Venda cultural leaders were adamant on Sunday that they never offered the SABC’s Hlaudi Motsoeneng the gift of a wife. While the newspaper that reported the story is sticking to its version, the truth is uncertain. But everyone agrees it’s wrong to offer a woman as a gift. By GREG NICOLSON.
“Who can translate?” asked leaders from the cultural lobby group Mudzi wa Vhurereli ha Vhavenda. They thought we would have brought interpreters. The journalists looked blankly at each other. We didn’t.
Before the media briefing began, journalists were required to take off their shoes and crouch for a quick ceremony. The Mudzi members wore traditional Venda outfits and each panel member introduced themselves, with the young women prostrating on the floor. Then each journalist was required to state his or her name and employer.
In an unusual press conference, the Mudzi group flatly denied reports it offered acting SABC chief operations officer (COO) Hlaudi Motsoeneng a wife as a gift last week for visiting Thohoyandou, Limpopo, to discuss Phalaphala FM’s relocation to Polokwane.
According to a Sowetan story, which was widely reported on by other media outlets, the Venda lobby group welcomed Motsoeneng to Thohoyandou with the gift of a cow and calf before lining up girls from which the COO could pick his wife of choice. “The girls were around 10 and they paraded for him to choose. He chose the one he liked,” the newspaper quoted Mudzi executive secretary Humbelani Nemakonde. Sowetan featured a picture of Motsoeneng with his choice, 23-year-old Vanessa Mutswari.
On Sunday, Nemakonde denied he made the comments and the group said the article caused problems for both them and Mutswari. “I was not given to anybody as a present and it’s not Venda tradition,” she said on Sunday. Mutswari said the Venda king has warned about such behaviour. And, no, she didn’t exchange any contact details with Motsoeneng.
“Sowetan destroyed my marriage,” she continued. The college student, beauty queen and soccer player said she was engaged. “I’ve tried to explain it to my future husband that these allegations aren’t true.” When the reports spread, he wouldn’t listen. “I’m a strong woman […] I’m going to sit down and talk to him. The matter will come to an end. Life goes on,” Mutswari continued.
“We didn’t do that. What we gave was the cow and the calf, nothing else,” said Vho-Masindi Mulovhedzi. She said it was customary to give gifts to a visitor, but not to offer a wife. In specific ceremonies, the Vhavenda king gets to choose a wife but in such situations the woman is usually from a royal family and the marriage has already been discussed.
Four young women acted as ushers for the SABC delegation, not 10, said Mudzi leaders, and none of them were offered as gifts. The comment that there were “about 10” has caused some confusion that the age of the girls was around 10 years old, but it seems clear it was a reference to the number of women involved.
Despite knowing English, the Mudzi leaders spoke in Tshivenda, while one of the members translated. Their group is set up to lobby for the promotion of Venda language and customs.
“It is disgusting to [hear] that we as Vhavenda are giving a wife to the SABC,” continued Mulovhedzi. “It is an insult. We didn’t do it.” The group accused the Sowetan journalist of not understanding Venda culture and misrepresenting the facts. It scolded other media outlets for repeating the claims.
Sunday’s press conference ended with journalists from different media outlets being called to the front of the room to receive a copy of the original Sowetan article and a written response highlighting what they saw as inaccuracies.
Like many things related to Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the story has caused an outcry. The Commission for Gender Equality announced it would investigate the issue after complaints were laid. The Department of Women said it supported the investigation into the “gift”. “The use of women as gifts as if they were livestock is a serious regress and an insult to the gains of democracy and freedom, particularly the contribution of women,” it said in a statement.
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema even compared Motsoeneng to Nigerian terror group Boko Haram. “It cannot be that women are seen and exchanged as gifts. Essentially there is no difference between Hlaudi Motsoeneng and Boko Haram,” Malema said on Friday. “Like Boko Haram, Motsoeneng does not respect women, their choice and treats them like objects in a pursuit to satisfy narrow personal interests.” The EFF has continually said the SABC is biased in its coverage and accused Motsoeneng of serving Zuma.
In a statement on Saturday, Vhavenda King Khosikhulu TP Mphephu Ramabulana distanced himself and other leaders from the reported “gift”. “It is unheard of in our culture and completely against our traditions for a women to be treated in such a degrading manner and I therefore condemn such conduct unreservedly,” said Ramabulana. Mudzi leaders said they had since spoken to the king and he advised them to set the story straight.
Outside the room at the Garden Court Hotel where the media briefing was held on Sunday, a sign read, “SABC Press Conference 22 June 2014”. Mudzi leaders stressed that the event was organised independently, but they asked the SABC to help with inviting the media.
Daily Maverick was unable to reach Sowetan editor Mpumelelo Mkhabela on Sunday but he told City Press the paper stood by its story. Despite Mudzi’s stern denials, interestingly, the SABC has suggested that the group did offer Motsoeneng a wife. “It was offered and he thought it was ceremonial and he left it at that,” SABC spokesman Kaizer Kganyago told Cape Times last week.
Mudzi wa Vhurereli ha Vhavenda expects to meet with the Sowetan soon and wants the story to be retracted.
Despite the imbroglio over the veracity of what was reported to have happened when Hlaudi visited Thohoyandou, there’s one positive that’s come out of the issue. Everyone involved now seems to be clear: it’s wrong to offer women as gifts. DM
Photo: 23 year old Vanessa Mutswari, the woman alleged to have been given to Hlaudi Motsoeneng, sits on the floor during the press conference in Johannesburg. Photo Greg Nicolson