Human Rights, Praise Poetry and Ancestral Resonances in the Present

  • Posted on August 29, 2013

Human Rights are a greatly contested issue in South Africa. Liberal approaches to this issue often resulted in the positioning of the colonial and apartheid governments on a pedestal to be stoned and explicitly labelled as being “incapable to act [for] African advancement in the country” (Naboth Mokgatle 1971:247-248).

Formerly, South Africa served as a haven for Europeans whose “emigration to the country only served to keep the Africans down, to deny them human rights and democracy” (Naboth Mokgatle 1971:250).
For Naboth Mokgatle, grasping the world beyond his village of Phokeng was a puzzling experience as he came into his first “contact with colour segregation while working on a farm at the tender age of twelve” (Mokgatle 1971:113). For the most part of the mid-19th century like all other black people of different ethnicities, the Bafokeng make mention of how “it was not easy to keep their land, in some instances they had to fight for it and in others work for it. All throughout their history they had to resist invaders who tried to take their land away from them.”

As such Kgosi Mokgatle, the grandfather to Naboth Mokgatle, “made the decision to buy the land, even though it was already theirs, doing this was so that the land could be for the Bafokeng people legally in the eyes of the Boers of the Transvaal Republic” (Royal Bafokeng Administration 2010:5). Customary law and the passing down of land owned by inheritance was not enough to help the Bafokeng when their land was being usurped by people they knew not. The Bafokeng were essentially being bullied off their land in a process that even had them having to work on the farms established by the new White Settlers in the area. There may have been room for peaceful co-existence but that was compromised by the invasion. The Settlers lacked the respect to enter into consultation with the authorities that already existed to ask for land to establish themselves as a people in search of grazing fields for their cattle as well as their desire to be free of British rule.

Among the Bafokeng, human rights were the unwritten rules and guidelines that people lived by. A guest from a foreign land was “welcomed into the area but their feet first had to be cooled off, it was said that never speak to a visitor while his feet are still hot; give him food, all hospitality, allow him a chance to relax and then ask him to open his bag, which meant give him strength to relate his story” (Naboth Mokgatle 1971:47). This was done to show humility, as well as acknowledgement and respect for one another purely on the basis of the visitor and the hosts being human beings. Reciprocity at a later stage was not expected but regard for another as a human often laid the foundation for such future transactions. Why should a human being be treated differently because they have a darker skin shade I could never understand, but this was the oil South Africa’s engine ran on for a long time.

When we turn to the present human rights violations of citizens by instruments of the state have taken a turn for the worse. Brute force was used under the old regime where the instruments of the state were of the oppressors and thus saw no reason to be kind and show compassion as they were dealing with an oppressed people who they did not regard as people at all.  Presently the once oppressed race have now become instruments of the state and people of their own colour are treated with such brutality. For instance, the frequency with which cases of police brutality are reported these days is alarming.

If we live in a time in which we complain about police brutality because of our awareness of our human rights, when we think about the long-ago past how do we make sense of the almost willy-nilly boasting about committing violence against enemies as seen in oral art forms that many individuals, families and clans use to trace their pasts? Do they incite or encourage violence?

For one who was oppressed to be granted an opportunity by the heavens to commit violence against an enemy was seen as an achievement purely because such did not occur every day. In committing violence it was hoped that the enemy would see the error in his way, drawing from the pain a lesson to treat others better and to respect their human rights, treating them as they would want to be treated regardless of their skin colour, creed, race or tongue. A typical example is seen the praise poems of any ethnic group where the person who is being praised is given the features of the animal he venerates, e.g. a crocodile as seen with the Bafokeng who often refer to the King (kgosi) as The Crocodile and his strength, his valour and his persistence are likened to this animal which he embodies. It is the animal personified in essence that acts in the best interest of the people.

As seen in Leboko La Bafokeng Ba Phokeng in the second stanza, 6th and 7th lines: “Yo o maoto a a bofefo go siana, Yo o tsebe ntlha go utlwa ditshebo”. (Mining The Future: The Bafokeng Story2010: 99)  As stated in this “Praise Poem of the Bafokeng of Phokeng” the quote suggests that the crocodile – who in this case is the King – has fast, swift feet that enable him to run, and has his ears are ever sharp to hear the gossip whether it be good or bad. The crocodile or in this case the leader has swift feet that run either to attack or to flee an enemy, but either way keeps an ear to the ground and is always alert and ready to strike. The boasting is self-gratification for the one who has had an opportunity to defeat another, leaving an impression that the one who has always been a victim has for a change become the victor and thus the boasting is done in a celebratory manner not as a platform to incite or encourage violence.

South Africa’s Bill of Rights calls for the responsibilities that everyone in the country should uphold as a privilege they are to inherit from the sacrifice and suffering of those who came before those living in the present. The three responsibilities which strike me the most are those of the responsibility in ensuring human dignity, responsibility in ensuring the right to life and the responsibility in ensuring the right to freedom and security of the person, which one could say are violated on a regular basis. This violation is like second nature and has become entrenched. The Xenophobic attacks of May 2008 have left one of the many scars and dents that disturb and hinder the progress and process.

Does this have anything to do with the veneration of violence in some praise poetry from the past which is still used extensively today? How do we reconcile Mogatle’s views on how strangers were treated among the Bafokeng with the celebration of violence against enemies and, by extension, strangers?

A Bill of Responsibilities for the Youth of South Africa (2011).
Naboth Mokgatle (1971). The Autobiography of an unknown South African. University of California Press.
Royal Bafokeng Administration (2010). Mining the Future: The Bafokeng Story. Totem Media.

Goa Gaberone is an Archival Platform correspondent based in Johannesburg


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