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women's champion

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

Professor Thandabantu Nhlapo is living proof that all generalisations are unfair.

The most popular would be the one about the Zulu taxi driver, a lout with no respect for women.

Born in Nongoma, the belly of KwaZulu-Natal and the bastion of its traditions, Nhlapo is a true-blue subject of King Zwelithini.

But, if for one moment, you thought the taxi driver legend to be true, you'd be pleasantly surprised to know that this Zulu man is a beguiling departure from the norm. He is a champion not only of human rights but of women's rights!

A trained lawyer whose area of practice was family law, he soon narrowed his interest down to gender equality and human rights.

He started his academic career teaching university students at the national university in Swaziland. In the 17 years he taught family law, nine of these were spent in Swaziland, a hugely patriarchal society.

It was in teaching family law that he deepened his attention towards African customary law, says the good professor, who is proud to mention that "my history is activism in the gender arena".

He's followed his heart for so long (he's been working in human rights since he was in Swaziland) and so well that he's able to say, whispering: "I'm actually one of the few men who went to Beijing in 1995."

But his brand of expertise was sought even before that watershed United Nations gathering.

We meet in Pretoria. He is attending, at the invitation of the National Heritage Council (NHC), a conference, the theme of which - African cultural practices and human rights - he says gleefully is slap bang in the middle of his speciality.

The two-day conference, which ended on Friday, was meant to advise the minister on all national heritage issues.

One who believes that a good teacher should always research his field and be guided by fresh thinking, Nhlapo says he found early in his career in Swaziland that "most of the restrictions suffered by women happen in the home". He looked even deeper to find that the oppression of women came as a result of cultural practices.

And why, he probed, were these practices stronger than law in that they defy the law? Everybody, he found, roundly ignores the law.

Swaziland, he says, has no shortage of law but umfati (a woman) remains umfati.

"In the experience of women," he says of the Swazis, "they see more culture than they see law; they see more culture than they see human rights."

He retraces his steps a few years to say; "in my inability to say no, one NGO - the Family Life Association of Swaziland - asked me to help out after I had drafted a constitution for them."

A family planning organisation, the NGO asked him to help extend their services since more than 60 percent of the women who came to them did not come for strictly reproductive health issues.

"Many of them had rights issues," Nhlapo remembers - domestic violence, maintenance, spousal alcohol abuse, adoption matters and so on.

He says: "This is how I became a 'woman'."

He does not know labour law, neither does he know commercial law: "I'm a family man."

More people in South Africa live under African customary law than Western ones and this situation prevails even in the cities.

"Many consider themselves traditionalist even when they live in the cities."

In his paper at the NHC conference, Nhlapo made mention of the concept of rights talk.

He explains: "Rights talk is all of those debates, discussions, conversations, discourses where human rights are deployed. It is rights talk when somebody slaughters a cow in the suburbs and they get reported to the police and the SPCA and it makes a big news splash.

"The slaughterer would say it is his culture, where do you, the SPCA, get involved? The SPCA, on the other hand, would be applying for a court interdict to get him to stop. Now, in the language of those articles in the newspapers, there'll be a lot of rights talk - this guy would be claiming his rights according to culture, the SPCA would be claiming its mandate to prevent cruelty to animals.

"A neighbour might claim that the blood flowing from the house next door past his is unsanitary so his rights to health and a healthy environment are being impaired.

"My paper warned that even though we are supporters of human rights, we must watch rights talk because sometimes it is used recklessly to criticise certain African practices, when it is not an issue of rights at all, but of prejudice.

"When some say slaughtering is backward they claim animal rights. When they say lobolo is backward, they say it is oppressive to women. It is wife purchase. A lot of the time people with educated minds scream human rights to mask prejudice.

"Something straightforward like, 'I don't like this', begins to be 'it violates rights'. The truth is that the practice just pisses them off."

And to make this point Nhlapo makes mention of practices like breastfeeding, a normal African thing. But when it is done in places where the audience is not African, the very act of unholstering would be a terrible thing to do.

Should human rights always prevail, he asks himself often.

"My answer is 'no'. Advocates of human rights, and I consider myself one of them, must learn to be tolerant of other cultures even if they don't understand them."

His pet peeve is that, more often than not, where human rights are Western, African culture is looked at as backward and when you put the two together, African culture must give way.

Nhlapo has two siblings, and was an only son. With padded knees, he polished the stoep at home and would get a spanking if he dared tell his mother he had not eaten "because Zanele did not prepare food for me".

His mother, Miriam Ntombi, whom he credits with having refreshingly progressive ideas, insisted on genderless chores for her kids.

It was at home, which had by then moved to Clermont, Durban, that he was taught tribalism was also a taboo.

A neighbour once overheard him shouting loftily with some friends at AmaBaca - the underclass who carried the night soil in the Durban townships, and work the local amaZulu would not touch with the proverbial barge pole. Ongovu was the derogatory term given to these men, and when the neighbour heard him say this, he told Nhlapo's mother. "Did I get a beating!"

That was his home, he says, full of respect, full of reading. Both parents were teachers - his father, in his time, a school inspector. "And both my parents were university educated."

He continues about the birth of his feminism: "It's probably genetic, but I just like women - in a good and a bad sense."

He's married to Mathokoza, a librarian he met in Swaziland, and "lived in sin with for 18 years before marrying in 1984".

The Cape Town-based couple, where he is deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and she, now a businesswoman, have two kids, Meluli, 16, and Nombulelo, 23.

This is Nhlapo's second stint at UCT. He left in 1996 to be a member of the South African Law Commission. Later he was South Africa's deputy ambassador in Washington DC from 2000 to 2004. He wore two hats.

"You're office manager, in charge of the embassy; you are also deputy ambassador."

He worked under two ambassadors - women. Sheila Sisulu and Barbara Masekela. When his term ended, he went back to UCT in August 2004.

But equal rights for both sexes in a patriarchal society - will this ever be achieved?

"Formal equal rights, yes. Laws can be put in place to abolish differences in pay, even quotas. Across the board we can pass laws that equalise things. The problem is how to usher into the modern human rights world some African practices that are enemies of human rights."

He says there are things that just don't work for women.

"Almost everything that is bad for everybody is worse for women," he says. "If you say people are poor, you're actually saying a lot of men and women are, but because they are women, they are poorer."

He gives an example: "The rural man and rural woman are both poor, but the man owns property and the woman doesn't."

He follows with another: "An unemployed man and an unemployed woman are poor, but the woman suffers more because the unemployed man expects the unemployed woman to cook."

That is the sphere that he thinks will take longer to reach.

"The formal legislation, no problem. It's the sphere that's worrisome. Westerners miss the point about seeing human rights and African cultural practices as, one, enemies and, two, as the former being superior to the latter. That is wrong."

But there are things about our culture that still need to be preserved, like ubuntu. "The good stuff, communalism rather than individualism."

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