhuman.

Source: International Fund for Africa
Author: Intern. Fund for Africa

Date: 2010-11-16


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