A South African Perspective on the Clash between Culture and Human Rights, with Particular Reference to Gender-Related Cultural Practices and Traditions

By Mubangizi, John Cantius | Journal of International Women's Studies, July-August 2012 | Go to article overview

A South African Perspective on the Clash between Culture and Human Rights, with Particular Reference to Gender-Related Cultural Practices and Traditions


Mubangizi, John Cantius, Journal of International Women's Studies


South Africa is infamous for its history of disenfranchising most of its population under the dehumanizing policy of apartheid. A country of almost 50 million people, South Africa has a diverse array of languages, races, religions and ethnic communities, and has faced significant challenges--political, cultural and socio-economic--since the advent of democracy in 1994. The writers of the 1996 Constitution faced the unenviable task of accommodating the diverse viewpoints that inevitably derived from South Africa's fractured history and society. The Constitution is one of the most progressive in the world, and notably includes a Bill of Rights, which in addition to including civil and political rights typically protected by international human rights instruments, includes protection of socio-economic and cultural rights. Cultural rights are protected in Sections 30 and 31 of the Constitution, although such protection is not without limitation. This highly complex interplay and "competition" between human rights and culture is the golden thread that traces through the paper, which focuses on several cultural practices and traditions which, it is suggested, violate certain human rights norms in South Africa. These practices and traditions, all of which relate to women, are reviewed--together with the sections of the South African Constitution that they are considered to violate. Using the example of curbing the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in other African countries through the NGO Tostan, it is emphasized that the law is only one component of a multidisciplinary approach, and that civil society, government and other role-players are all needed to change perceptions and attitudes. In conclusion, general recommendations are made about reducing the conflict between culture and human rights in South Africa. These include the use of human rights education, human rights advocacy on gender issues, legislative measures, and developing customary law to ensure compatibility with the South African Constitution.

Keywords: South Africa, human rights, culture and human rights

Introduction

South Africa is a country of many cultures. Its multicultural nature is reflected in its array of languages, races, religions and ethnic communities. The country has a population of about 49 million people, 79.5 per cent of whom are Black, 9.2 per cent White, 8.8 per cent of mixed race(colloquially referred to as 'Coloureds'), and 2.5 per cent being of Indian/Asian descent. (2) The Black population comprises numerous ethnic groupings, the most populous being the Zulu and Xhosa in the eastern provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, respectively. In terms of language, there are eleven constitutionally recognized official languages, which are mainly spoken by and along the various ethnic groupings. It is important to note, that as with language, cultures are specific to individual groupings, and hence the extensive cultural diversity in South Africa.

"Culture" has been defined in various ways. A modern definition of the concept however, is provided by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary as "the integrated pattern of human knowledge, beliefs, and behavior that depends upon man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations." (3) According to this definition, "culture" includes "the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group." (4) Simplistically speaking then--in the South African context and as defined in this paper--culture could be said to mean a way of acting, thinking and doing things, that is unique to a particular group of people.

The South African Constitution (1996) is regarded as one of the most progressive in the world, and contains a Bill of Rights providing for all categories of human rights, that are ordinarily included in most international human rights instruments. The uniqueness of the South African Bill of Rights, however, is the ambitious inclusion of the controversial socio-economic and cultural rights--in addition to the traditional civil and political rights. …

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