Newcastle Celebrates the Festival of uNomkhubulwane!

Posted on September 4, 2012
'UNomkhubulwane is a gender issue', these are the words of Mr Jabulani Mhlambi, the Head of Amajuba [Community] Education Centre, in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal. This was in the wake of the Annual Umkhosi kaNomkhubulwane (the festivity of Nomkhubulwane) which has become a regular feature in the events calendar of Newcastle, taking place during the last week of July.

The end of July signals the closure of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. It is during this time that farmers and other people in agriculture start planning their planting season in preparation for the pre-spring rains in August. This cycle of nature precedes calendars and formalised agriculture, it is simply the way nature works.

It is in this context that a group of women in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal come together to prepare the festivity of Nomkhubulwane, who is the deity of fertility and agriculture in the world of traditional Zulu cosmology. It was through the inspiration of a dream vision received by Ms Thoko Hadebe (known as MaNtombela) that the festivity started in Newcastle.

Over the years MaNtombela has mobilised a collective of women, young and old, under the name 'Thandâusiko lwakho' ('love your culture') for the celebration of this festivity. They have even managed to get the support of the Department of Education, through the Education Centre managed by Mr Jabulani Mhlambi.

The tradition of uNomkhubulwane has seen a revival in many areas of KwaZulu-Natal in the last decade or so, with the festivity in Nongoma being the most popular.

UNomkhubulwane fits into a greater of complex of ritual practices carried by women in Zulu culture. These include Umkhosi Womhlanga (the reed dance), ukuhlolwa (virginity testing) and dolo qina ('first fruits festivity'), just to mention a few.Why have these practices been revived at this particular time in our history?

Well to respond to this question we would need to consider some of the overlying changes in the cultural landscape in South Africa, and Africa at large.

1. Heritage: This is a notion that has been bandied much post-1994 in the country. It arose out of the need to remember those memories that were marginalized under apartheid thinking. It invariably implied the excavation of an African 'mythical past'. Put simply, we needed a new way of seeing and understanding ourselves. This new life force needed to complement our African roots, as well affirm our identity as Africans. Saartjie Baartman's human remains being repatriated to South Africa mark some of the big moves in the heritage thinking. Another move, in relation to KwaZulu-Natal, would be the inauguration of Durban as the Shaka capital: the airport is named after him, an entertainment complex is named after him. KwaZulu-Natal also often uses the slogan the 'Kingdom of the Zulu' in marketing itself as tourist destination.

2. African Renaissance: When then-president Thabo Mbeki coined this term, and in his 'I am an African' speech, I am not sure if he was in fact aware or could ever imagined the role he was interceding in at that moment in time. The perspective arising out of this reminded us as a nation that we are connected to a larger continent, and that our voice matters—not only for us, but also for Africa as a whole. It paved the way for our re-integration into a way of thinking, and indeed a way of life, that situated us in continuum of African existence.

3. Women Representation: There have also been gains made by women's pursuit for equality and representation in public life. Through state-led empowerment programmes, women have indeed received priority in appointments. These have also had their mirrors in non-state activities, in the church for example, more women have become preachers and pastors than before. With regards to traditional affairs, we see more women making claims to chieftaincy and other forms of visibility.

It is not surprising therefore to see the sudden revival in the tradition of uNomkhubulwane. UNomkhubulwane seems to disrupt the 'natural' position of men as the custodians of culture and tradition. It draws on a distant past (of Zulu culture) in order to make claims for women as authorities in cultural matters.

If one considers that uNomkhubulwane is situated in the complex of ritual practices, including Umkhosi Womhlanga and ukuhlolwa, it can be placed in direct contrast to Umkhosi wokweshwama, the traditional Zulu practice of men killing a bull with their own bear hands which occurs later in the year (around November). In fact, uNomkhubulwane is of an elevated character, as it engages the sacred by invoking a deity.

Heritage discourse has given this kind of ritual practice a place in the post-apartheid South African imagination. Viewing uNomkhubulwane as heritage allows women to make claims around power and significance in an environment where they are otherwise marginalised. We all know too well that heritage carries a lot of social and economic currency. There are many players in the heritage field who have made a lot of money; think of the Zulu crafts and beadworks industry that exports to many places around the world for example. There are also those who have made social claims; think of the demand for liberation struggle sites to be declared 'National Monuments'. What heritage implies is a quest for recognition; it certainly has been empowering in this Newcastle community of women practitioners.

Thokozani Mhlambi is an Archival Platform Correspondent based in Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal