Justice vs Culture: Which is First?



It seems obvious that South Africa has significant challenges when it comes to justice in the country, with our justice system often showing itself susceptible to the corruption that seems to rear its ugly head everywhere.

But one thing people are never good at all over the world, South African or not, is seeing the plank in their own eye. While people like to talk about justice for all, equality, compassion and fairness etc., they very often don’t show these same attributes in their personal lives. And often, culture is used as an excuse to overlook an opportunity to practice justice.

This thought of how culture rules over justice in our country in many ways came to me when I was talking to friends about something deeply ingrained in our South African culture. The mere mention of it stirs up emotions amongst many of our people. And it’s a very good example of proving my point. I’m talking about the labolla.

While I realise this topic is highly controversial, there is the reality of saying that the (present) culture of labolla has had negative consequences on the institution of marriage in South Africa, especially within the youth. People can’t afford the unreasonable bride-prices they need to pay and so they just don’t get married. Sure, they live with each other, and have kids, but marriage is just not possible.

I personally know many cases where people have been untreated unfairly because of the (so-called) cultural demands of labolla. Marriage is a good thing that helps to build family in any nation, and ultimately family is the core of a nation, but because many are using the labolla as an occasion to take advantage of others we’re seeing a degradation of the institution of marriage in our country. And so we’re seeing a degradation of family. Effectively, some are playing the ‘culture card’ as an occasion to be unjust to another. Is culture so important that, even if it is unjust, it should still be practiced? Surely there comes a point when culture, regardless of what it is, should take a back seat to the greater issue of justice.

Perhaps it’s true that the labolla is meant to cultivate family ties in unique ways, but it’s also true that it’s often used as a means to control others. I think one of our biggest problems in South Africa is that culture has become such a ‘holy cow’ that it is elevated above the things that should guide it – things such as justice, compassion, mercy, and love. These are just some universal principles that are to guide ANY culture, regardless of the age or background of that culture.

Every culture has points that seem to support these universal principles and other points which miss them completely. Those points that miss the mark ought to be jettisoned. It stands to reason. If not, then pro-apartheid South Africans can simply say that apartheid is a part of their culture. None of us will accept that. So should we accept injustice in other areas of our cultures when they show up?

I’m also using labolla to show how many of us in South Africa don’t live with justice in mind, but are quick to criticise our leaders for not living justly, or leading justly. Corruption needs to be addressed at its core in the mind, as well as practically. What is it that guides others to use labolla as an occasion to take advantage of another? Why is it that South Africa seems to have this problem with money; that it rules us whether we are rich or poor? Everything seems to revolve around money.

The problem isn’t capitalism. Socialists have historically shown their equal obsession with money in the past. Think of Ghana and everything that happened there, for instance.

Things start at home. When we talk about the corruption in our government, we better make sure we’re not corrupt in our business dealings and in our family relationships or any other areas of our lives. We better not use culture as a way to take advantage of others, either. The evidence shows that, as a whole, money not only rules our leadership in an unhealthy way but rules the way the ordinary man on the street lives, regardless of whether they are rich and poor. When the poor take advantage of the poor through something like labolla we have to ask questions about the general worldview of our country, and we have to ask questions about ourselves and how we live our lives.

We should look at our own planks in our eyes before we criticise others. South Africa needs to decide what is more important: Culture or Justice; my needs or Justice. The decision will help us all know how to build our nation’s future.

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