Nongoma, South Africa — The bull was badly outnumbered, and while its muscular body, thick black hide and rock-hard horns offered significant advantages, this was not a brawl the animal was likely to win. Forty Zulu warriors were circling about, there to kill it with their bare hands.
Penned up in the royal kraal, the bull trotted around for a while, looking nervously for an escape. Then it hesitated, and the warriors — all in their late teens or early twenties — moved in, their hands reaching for anything to grasp, the tail, the legs, those horns.
The killing of the bull is part of Ukweshwama, an annual ceremony that celebrates a new harvest. It is a day of prayer when Zulus thank their creator and their ancestors. By tradition, a new regiment of young warriors is asked to confront a bull to prove their courage, inheriting the beast’s strength as it expires. It is believed this power then transfers to the Zulu king.
Usually, the Ukweshwama is viewed by outsiders as little more than a curiosity. King Goodwill Zwelithini is largely a ceremonial figure these days, his monarchy more an emotional bond than a political reality. But this year, a South African animal rights group took up the cause of the doomed bull, assailing the slaying as unnecessarily cruel. Fissures were pried open in South African society, and the back-and-forth between the two sides became ugly.
Critics of the ritual were condemned as neocolonialists trying once again to stamp out African culture. “This is reminiscent of the arrival of European settlers on our shores who declared that our people were barbaric heathens who needed to be civilized,” wrote Zizi Kodwa, a spokesman for President Jacob Zuma, who is Zulu himself and a passionate defender of Zulu traditions.
Leaders of Animal Rights Africa had never attended the Ukweshwama, but they said they had gathered anonymous accounts from some who had. The depiction quoted in the group’s news releases was a grisly portrayal.
“For 40 minutes, dozens trampled the bellowing, groaning bull, wrenched its head around by the horns to try to break its neck, pulled its tongue out, stuffed sand in its mouth and even tried to tie its penis in a knot.”
Many people were horrified. Shouldn’t traditions be revised to fit a modern view of the world? they asked.
Animal Rights Africa persisted and took the matter to court, where Judge Nic van der Reyden was implored to stop the ritual. He said it was a difficult decision to make. But killing the bull was an important Zulu tradition, he finally agreed, and Zulus were the biggest ethnic group in the country, numbering more than 10 million. Interfering with the ceremony would be like asking Catholics to stop taking Holy Communion, he said.
The judge was further troubled by unforeseeable consequences: “If I rule that the bull should not be killed, it means that the power will not be transferred to the king,” he said, according to wire service reports. “Let’s say the king is struck by lightning after the ruling. People will say it is because I have interrupted their ritual.”
On December 4, van der Reyden dismissed the request to stop the ceremony, and the next day, with clouds hanging low above the Enyokeni Palace, Zulu men turned off their cell phones and exchanged their everyday street clothes for leopard skins and sandals. They carried clubs and shields and danced along the road leading to the sliding metal gate of the royal homestead here in the hilly north of KwaZulu-Natal province.
Once inside the kraal, a circular palisade of intertwined timber, the men continued the chanting and dancing, taking slow steps back and forth, shaking their clubs toward the ground. The king himself eventually joined this group of warriors.
Journalists were ordered away from the kraal, left to observe the killing of the bull atop plastic chairs from a distance. Spectators inside did not see much anyway. The bull was down within minutes, its body concealed behind the long limbs of its many attackers. By the account of some participants, veteran warriors had to be recruited to properly snap the animal’s neck.
The throng of men did not break up for about 20 minutes, and then the dancing and chanting began again. Several feet away, the bull, no longer the center of attention, lay motionless in the mud, its bulky head wrenched far past the limits of its natural swivel.