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Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Des Van Rooyen. Picture Credit: Gallo Images
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President's call for debate on moral code is laudable

By Dave Steward | Mar 10, 2010 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

WE should welcome President Jacob Zuma's call call for a national dialogue on South Africa's moral code. He is quite right that such a debate is important in a multicultural country like ours - with substantial minorities coming from widely differing cultural and religious backgrounds.

We are too easily inclined to condemn any practice that deviates from our own particular view of what is right or wrong without understanding that such practices are acceptable within the cultural and religious frameworks of other South Africans.

Thus, many white South Africans showed insensitivity with regard to the ukweshwama festival in which King Goodwill Zwelithini presided in December last year. For animal rights activists the bare-handed killing of a bull was barbarous; for Zulu traditionalists it was a central facet in the spiritual and traditional life of their people.

Opinions on the black African custom of polygamy also differ widely. Many women's rights advocates regard the practice as demeaning for the women involved, while traditionalists regard it as an acceptable and integral part of their cultures.

What then of the Muslim practice of polygamy - or indeed, of the de facto practice of many people from European cultures of keeping mistresses or having sex outside marriage?

In the same way, attitudes to homosexuality vary dramatically from one culture to another - and from one religion to another. For many devout Christians and black African traditionalists it is an abomination. For the Constitution and much of the rest of our society the choice of sexual orientation is a fundamental right.

As with many aspects of our complex society, we will find useful guidelines in our Constitution.

On the one hand, it makes ample provision for South Africans to take part in the cultural life of their choice. It recognises the need for diversity and creates space for everyone to "enjoy their culture, practise their religion and use their language".

On the other hand, the Constitution makes it clear that such activities may not be exercised in a manner inconsistent with the Bill of Rights, of which the founding provisions of the Constitution provide the basis for the unity and shared values that should constitute much of the content of the shared moral code for which Zuma is searching.

This means that any practice from any quarter that undermines human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms is unacceptable.

Traditional practices must be modified to conform with these core values - regardless of their origin. Polygamy is acceptable in as far as it does not undermine the equality, freedom and human dignity of the parties involved.

On the other hand, the practice of ukuthwala, in terms of which young girls can be married to much older men against their will, is a clear violation of the several provisions in the Bill of Rights - and is thus unacceptable.

Apart from the requirements of the Constitution, there are a number of values that common sense requires for the effective functioning of any society. Practising unsafe sex in an Aids and sexually transmitted diseases environment is immoral and unacceptable.

We hope that Zuma pursues his intention of starting a dialogue on these issues.

The writer is executive director the FW de Klerk Foundation


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