Sunday Times E-Edition

Of tradition, polony and baloney

By Sue de Groot

● If there’s one word that is misused and abused more than almost all others, that word is “tradition”.

“Heritage” and “vernacular” might be equal offenders, but for slightly different reasons.

Heritage is a highly contentious word because so many of us can trace our roots back to so many different places and people. Choosing one country or race or language group as one’s official heritage is, I feel, somewhat divisive.

Vernacular is even worse. The traditional meaning of vernacular is “the language or dialect of a country” or of a particular group, particularly when involving slang. In South Africa, however, vernacular is used in an unconsciously insulting way to refer to any “African” language, but never English or Afrikaans. This is deeply incorrect. “Vernacular” in our case means any one of the 11 official languages plus a whole lot of different regional and other dialects. When in doubt, just don’t use it.

Getting back to tradition, I don’t hold with the tradition of special days and weeks and months that are set aside for making us think about important things. We should be aware of the ongoing need to reduce the spread of HIV all the time, not just on World Aids Day. We should fight against the abuse of women every month, not only in August. As for World Polony Day, it certainly is not the only day this pink protein plays a vital part in many a person’s diet.

Thursday is Africa Day. Perhaps it is good to hold events that remind us to celebrate our wonderful continent, but all too often the word “tradition” raises its gorgon head.

Tradition and traditional are meant to be quite simple words that describe something one has always done in a certain way or on a certain day. But a certain snide snobbery and implied criticism is often brought to bear on “traditional”. In some societies, a healer is a just a healer, but such healers are often referred to — mostly by those whose tradition is to go to healers called doctors — as “traditional healers” .I put it to you that so-called modern medicine is as much of a tradition as the methods employed by herbal healers.

Likewise, a “traditional marriage” in South Africa usually refers to a wedding where “tribal” rituals are performed, as opposed to a “white wedding” which is in the European tradition.

White weddings were originally called white weddings because the bride wore white to show off her virginity. I suspect that in these parts it has come to mean the traditional marriage practice of white people.

Either way, both are traditions, so why call the one traditional and not the other? It seems demeaning.

In another context, a “traditional marriage” can mean the union of a heterosexual or cisgender couple (a woman born female and a man born male). In this case, the use of traditional is used to set such marriages above those (nontraditional?) pairings of LGBTQI+ and other couples.

This “othering” disturbs me. Gender fluidity and every form of sexual proclivity have been around for ever. Each is its own tradition, so why confer “traditional” on only the one that is accepted by intolerant bigots?

Incidentally, my objection to the singular use of “they” and “them” has nothing to do with intolerance. It is partly because it makes no grammatical sense but mostly because I can’t bear the way “they” and “them” are used in the (traditional) plural sense in a bigoted, generalised way to describe an entire group the speaker is prejudiced against. “Oh, you know what THEY are like” or “You can’t expect THEM to understand”.

They and them are we and us. A “traditional” African aphorism says, in translation, that I am because you are. We all choose our own traditions.

Here is an example of one of my own traditions. I am supposed to file this column on a Friday but somehow always end up doing so only on a Saturday (sorry, patient production team). In keeping with tradition, I did the same this week even though yesterday was my birthday and I had firmly resolved to file the day before. Sometimes you just can’t fight tradition.

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