South Africa Culture and People

It may be argued that there is no “single” culture in South Africa because of its ethnic diversity. Today, the diversity in foods from many cultures is enjoyed by all and especially marketed to tourists who wish to sample the large variety of South African cuisine. In addition to food, music and dance feature prominently. South African cuisine is heavily meat-based and has spawned the distinctively South African social gathering known as a braai, or barbecue. South Africa has also developed into a major wine producer, with some of the best vineyards lying in valleys around Stellenbosch, Franschoek, Paarl and Barrydale.

The country’s black majority still has a substantial number of rural inhabitants who lead largely impoverished lives. It is among these people, however, that cultural traditions survive most strongly; as blacks have become increasingly urbanised and westernised, aspects of traditional culture have declined. Urban blacks usually speak English or Afrikaans in addition to their native tongue. There are smaller but still significant groups of speakers of Khoisan languages which are not included in the eleven official languages, but are one of the eight other officially recognised languages. There are small groups of speakers of endangered languages, most of which are from the Khoi-San family, that receive no official status; however, some groups within South Africa are attempting to promote their use and revival.

The middle class lifestyle, predominantly of the white minority but with growing numbers of black, Coloured and Indian people, is similar in many respects to that of people found in Western Europe, North America and Australasia. Members of the middle class often study and work abroad for greater exposure to the world’s markets.

Asians, predominantly of Indian origin, preserve their own cultural heritage, languages and religious beliefs, being either Christian, Hindu or Sunni Muslim and speaking English, with Indian languages like Hindi, Telugu, Tamil or Gujarati being spoken less frequently. Most Indians live lifestyles similar to that of whites. The first Indians arrived on the famous Truro ship as indentured labourers in Natal to work the Sugar Cane Fields. There is a much smaller Chinese community in South Africa, although its numbers have increased due to immigration from Republic of China (Taiwan).

South Africa has also had a large influence in the Scouting movement, with many Scouting traditions and ceremonies coming from the experiences of Robert Baden-Powell (the founder of Scouting) during his time in South Africa as a military officer in the 1890s. The South African Scout Association was one of the first youth organisations to open its doors to youth and adults of all races in South Africa. This happened on 2 July 1977 at a conference known as Quo Vadis.

Arts & Crafts

South Africa has a multiplicity of races and cultures. In addition, the recent political history has been divisive of societies across the sub-continent. It is inevitable that this socio-political maelstrom has produced a disparate variety of artforms. Very broadly speaking the art of South Africa can be seen, in terms of rough division into categories, as falling into a two by two matrix: traditional or modern, ‘black’ or ‘other.’

African traditional tribal art typically has a range of recognisable forms within which the artisans work and which allows recognition of their tribal origin. A few examples include: the wall decorations of the northern Ndebele of South Africa (though some would argue these to be modern), the beaded aprons worn by Zulu and Xhosa girls (and other tribes) before marriage, the patterns on the Dhlo-dhlo headband, Sotho blanket designs and various other fairly rigid genres showing typical tribal influences.

On the other hand, the apartheid policies of the 20th century forced mass dislocation of peoples into rural ‘bantustans’ and urban areas or ‘townships’. The mining culture in particular produced characteristic decorated travel trunks, decorated transistor radios, blankets with urban motifs, and the like. Art of this era represents a ‘modern’ black art form less easily recognised as belonging to a particular tribe. Carvings and paintings also recorded various urban difficulties, lifestyles and objects: queues, busing, drunkenness, urban poverty, vehicles, the ‘dompas,’ police activity, etc.

‘Other’ art in South Africa, both modern and traditional, has been essentially by white artists, though the Indian and the ‘Cape Malay’ or ‘Coloured’ traditions have certain recognisable clothing and musical art forms. Again, as with black art, the white art has tended to fall into: art based on traditional European/’white tribal’ forms, that is, two-dimensional oil painting in the European realist mold (usually urban artists) and the folk art or rural art of the Boers, and secondly: modern art, (1910 onwards) which itself can be divided into two groupings: ‘apolitical,’ usually realist or influenced by European and American Modern movements; and distinctly local ‘political’ art produced through the apartheid years.

This ‘political’ art of the apartheid era often originated in the universities and large cities and was often ephemeral in the sense of being graffiti, protest cartoons or similar works published in university publications. These were often banned, and anyway not intended for deliberate preservation. Many white artists also exhibited works critical of the white apartheid regime. Several exhibitions were closed by government order for their political or ‘obscene’ content, or items within the exhibitions were ordered to be removed from display.

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