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Criticism of S. Africa ritual opens a divide

Efforts of animal rights activists to alter bull slaughter customs are called a racist attack on tribal culture.

February 09, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The bellowing of a bull before a ritual slaughter is a joyous sign to many South Africans that their ancestors have accepted the animal's sacrifice. But to others, it is the bovine equivalent of a scream of trauma and pain.

Thousands of animals are killed every month in South Africa in tribal cleansing ceremonies, and rituals marking births, deaths and weddings. To many people, these rituals lie at the heart of their identity, a tradition that brings peace and harmony in life.

But animal welfare advocates say the rituals are often cruel, and that bulls are speared in the chest or neck to make them bellow before they die.

So highly charged are questions of race and culture in South Africa that reports of spearing by a former high-ranking official of the ruling African National Congress have opened a bitter racial divide. When the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals investigated reports of spearing, a government official accused it of harboring "apartheid-era attitudes" and thinly veiled racism.

In South Africa, encroachment on traditional black culture awakens memories of the apartheid system and is fiercely condemned.

"There's no need for an organization which hasn't caught up with the social, political and cultural developments in the country to continue to throw out outdated [laws] that promote apartheid attitudes in this country," Sandile Memela, spokesman for the Ministry of Arts and Culture, said in an interview.

Invitation to slaughter

Labor Minister Membathisi Mdladlana invited SPCA representatives to see a bull slaughtered in a ceremony with no anesthesia.

"We want the bull to bellow, and then we'll sing the praises of our ancestors," he said in recent comments reported by the South African Press Assn. "I want to assure our detractors that we will continue to practice our traditions and follow our cultures."

The SPCA does not oppose ritual slaughter, but does oppose spearing an animal to make it bellow. The issue is so sensitive that the animal protection group has caused offense with its efforts to ensure that the bulls have water and that death is quick.

Columnist Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya of the Mail and Guardian weekly wrote that the SPCA's objections "came over as a knee-jerk reaction, inspired by a colonial desire to educate the brutish natives. A bit of South African history would tell them that among black South Africans there has always been a perception that whites care more about animals than they do about black people."

Others, such as another columnist for the weekly, Drew Forrest, and animal activist Michele Pickover, counter that many cultural practices have been abandoned over time.

"Cannibalism, infanticide, female circumcision, slavery, suppression of women, exploitation of children, ritual slaughter, bullfighting, bear baiting, fox hunting are among so-called cultural traditions practiced by some groups, the loss of which should not be mourned," Pickover told the South African Press Assn.

Andries Venter, chief inspector at the Cape of Good Hope SPCA, said in an interview that he knew of three methods used to make bulls bellow: spearing them in the chest, spearing them in the neck where the spine meets the head or touching them with the flat side of a spear.

But Nokuzola Mnende of the University of Cape Town department of religious studies said the animal was tapped on the navel with the flat side of the spear, not pierced. If the bull did not bellow, the ritual had to be put off.

"They want to tell us how to do slaughter. It's right when it's done by white people and it's wrong when it's done by black people. To me, that's racist," she said.

The SPCA says it is difficult to get authorities to prosecute any animal cruelty case, not just ritual spearing. In a country where police are overloaded with killings, rapes and assaults, animal cases rank low. The SPCA also has campaigned for humane treatment at slaughterhouses.

"There's a huge amount of cruelty," said Cher Poznanovich, spokeswoman for the Cape of Good Hope SPCA.

She said that in one case last year, the animal was skinned alive. But because that case involved high-ranking police officials, she said, there was no hope of prosecution.

In the case that sparked the latest controversy, she said, it also was unlikely that Tony Yengeni, former chief whip of the ruling party, would be prosecuted as a result of the cleansing ceremony held after he was released from jail.

'First fruit festival'

Poznanovich said the SPCA also has for many years opposed the annual Zulu "first fruit festival" in which young men wrestle and kill a bull.

"We are not allowed to interfere," she said. "It's cruel. They gouge out its eyes, they tear its testicles, they kill it with their bare hands."

She said the SPCA did not want to alienate anyone, but did want to open a discussion on the issue to help define what was acceptable and what constituted animal cruelty in South Africa.

Venter, the SPCA inspector, said the organization was willing to allow animals to be stunned before they are killed, which is common practice at slaughterhouses.

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