South African Culture

South African Culture

South Africa is a multiracial society and defining distinct subgroups by skin colour will only begin to get you into trouble. Those of Afrikaner and British descent won't be too happy to be confused with one another and there are several major and many minor groupings in the traditional black cultures.

The mingling and melding in South Africa's urban areas means that old cultures are fading and new synchretisms are emerging, but traditional black cultures are still strong in much of the countryside. All the traditional cultures are based on beliefs in a masculine deity, ancestral spirits and supernatural forces. Polygamy is permitted and a bride-price (where the groom's family reimburse the bride's family for the loss of their daughter) is usually paid. Cattle play an important part in many cultures, as symbols of wealth and as sacrificial animals.

The art of South Africa's indigenous populations can be one of the only ways to connect with lost cultures. Rock and cave paintings by the San (Bushmen), some of which date back 26,000 years, fall into this category. In other cases, such as the elaborate 'coded' beadwork of the Zulus, traditional art has been adapted to survive in different circumstances. Zulu is one of the strongest surviving black cultures and massed Zulu singing at Inkatha Freedom Party demonstrations is a powerful expression of this ancient culture. The Xhosa also have a strong presence; they are known as the red people because of the red-dyed clothing worn by most adults. The Ndebele are a related group, who live in the Northern Transvaal in strikingly painted houses.

The Afrikaners' distinct culture has developed in a deliberate isolation which saw them wandering around with cows and a Bible while 18th-century Europe experimented with democracy and liberalism. Today's rural communities still revolve around the conservative Dutch Reform churches, but 'Afrikaner redneck' is far from a tautology.

Aside from the Afrikaners, the majority of European South Africans are of British extraction. The British are generally more urbanised and have tended to dominate the business and financial sectors. The Afrikaners (more or less rightly) feel that they are more committed to South Africa, and have a charming term for the man with one foot in South Africa and one in Britain: soutpiel or salt dick. There is also a large and influential Jewish population and a significant Indian minority.

The British can take most of the blame for the food dished up in South Africa. Steak or boerwors sausage, overboiled veges and chips are the norm, and where the food gets more adventurous it often turns out pretty scary. Vegetarians will not have a good culinary time. African dishes are not commonly served in restaurants, although you can get a cheap rice and stew belly-filler from street stalls in most towns. Beer and brandy are the popular swills, and South Africa's excellent wines are becoming more and more popular.

Although South Africa is home to a great diversity of cultures, most were suppressed during the apartheid years when day-to-day practice of traditional and contemporary cultures was ignored, trivialised or detroyed. In a society where you could be jailed for owning a politically incorrect painting, serious art was forced underground and blandness ruled in the galleries and theatres. The most striking example of this was the bulldozing of both District Six, a vibrant multicultural area in Cape Town, and Johannesburg's Sophiatown, where internationally famous musicians learned their craft in an area once described as 'a skeleton with a permanent grin'. Groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo have managed to bring South Africans sounds to a wide western audience, both during and after apartheid.

One of the most exciting aspects of the new South Africa is that the country is in the process of reinventing itself and, with such a large proportion of the population marginalised from the economic mainstream, this is occurring without much input from professional image makers. Hopeful signs include gallery retrospectives of black artists, contemporary and traditional, and musicians from around Africa performing in major festivals. The new South Africa is being created on the streets of the townships and the cities.