President Zuma has called for a national discussion about our “moral code” as a nation because, he says, it is unconstitutional to judge others by the standards of one’s own culture.
“Each one of us must be respected,” Zuma said, according to News24.com. “That’s what our Constitution says. No matter how you feel, some of us have very strong feelings about some of the things, but we respect the Constitution, no matter how we feel… It is about redefinition of ourselves. Who are we? What are our values?
“For, there is no standard that is agreed. The Constitution says there are diversities. It recognises this. And that we should respect cultures of others.
“No-one has a right, therefore, to use his or her own to judge others. It’s unconstitutional if you do so.”
In one sense, I agree with the president. There is a tendency among some South African and foreign observers to judge African behaviour by Western standards, and to belittle some apsects of African culture. We should respect cultural differences. But when Mr Zuma argues that it is unconstutional per se to criticise the cultural practices of others, he is wrong (and I suspect the fact that his own so-called cultural practices have come in for severe criticism has something to do with his this).
For there is a standard by which we judge behaviour in this country. The standard is the Constitution, which is based on the values of human dignity, equality, the advancement of human rights and freedoms, non-racialism and non-sexism. Conduct inconsistent with the Constitution is invalid.
The Bill of Rights does indeed afford everyone the right to live according to his or her culture (Section 30); but that is only half the story. The section protecting cultural and language rights reads, in full:
“Everyone has the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice, but no one exercising these rights may do so in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights (my italics).”
Clearly, cultural practices that are inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights, or with the values of the Constitution, are not protected by the Constitution. They are unconstitutional. For example, a cultural practice that unfairly discriminates against someone on the basis of gender – that is sexist, in other words – is unconstitutional. You could argue that polygamy is such a practice, as it assigns a subordinate role to women. And if I criticise that particular aspect of Mr Zuma’s culture, I am not judging it by the standards of my own culture. I am judging it by the standard of the Constitution. There is nothing unconstitutional about that.
In fact, the right to criticise the behaviour of others – including the president - lies at the heart of our democracy.