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South Africa: a treasure trove of diversity

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South Africa: a treasure trove of diversity

South Africa is one of the most fascinating cultural centres in the world because of the sheer range of influences that make up South African society. Once these cultures were kept apart but now, as Nelson Mandela said, they are blending together to form the rainbow nation. By Neil Ford and Anver Versi.

South Africa’s culture is largely a function of its complicated history of immigration and colonialism, which many with little knowledge of the country oversimplify as a distinction between black and white South Africans.

There is a huge mix of different black South African ethnic groups, including the Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana and Ndebele, each with their own distinct language and which have interacted over a long period of time to produce a kaleidoscopic pattern of different cuisines, dances, music, art and much more.

Most white South Africans have British or Afrikaans heritage but there are also Portuguese and German speakers as a result of immigration from other parts of Southern Africa, plus pockets of Central Europeans who arrived in the 1980s.

The country has by far the largest ethnic Indian population in Africa, who have a particularly big impact on the culture of Durban, while the descendants of indentured labourers brought to the country from modern-day Indonesia and Malaysia mainly live in the Western Cape. In addition, South Africa’s climate and job opportunities have attracted a lot of people from other parts of Africa and the rest of the world, adding to the cultural mix.

This wealth of cultural influences takes a myriad forms – from the staggering variety of dishes on offer ranging from “still-on-the-hoof-rare” steaks to stingingly hot spicy curries and everything in between; to the astonishing diversity of music from Western and Indian classical to township jazz and bhangra; from three-piece formal attire to traditional African costumes to saris and hijabs; and of course, in terms of languages, the country is a virtual Tower of Babel collection of tongues.

All the major religions of the world – Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism are very well represented here and in all their myriad denominations and sects. There are magnificent churches, mosques, temples and synagogues. It is believed that there is at least one religious festival taking place somewhere in South Africa each week.

In addition there is a treasure trove of ethnic culture and traditional belief systems. Traditional celebrations of marriages, naming, circumcision and funerals are often spectacular and always full of colour, pomp and ceremony and filled with wonderful music, dancing and feasting.

Given the malign influence of the apartheid system which continues to linger to this day and delineate between the people on racial lines, the country’s biggest challenge is how to integrate these various cultural and linguistic groups into Mandela’s rainbow nation without losing the uniqueness of a single component part.

There are a number of initiatives taking place and numerous cultural and artistic groups are working on their own integration projects but the real progress is being made unofficially as people, now free to mix and mingle, are discovering both their common strands, as well as their uniqueness and how this is enriching their lives.

The optimism of youth
Many companies organise social events to bring people of different backgrounds together but the greatest hope lies with young people. The attitudes of the past are breaking down among the “born-frees”; that is, those who were born after the transition to democracy in 1994.

Children of all racial backgrounds can be seen playing together in many school playgrounds, particularly in the primary schools, and this interaction is now filtering through into older ages. Groups of
teenage Indians, blacks and whites are becoming more common in South Africa’s ubiquitous shopping malls, visiting cinemas or in the cafes.

Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the norm among older people and the racist attitudes of the past still permeate the views of many more mature South Africans. For instance, some white
South Africans still avoid beaches where those enjoying the sun, sea and sand come from different racial backgrounds. They are the losers, still connected to their outdated psychological chains while others have broken free.

There is still a very long way to go in changing attitudes and overcoming the inequalities of the past but, as ever, hope lies with the young.

On the dark side, xenophobia towards migrants from other parts of South Africa has become more common in recent years. However, this is not a particularly South African phenomenon, as it is largely the result of the weak state of the South African economy and very high rates of unemployment and underemployment, particularly among black South Africans.

The fine arts
The mix of ethnic influences means that the country has an incredibly wide range of art, music and dance styles, many of which exhibit the fusion of the modern and traditional. Artists combine the statues, masks and vibrant colours of traditional African art with Western techniques.

Perhaps more than any other country on the continent, South Africa has produced a large number of classically trained painters and portrait artists. Many of the undoubted masterpieces draw on early colonial times and document the travails as well as achievements of the early settlers, the major wars and also, quite often, brilliantly render African subjects.

Painting and sculpture have played a crucial role in the battle against apartheid, going back to the 1940s when black painter and musician Gerard Sekoto left his country for Europe and played the piano to pay for art school. Ignored for generations, his contributions were finally recognised in 1989.

The fine arts tradition has continued in South Africa, not only in the more expensive schools and art colleges but in township and rural workshops as artists from all races and ethnic backgrounds give form to the emotions and experiences of being South African and human. Art galleries and exhibitions are still thriving.

A significant number of black painters working in their own unique styles have now become mainstream with their works selling for large sums.

Schools and private institutions such as churches also nurture classical singing – both in European as well as South African languages. The country has produced some remarkable opera singers and peerless choir groups.

South Africa also boasts a dynamic theatre scene, with more than 100 venues producing a stream of work ranging from indigenous drama to cabaret, satire and hits from the UK’s West End and the US’s Broadway. Protest theatre in the 1970s and 1980s helped pave the way for the end of apartheid and it still resonates strongly today, especially among the young.

The Grahamstown Arts Festival, which showcases South Africa’s best performing arts talent, is the largest of its kind in Africa and has inspired similar festivals in several cities such as Bloemfontein.

Despite the doomed effort to keep races apart, few, if any aspects of South Africa’s culture can be described as monocultural. Even the bead artwork that many regard as being traditional in parts of South Africa actually employs tiny glass beads that were introduced by Europeans. The music style known as kwaito combines traditional vocal techniques with Western house music; and was born in the country’s mines, where miners used to thud their wellington boots to communicate with each other.

Mall culture
If there is such a thing as a “mall culture”, then South Africa has it in spades. Even relatively small towns have surprisingly large malls and the country’s biggest cities have huge shopping centres.

A map of Johannesburg shows giant malls dotted around its outer edges, almost like fortresses around a medieval European city. Some have a particular theme. For instance, Montecasino on the northern edge of Johannesburg has been built to look like an Italian town. Cape Town has sought to integrate its shopping malls into the existing townscape. The V&A Waterfront, which is one of the city’s biggest attractions, has been built alongside the harbour, while Cape Town’s rejuvenated centre is more similar to European cities than anywhere else in South Africa. Moreover, with its colourful Bo-Kaap Cape Malay Quarter, beaches and, above all, Table Mountain, Cape Town is one of the most striking and iconic cities in Africa and indeed the world.

Non-African tourists usually come to South Africa to see wildlife, visit Cape Town and enjoy the beaches but the country has a lot more to offer. The Drakensberg Mountains are stunningly beautiful,
while Namaqualand in the Northern Cape offers a unique explosion of flowers, but perhaps what is most attractive about South Africa is this rich diversity of cultures.

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Written by Anver Versi

Anver Versi is the award-winning former editor of African Business Magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in Accra, Ghana.

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