Getting to know you, Africa Borwa

Ten years of democracy in South Africa is a common theme that runs through several monographs from inside and outside South Africa published this year. 2004 marks a decade of majority rule in South Africa and is therefore symbolically significant, in many ways, for both the country and the continent. For South Africans of all races the states of internal peace and democratic governance over the past decade, as opposed to the doomsday scenarios predicted before 1994, are worth celebrating. For Africa, South Africa represents a political, economic, and cultural experiment whose success, it is hoped, will ignite and sustain an African renaissance that many of the continent’s past and present political leaders have proclaimed and hoped for since the early 1960s.

Funso Afolayan’s book, Culture and Customs of South Africa, is an important contribution to what one could call ‘knowing Africa’. As part of the series ‘Culture and Customs of Africa’ that seeks to provide a quick reference to the cultures and customs of countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, this book is an invaluable shortened contemporary biography of South Africa (other books in the series include Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya).

Culture and Customs of South Africa begins with a historical ‘Chronology of South Africa’. It is estimated that about 1-3 million years ago southern Africa was in the early Stone Age and that around AD 300, iron-using Bantu-speaking mixed farmers began to move into South Africa. The arrival of Portuguese explorers at Cape Town led by Bartholomew Dias seems to be the first recorded presence of Europeans on South African soil. However, it is the Dutch, working for the “Dutch East India Company under the command of Jan van Riebeeck”, who first settled in the Cape when they “obtained land from the Khoikhoi.”

Some of the select other significant historical moments in South Africa’s history included in this section are: the nine Xhosa-White Frontier Wars” between 1779 and 1780; the British seizure of the Cape from the Dutch in 1795; in 1838 the Zulu King, Dingane, orders the massacre of Piet Retief’s voortrekker party, Zulu army defeated by an Afrikaner commando at the Battle of Blood River; gold mining begins on the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg founded in 1886; the Anglo-Boer war 1899-1902; South African Native National Conference, the predecessor of the African National Congress (ANC) founded in 1912; in 1927 the Immorality Act prohibiting sexual relations between whites and others promulgated; 1948, the Afrikaner National Party (NP) wins elections and begins to implement the apartheid policy; in 1960 police kill 67 anti-pass demonstrators at Sharpeville; in 1966 Hendrik F. Verwored, the prime minister is stabbed to death in the House of Assembly; in 1976-77 protests against compulsory learning of Afrikaans by school children in Soweto spreads throughout the country leading to the death of nearly 600 people; Steve Biko dies, after being arrested and tortured by the police, in 1977; pass law repealed in 1986; 1989 Botha is replaced by F.W. de Klerk in 1989, who releases Mandela and other political prisoners between 1990-91 during which the government also unbans several opposition groups and political parties; led by Nelson Mandela, the ANC wins non-racial elections in 1994 after which Mandela forms a government of national unity.

These are some of the historical events in the life of South Africa that Afolayan has elected to highlight in this book. These events provide a basis for anyone interested in the political, economic, cultural, social, ethnic and racial realities in and make-up of contemporary South Africa. These events, most of which are of a political nature, remind us that a significant element in the study of South Africa is the role played by its colonial history, which is probably unlike that of any other country in Africa. South Africa is really a mosaic of people of all races and ethnicities, cultures, customs, traditions and religious beliefs and histories. The writing of its history – whether cultural, political or social – is therefore a daunting task. As Afolayan points out in the preface to the book, “South Africa is, in many ways, Africa’s oldest and newest nation”.

Here Afolayan is referring to the political moment in 1910 when the Union of South Africa was formed and direct British influence over the country ceased, although the independence achieved at the time applied more to the whites than to blacks who continued to be subject to white rule. It is inevitable, therefore, that the political has such an influence over any study that seeks to investigate or record the “culture and customs” of South Africa. For instance, the racial categories of White, Coloured, Indian and Black that were used by the apartheid regime to determine the social, economic, political and cultural statuses of individuals in South Africa subsequently influenced the form and content of the customs and cultures of those racial groups.

However, despite or even because of the segregationists policies of the apartheid system, South Africa became one of the most multi-racial and multi-cultural societies in the world. Even at the most critical and repressive moments of white rule in South Africa, the crossing of racial boundaries and the mixing of cultures happened, leading, in many cases, to very hybrid and creolised cultures and customs. It is this ‘mix of South Africa’ that makes it complex and difficult to represent in a book of about 300 pages.

Yet Afolayan manages to pack as much information as possible on several features of the country within the limited space. For instance, covering 470,000 square miles, South Africa is the most industrialised country in Africa and has taken a leading role among the industrialising countries of the global south. The latest census figures show that the country has a population of about 45 million people.

Afolayan acknowledges both the economic and political significance of the country, not only in Southern Africa but also on the rest of the continent, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. In a sense, South Africa has become a source of inspiration for economic growth, political renewal and cultural renaissance of Africa.

The country has 11 official languages. The Bantu speakers, including the Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho, among others form the largest linguistic category, which spills over into the neighbouring countries of Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Botswana. The Coloureds were originally identified as the descendants of the immigrant Malay population, the Khoisan and the Europeans in Cape Town but the term presently refers to offspring of mixed marriages, for instance between Whites and Blacks, Whites and Indians, or Indians and Blacks. Other racial and ethnic groups include descendants of Indian labourers, Asian labourers, the Chinese and recently – post 1994 – a host of people from the all over the world – mainly Eastern Europeans and Africans seeking economic opportunities and political asylum.

South Africa’s history and political economy is so complex that the 30 pages that Afolayan allocates to the two subjects do not do it justice. However, suffice to say here that Afolayan highlights some significant archeological and historical facts in this section. Pre-colonial South Africa is mainly identified with the Khoikhoi, who practised hunting and gathering of wild fruits and tubers. Whites settled in the Cape for the first time in 1652, which formed the basis of white settlement both in the Cape and the interior of the country.

Afolayan notes that the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley in 1867 and gold at the Witwatersrand in 1886 were instrumental in consolidating the interests of the British imperialists in the colony. Some other political moments in the past that subsequently shaped South Africa’s future include the activism of Robert Sobukwe and Mahatma Gandhi, the incarceration and death of Steve Biko, and the jailing of Nelson Mandela. All these individuals, in one way or the other, were opposed to the ideologies, politics and practice of white supremacy in South Africa.

In terms of religion, Afolayan notes the multiplicity of religious beliefs that include Judaism, Christianity and its many variants, Islam, Hinduism, African animism, and a host of other practices that relate to the spiritual beliefs of the different African communities. Many South African communities still practice old customs and residual traditions including male circumcision, payment of bride-price (lobola), or visits to traditional medicinemen and medicinewomen to consult ancestral spirits. Some of these practices point to the ‘transitional’ nature of the African society which, although aspiring towards modernity, still retain those cultural and religious beliefs and practices from the past that have shaped the form and structure of their communities.

South Africa’s architectural heritage is also closely related to the ethnic and racial mix in the country. Afolayan identifies the following: the Khoisan, Bantu, Cape Dutch, and the Synthetic forms that borrow from several other traditions. For cuisine and dressing, Afolayan describes the country as a “crossroad of many culinary traditions, dressing styles, and customs”. The section on ‘Gender Roles, Marriage and Family’ emphasises the African philosophy surrounding these socio-cultural institutions and practices almost to the exclusion of modern trends in a country which is one of the most liberal in the world in the way it defines gender, sex and marriage.

He notes the significance of sports such as soccer, rugby and cricket as forms of national recreation. There is no doubt about the country’s abundant output in the performing arts and cinema. Several musical genres are found across the country ranging from jazz and reggae to isicatamiya, marabi and kwela. Among world reknown South African musicians are Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and Brenda Fassie. South Africa’s theatre and cinema are quite robust, having produced plays and films that meet world quality standards.

In the field of literature South Africa has two Nobel Prize laureates, namely Nadine Gordimer (1991) and J.M. Coetzee (2003). South Africa’s media is one of the most free and vibrant on the continent. Some of its newspapers, particularly The Mail and Guardian, can aptly be described as government watchdogs, a term that cannot easily be applied elsewhere on the continent.

As a text that depends on knowledge scrapped from archeology, anthropology, history, geography, economics, literature, sociology, politics and many other disciplines, this is not a specialist’s book. It is also a book that does not pretend to offer an intensive and extensive or detailed view of South Africa’s “Culture and Customs.” Instead, it is a birds-eye view of one of the most promising places on earth for the realisation of the ideals of multi-culturalism and non-racialism. As the blurb indicates, this book “expands our knowledge of South africa beyond the headlines”. The book is also written in a very accessible style, devoid of the specialist language.

This book is a recommended reference text for the anthropology/cultural studies/history/politics class and the general reader interested in having a quick glimpse of cultures and customs found in contemporary South Africa. In a country whose history was distorted for several decades, South Africans will also find this book a worthy addition to other texts – such as the Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa – that have sought to capture a representative history of the country.

The book is divided into ten chapters, a glossary, a bibliographical essay and an index. The chapters are: 1) Land and People; 2) History and Political Economy; 3) Religion and World View; 4) Literature; 5) The Media; 6) Art and Architecture; 7) Cuisine and Traditional Dress; 8) Gender Roles, Marriage, and Family; 9) Social Customs and Lifestyle; 10) Performing Arts and Cinema. The notes at the end of each chapter provide additional information, most significantly extra reference material. The Glossary contains South African-specific words used in the book and their English translations. The Bibliographical Essay details further reading material on each of the chapters.