Out of South Africa: Do the rite thing

The last sacrifice ceremony I attended featured battalions of hymn-singing Anglican ladies, several bespectacled Christian preachers and one sad, black sheep
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Spare a thought for one such as I, contracted to write for an English newspaper while simultaneously battling nicotine withdrawal symptoms so acute that were it not for certain biblical injunctions concerning one's parents I would right now be bounding down a rain-swept goat track in search of some Luckies or, better yet, Texans: blunt, stubby cylinders of moist, rank tobacco from what was once Rhodesia, so strong that a single hit was enough to turn a schoolboy green.

Why am I not smoking? I love smoking. I have been smoking since I was 16, and have enjoyed every second. I would be smoking this instant were it not that mother dearest is terribly concerned about the extent of my habit and the early grave I am surely digging for myself. Please, she cried in the car on the way to the mountains, just give it a try, for my sake. And what could I say - I who have been such a disappointing son in so many ways, so prodigal, so rootless, so fecklessly bohemian? I said, of course, and here I am, pondering a blank screen, chewing bricks, while mother brews tea in the timeshare kitchen and chats to Aunt Helen about my "willpower"

I hate columns in which total strangers tell you stuff you don't want to know about subjects in which you have no interest; their domestic travails, their mewling brats, the trauma of kicking nicotine, whatever. There has been something of a trend towards them in Britain, great swathes of broadsheet newsprint given over to vapid inanities infested with self-indulgent me's, I's and my's. "I stared morosely into the rain. The craving was a malevolent monster in the centre of my chest with tentacles reaching into my brain and gullet, crying out, feed me, feed me..."

Ja, well. Might pass muster in a stable society where everything necessary has already been said and most crises are mere storms in teacups, but not in a piece from South Africa, even in these relatively placid post- apartheid days. We still have problems here, you know: taxi wars, cabinet feuds, corruption scandals and grand tempests of passion. Indeed, I was intending to write about one such hullabaloo until mother strong-armed me re the cancer sticks.

For the record, though, it was to be a story about the current Miss South Africa, Beauty Khumalo, and our new constitution. A doe-eyed creature of Zulu extraction, Beauty announced at her coronation press conference that she would shortly be slaughtering a goat to thank the spirits of her ancestors for the blessings showering down upon her lovely head.

In the Zulu context, or any African context, this was an act of commendable religious virtue, and one could almost hear the collective sigh of approval from black South Africa, that one so gracious and accomplished in the most modern sense should also be so respectful of ancient tradition. Whites, on the other hand, started bleating about cruelty to animals, provoking a caustic flood of letters to the editor in which they were variously advised to siddown, shaddup, or better yet, go back to England, where animal sacrifice is unthinkable, unspeakable and illegal.

As one might gauge from a response so impassioned, the worship of ancestors is fairly ubiquitous hereabouts. Nelson Mandela's physician, the redoubtable Dr Nthato Motlana, was once given to ranting against "the tyranny of superstition", but his crusade was a lonely one, and largely unheeded. Most Africans still consider it appropriate to do the rite thing vis a vis the ancestors on special occasions, and if you think this entails hellish voodoo festivals, forgeddit.

The last sacrifice ceremony I attended featured battalions of hymn-singing Anglican ladies, several bespectacled Christian preachers and one sad, black sheep, quietly dispatched with a single slash of the carving knife and then burned on a pyre in fulfilment of a spirit edict delivered to a clairvoyant in a dream. The general idea was to bring peace to a war- torn valley, and lo: peace there has been these six months past. As for the ceremony itself, it was more sincere and spiritually uplifting than any white Christian event I remember, but, as in the UK, it was illegal.

What does this have to do with beauty queens and nicotine addiction? Only this: the mater has inflicted upon me a paperback full of gruesome photographs of cancerous lungs and earnest warnings to penitent junkies to stay calm in the throes of withdrawal, and I cannot remain calm while contemplating a situation that irritates the shit out out of me. It's one thing for relics of the old regime to trample on African religious freedoms, entirely another for an African government to provide a legal framework for such dubious practices, which is exactly what the mission boys have accomplished in our new constitution.

I mean, really. How can it be that, after decades of bitter struggle, we now have laws that protect every conceivable imported deity, but make no mention whatsoever of the ancestors of Africa? Is the African National Congress ashamed of being African? Is it secretly committed to fulfilling Rev Livingstone's dream of a continent in which all blacks wear short pants, speak English and sing Christmas carols? And is this the sort of vexing question I should be pondering in my present state?

Nah, probably not, and having filled this space, ancestors be praised, I don't have to.

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