Animal rights and national identities

Yesterday, as almost everyone in Spain must know, was admitted by the Catalan Parliament, the Popular Legislative Initiative to ban bullfighting in this region. A decision that has generated many minutes of talk-radio, and many lines in the opinion columns in newspapers. It is however much less known (I guess) that a couple of weeks ago South Africa was embroiled in a similar controversy about animal rights, in which it was also the bull that was in the centre of controversy. Last November, the association Animal Rights Africa (ARA), filed a complaint against the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, and against the South African government to try to stop the annual ritual of Ukeshwama. In this ritual, which takes place every year, a bull is slaughtered by tens of young Zulus, who killed it with their bare hands. The judge however ruled that there were no grounds for suspending the ritual and therefore it could go on , and so the Ukeshwama finally took last Saturday, 5th of December.
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Poster announcing a bullfight in the Plaza Monumental de Barcelona (El Pais)

Examining these two controversies may be interesting in order to explore the similarities between them, and how these illuminate how complicated – or rather impossible – it is to limit these discussions to the subject of animal rights. So much so, that although both the initiative to end bullfighting in Catalonia and that which sought to the end the Ukeshwama cited as their main motive the need to end the suffering and cruelty to animals, this aspect has been almost buried by other considerations. Thus, in both cases, arguments have emerged that present these rituals – and the need for continuity – as an important aspect of the culture and identity of peoples/nations. And once these concepts and arguments enter the debate, it is extremely easy to move towards the total politicization of the issue, both by civil society, and by the political class. In South Africa, for example, the fact that the representative of ARA is a white man and that the aim of the lawsuit was to stop a Zulu ritual has led commentators like Sipho Hlongwane , who stands against the Ukeshwama (and bullfights too) because he considers it a brutal ceremony, to nevertheless defend the continuity of the ritual as an aspect of the multicultural South African society and criticize the lawsuit initiated by “sandal-wearers and grass eaters”. The Ukeshwama will cease only when the Zulu people decide it (which in turn leads to discussion of how, what the Zulu people want translates to what their King wants).
In Catalonia, on the other hand, it also seems clear that some of the defenders of the ban see it as another way to distinguish Catalonia from Spain – and Spanish rituals. But also, supporters of the continuation of bullfights in Catalonia, argue that the ban is yet another example of the intolerance of Catalan nationalism.

The politicization of the debate leads us to one final question, that of forms – an important part of the political debate surrounding these controversies. Thus, in South Africa it has been argued the the court intervention is a mistake, and something that contributes to the politicization of the issue. Yet, this intervention was necessary, apparently, given the refusal of the Zulu royal house to talk with the ARA, regarding the suspension or modification of the celebration. Similarly, some advocates of the continuation of bullfighting in Catalonia, argue it is the decision to ban bullfights that they oppose, because it does not respect the will of the Catalan population who may want to assist to these festivals.

And in the forms is also where, in my opinion, lies the greatest difference between the two controversies. In South Africa, the ARA requested the court to suspend the practice – a purely judicial decision – and this led the judge to interpret – using as reference the existing legislation – that there were no grounds to grant this suspension. In the case of Catalonia it is a popular initiative, supported by 180.000 signatures, which has “forced” parliament to decide on this question. An uncomfortable topic for some political parties – both CiU and the PSC (the two major parties) gave a free vote to its members and the vote was secret. This is therefore a political debate that responds to the demand of part of the population, and seeks the determination of the political parties to create a new law – something that it is still uncertain, as parliament has only agreed to discuss the proposition. Two controversies then which have the bull in a central role, and show how difficult it is to limit – in any country – such debates only to the suffering of animals and their rights, without involving political identity or issues. For better or for worse, humans remain the only ones who can talk and express their opinion, and those who remain therefore at the heart of the debate.
Animal rights and national identities

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