The textures of culture in post-apartheid South Africa
Social cohesion is a widely used phrase in the government’s goals for the country’s future. According to the National Development Plan, by 2030, South Africans will be more conscious of the things they have in common than the things that make them different. Are we looking then to a future where seemingly ubiquitous racial differences will hold less and less meaning, asks Safiyya Goga.
Studies on post-apartheid identities in South Africa seem to suggest that rather than the absence of racial differences, we are simply reproducing these differences in new ways. We do not talk about race as the basis for our differences; instead we speak of cultural differences. What is it about culture that makes it so crucial to claim, define and defend in post-apartheid South Africa?
Histories of colonisation and apartheid devalued African cultures and traditions.
Cultures are naturally different
Culture allows us to say we are different from other people without having to explain too much since cultural differences are considered obvious, natural or self-evident. We tend to think of culture as something quite fixed, as tradition, with a long history and also attached in fairly obvious ways to particular ethnic or language groups. So we have self-evident Zulu, Xhosa, Indian, Cape Malay and Afrikaans cultures, rooted in long-standing cultural practices and languages. However, culture also gets taken up in the reverse. It is precisely because culture has the effect of making something seem coherent and solid and, most importantly, legitimate in a natural way, that we see it attached to spaces and practices that are looking for ways of being legitimised and accepted in post-apartheid South Africa. For instance, the reference to so-called township culture.
Culture is also achieved through demonstrating one’s global connectedness; a deep connection not to here, but to somewhere else.
Culture is powerful
An example of the emancipatory possibility of culture might be the Khoisan Revival Movement in parts of the Cape, which harnesses the power of culture, reclaiming their language, food, clothing, music, artistic expression and so forth. The fact that cultures have to be revived (or restored or reclaimed) points to the fact that they have been marginalised. The Department of Arts and Culture wants South Africans to reclaim and restore their cultural heritage. While local language is inclusive and seems to include equally all South African languages, traditions and cultures, it is recognised that histories of colonisation and apartheid devalued African cultures and traditions. Events such as national Heritage Day reflect efforts to once again give value to these constituents.
Culture, or being cultured, is also achieved through demonstrating one’s global connectedness; a deep connection not to here, but to somewhere else. Cultures can claim to originate from, or be deeply connected to, somewhere else outside of South Africa, lending them a different kind of authenticity. White English-speaking South Africans (WESSA) may be an example of this through the claims and connections to an elsewhere (Europe). A newfound value in the claim to a Cape Malay identity among Cape Town Muslims is partly connected to a desire to originate from elsewhere (Indonesia). Indians and Indian Muslims in Durban have historically also kept connected (through travel, story-telling, food culture, clothing etc.) to an elsewhere (India), which may be seeing a post-apartheid shift to another elsewhere (the Middle East).
Cultures are not equal
The significant point is that all of these cultures are not discrete units. Rather, the various claims to culture that are being made may be seen as a kind of national conversation, where unequal participants are making claims about ‘who we are’ in relation to the claims being made by others. More attention needs to be paid to these conversations, both within and between cultures, in order to see where South Africa is headed.
Cultures often become sites of racialised struggle – who owns the culture?
Cultures are struggled over
Cultures often become sites of racialised struggle – who owns the culture? Who can speak on behalf of it? Who can propagate it and how are its boundaries policed? Who is on the inside of the culture and who remains on the outside? The struggle over Afrikaans – as both language and culture – which documentaries like Afrikaaps capture as a racial struggle, demonstrate that there is something significant at stake in claiming a language/culture as one’s own.
Similarly, the struggle over Muslim culture/identity in Durban is racialised in the sense that Indians are seen to own the religion. Indeed Islam has universalistic values, yet what Islam is, is also how it is lived and given meaning in a specific context. Cultures are struggled over from within (and questioned from without), with different voices competing for recognition as authentic representatives of the culture/identity.
The inequality of cultures is often a mark of racialised heritages in South Africa. It is not just the fact that racialised cultures have developed in post-apartheid South Africa, but crucially that these cultures are not equal. This is something that has been astutely observed by bloggers such as Sipho Hlongwane and Eusebius McKaiser, who have argued that young black people gravitate towards a white culture (whiteness). What precisely this means in different contexts in South Africa, needs to be explored empirically.
Race still in the room
When people assert a particular identity – cultural, religious, racial or any other identity – we should perhaps pay attention. Race and racial distinctions have not simply disappeared in post-apartheid South Africa. This does not mean that the whole of a culture/religion can be understood through race. But if we want to understand post-apartheid identities and cultures, we need to consider where race has gone. We are likely to find, as many studies have already shown, that race has not left the room but become entrenched in new and complex ways.
Race and racial distinctions have not simply disappeared in post-apartheid South Africa.
If South Africans are equal in a significant sense, it is in the fact that all groups and communities are equally caught up in trying to find a space of belonging in the insecurity and yet immense possibility that the post-apartheid condition offers. We need to understand more deeply what lies behind calls for an authentic Cape Malay, Indian, African, Jewish, Muslim, Christian or any other
Race still in the room When people assert a particular identity – cultural, religious, racial or any other identity – we should perhaps pay attention. Race and racial distinctions have not simply disappeared in culture or identity. The point of research into how cultures are developing, evolving, being (re)claimed, (re)stored and defended in post-apartheid South Africa is to understand how people are redefining themselves and what this means for the country’s multicultural and social cohesion projects.
Acknowledgement: Much of my conceptual thinking on culture has been shaped by Terence Turner’s (1993) paper on Anthropology and Multiculturalism: What is Anthropology That Multiculturalists Should be Mindful of it?
Author: Safiyya Goga, PhD intern, Human and Social Development programme, HSRC.