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Animal Sacrifice

Written by: Louise van der Merwe   Filed under: Issue 15, Animal Welfare.

My father was the Chief Justice in Botswana in the late sixties and early seventies and I remember walking into his chambers, as a young woman, and being concerned for the anxiety that was etched on his face. I asked if something was wrong and he showed me the court document he had on the desk in front of him.


It read: The State versus Dlamini.I even remember the name. My father explained that Dlamini had committed a muti murder — something that was understood in his culture — yet he was to be judged and sentenced to death by a rule of law based on Western culture.

And therein lay my father’s torment. As a man with a profoundly deep social conscience, my father abhorred the death sentence. But in Dlamini’s case, he abhorred it all the more because Dlamini’s understanding of what he had done was quite different to how Roman-Dutch Law viewed it. In my father’s view, this difference in perception was a mitigating circumstance – but one that was not recognised by the law.

The ritual murder of a child for body parts for dipheko or muti continues in Africa to this day — although now it is a part of African culture that has been disowned by every single country. So what has this got to do with the ritual slaughter of animals, you may ask? What has it got to do with Tony Yengeni’s ritual slaughter of the bull or the annual First Fruits Festival in KwaZulu Natal where young men bare-handedly tear a bull apart? In the furore that followed Mr Yengeni’s post-prison cleansing ceremony (in which he stabbed a bull with a spear), the ritual slaughter of animals was vehemently defended as part of African culture and religion – and whites who criticised it were labelled as arrogant and intolerant racists.

But, as a white woman who, for the past 18 years, has vigorously denounced the extreme cruelties involved in factory farming – which is Western culture imported into Africa, I do not accept that culture is ‘hallowed ground’.

I agree that our Western-imposed greed for meat is a part of my culture that is much worse that ritual slaughter – by virtue of animal numbers alone. Trophy hunting is another Western ‘import’ that is raping Africa and against which I have vigorously railed.

I could go on. However, if we focus on the issue of ritual slaughter – and keep out all the red herrings that obfuscate the issue – then, it is common cause surely that plunging a spear into a tied-up, living, sentient being, with an intention not to kill it immediately, is a violent act that causes terror and agony. This is unacceptable to our understanding of our Constitutional Right to Dignity. Our right to dignity presupposes our desire and our ability to behave in a dignified way. Does dignified behaviour include the purposeful infliction of pain and suffering? Our right to practise our cultural diversities does not excuse such behaviour.


Let’s establish this principle: If our Constitutional right to practise our cultural diversities comes into conflict with our constitutional right to dignity, then the former needs to give way to the latter.

Moral progress depends on us leaving behind practices that cause harm because such practices expose our sense of moral superiority for exactly what it is: a false one.

We think of ourselves as righteous while turning a blind eye to any practise that would expose us as otherwise. Why do we live under such false pretences?

We need to remember that it wasn’t that long ago that similar violent atrocities were carried out against humans and that Apartheid itself was once part of institutional South African ‘culture’ – defended on ‘traditional’ and ‘religious’ grounds.

Clearly, the sacrifice of humans is no longer acceptable as part of anyone’s culture. Why then should animal sacrifice be acceptable if human sacrifice is no longer acceptable?

While we work on understanding our inherent prejudices against any being that is not made in our own image, let us be guided by the family of one of South Africa’s greatest sons, Steve Biko. They chose to enlist the SPCA’s humane services for the ritual slaughter of an ox at the commemoration, in 1997, of the 20th Anniversary of his death (Dispatch 17/9/97). It is reasonable for us to assume that their decision was based on an understanding of Biko’s sense of compassion and humanity.

In addition, then-President Nelson Mandela said in his speech at the event: “In time, we must bestow on South Africa the greatest gift — a more humane society.”

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