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How free are we really if we can't practice African religious beliefs in our Africa?

Fred Khumalo Columnist
The writer questions if black South Africans are actually free to practice their traditions and religions.
The writer questions if black South Africans are actually free to practice their traditions and religions.
Image: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Thulani Mbele

In his bestselling autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela writes lovingly about how, when he came of age, he was taken to the mountain where he endured weeks of sleeping naked on the bare ground with boys his age, surviving on measly rations of food.

Then on the appointed day, the ingcibi, the man in charge presented himself before the boys, wielding a sharp blade.

When young Mandela's turn came, the man brought the blade down on his foreskin, chopping it off. And Mandela was made to cry out triumphantly: "Ndiyindoda!" (I'm a man).

African belief systems are as old as mankind. Africa, as mounting archaeological evidence shows, is indeed the cradle, the beginning, of humankind.

What has sustained our people are their different beliefs. These beliefs relate to such processes as the passage to manhood as illustrated above. Others relate to praying for peace and wealth.

Some foreigners mistakenly and arrogantly maintain that Africans worship ancestors. In fact, Africans bow before their ancestors, asking them to convey their prayers, their wishes, to God.

They are too humble to speak directly to God. They need someone to intercede on their behalf.

Other people have chosen to go with another ancestor called Jesus Christ. They speak to him so he can relay their wishes to God.

Yet others address their wishes to an ancestor called Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon his name. He, in turn, channels their prayers to God, or Allah, as they prefer.

The ones who believe in Allah will slaughter beasts on specific occasions. The ones who believe in Nomkhubulwane, Qamata and so on, will also slaughter.

The ones who call themselves Jews have their own way of speaking to their ancestors. They have special days on which they don't cook in the belief that doing so would be an affront to God, or Yahweh.

Cultural or religious beliefs vary. Thankfully we live in a society that is cognisant of these beliefs. Yes, our constitution guarantees every South African freedom of religion.

It is against this background that I was shocked by the decision of the Blairgowrie branch of Woolworths to suspend one of its employees, Mathapelo Nkopane, for wearing isiphandla at work.

Isiphandla is a piece of animal skin worn as a bracelet by some Africans after a specific cultural ceremony that would involve the slaughtering of a beast.

Nkopane first wore isiphandla in 2018 and got the approval of her line manager to do so at work.

Last month a bakery specialist who came to the store suggested that Nkopane be moved to another section of the store. I suppose there were concerns about hygiene.

After it had been arranged for her to be moved to another section she was called in and asked to write a statement explaining why she had isiphandla.

It is shocking that the person in charge at that branch is one Xolile Zondo, a black person who should understand the sacredness of isiphandla. People don't wear it for fun.

Or is Zondo one of those who have to denigrate fellow black people in order to show just how civilised they are?

House n*****s can be more vicious than the master himself. But I don't believe Zondo is part of the reviled species. Black people have taken major strides to reach out, understand and accommodate white culture; the other side has generally failed to reciprocate.

Nkopane is one of millions of black people who still have to beg for a place under the sun, in their own country, a land that is supposed to be free from cultural chauvinism.

How long should they keep begging? Yes, Gibson Kente asked the question a long time ago: How Long?

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