Recognized globally as the Rainbow Nation, South Africa’s democratic DNA is etched in the celebration and embrace of the kaleidoscope of cultures, customs and rituals. However, there is an inherited and ingrained intimacy between an individual and their celebration of their culture.
The migration to cultural awareness has seen the rise of black (and in some cases white) South Africans from diverse backgrounds embracing spiritual identities outside of Christianity. Ubungoma is no longer an outdated, taboo spiritual choice that is shrouded in mystery and darkness. It has become an accepted normal that celebrates South African ancestry and is quickly becoming a financially viable and growing industry in its own right.
However, with its growing popularity, has African spirituality in the South African context lost its sacred essence?
Cultural respect for African rituals and sacred spaces is being tainted by social media clowning. The respect and dignity of cultural practices, rituals and African healing that we inherited from our parents are in tatters. Of course, future generations will inherit the hollow ashes of our sacred traditions.
Our culture faces moral decay and ethical mischief from television producers. It’s all on display and cultural rituals splash all over social media and reality TV shows for clout and ratings. The cultural and sangoma content produced for TV channels is shameful and misleading and does not even come close to what is authentic and right.
It’s as if TV producers only care about ratings and not about the credibility of the content they produce. This reinforces a stereotypical and distorted image of African culture and African ancestral healing. TV content is a cheap and sensational mockery of our culture and ancestral sangoma vocation.
It is disturbing to see initiates of an initiation school – half-naked, at their most spiritually, emotionally and psychologically vulnerable stage – on TV shows and on social media pages. As a society, we have allowed such voices and visuals to infiltrate our national media discourse with such fanfare because it is “entertainment.”
But one wonders to what extent and at whose expense? At this point, most initiates into the ancestral calling suffer from depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Others wish to keep their initiation process private because it has always been private and so they can protect the mental and spiritual health of initiates.
But alas, insiders don’t have the power or the voice if a trainer (gobela) has a contract in place with a TV station to produce a sensational reality show. The contract extends to the private and privileged dwellings of the initiates. If the ancestrally-minded trainer is a content creator, initiates become content by being initiated by the trainer who seeks greener economic pastures through TV shows and social media content. The economy is detrimental to insiders.
In our quest to commercialize our culture and ancestral calling, we have sold our last line of defense – praying in rivers and oceans, a process known as ukuphahla – to the highest bidder for content creation. Rivers and oceans are so important and sacred in our African culture that previously we had to fast before we could go to such spaces to pray.
We weren’t allowed to wear shorts or skirts and even glasses weren’t allowed because it’s an old norm that the glare from these glasses blinds our ancestors in the same way as extremely car headlights shiny disturb an oncoming driver. Our culture keepers have taught us that you cannot bring a cell phone or camera to the river and ocean when you pray. What you are doing at this particular moment is sacred and intimate, it is between you, your ancestor and God. You are supposed to live the spiritual moment.
The most intimate moment of prayer in the river and oceans these days is captured for content creation, showing a complete disregard for the ethos and protocols of our age-old practices.
We have lost the voice of our cultural guardians. The village elders, who understand and respect our culture, view us as the cosmopolitan marketplace with total shock and lack of appetite to engage with us and educate us because we listen to the sound of our own voices. We have adopted a policy of “living with the times” and “the culture evolves”. Of course, culture changes and times change, but we don’t have to go where the wind blows.
Some things are sacred and should not change. Even though identity is fluid, we must not lose the fabric and foundation of that identity, otherwise the world will swallow us up and we will remain naked. We have a younger generation that yearns for authentic cultural and spiritual guidance because they have been deprived of cultural information and wisdom by their parents.
They were raised in Christian homes and modern cosmopolitan homes. They have been socialized to define cultural rituals and ancestral callings as demonic and backward. Some of them begin the process of unlearning the propaganda they have been spoon-fed since childhood. How then to meet the young generation who does not have a single cultural source at home to learn about our culture and our traditions?
How can we step in and tell people to unlearn what society has taught them about our culture? The pure, sacred, beautiful, authentic version – the undiluted version, the version that protects its own, not the version that capitalizes on and abuses our culture to further an evil agenda of abusing women in the name of lobola. How do we right the wrongs of a misleading narrative about our culture in society when modern healers and content creators miscarry our beautiful culture?
These young children are turning to social media and television in their search for education and cultural enlightenment on imbeleko, ancestral calling, lobola, and more. They do it to learn more about themselves and reconnect with their own identity, but alas, what was once a beautiful preserved oral culture has been turned into social media dust. We have lost respect in the eyes of society and the new age healers and television producers have become the uNongqawuse or false prophets of our generation.
Although controversy sells and flamboyant sangoma reality shows boost ratings, what about the youngster sitting at home who is gullible and naive? To bring dignity and respect back to our African culture and ancestral calling, I implore television producers and social media sangomas to exercise caution. Our children shouldn’t inherit a tasteless, watered-down version because we were busy chasing the likes and the clown.
We are our own worst enemy; we only unite when an outside voice ridicules our culture, when a Eurocentric voice mocks our culture. Only then will we stand in unison and defend our culture. We don’t stop to reflect and admit that we allowed the stranger to enter our space and disrespect us. How we behave in the public domain for content creation creates an enigma of different voices that have no interest in preserving our culture, but are dismantling it piece by piece and rendering it useless.
Our culture is dying; we live in a time of moral, cultural and spiritual decay. If we don’t preserve what’s left, our children will be financially and culturally ripped off by future cultural fraudsters posing as African healers and prophets. They will milk what is left of it. Spirituality is currency these days. Let’s not use platforms that could preserve our identity as a dying seed while the stranger watches and laughs at us.