Brad Cibane
Brad Cibane

Coconut-ism and death of African culture

About a week ago I read an uncomfortable piece about the unwillingness of black people to share their cultures. The author insinuates that black South Africans remain willingly enclaved in a cocoon of apartheid pain. My objections were immediate and loud. This post is an afterthought and a result of some reflection.

Culture in South Africa is a complicated subject. Not only is South Africa constituted of an eccentric buffet of identities and cultures, but those cultures often share very hostile histories. Culture, like identity, is a painful topic and it is easily misunderstood.

The pain is most vivid among blacks. For centuries black cultures were derided and, when it was possible, were outlawed. All black cultures were hailed as barbaric and black people were encouraged to “convert” to more civilised ways.

In a knee-jerk reaction, older generations of black people designated themselves as “guardians of culture” and sought to enforce culture in a religious fashion. They sought to enforce as sacred even those activities that may have been solely for fun in the past. It was considered blasphemous to temper with or to share culture.

Preservation of black culture was a stance against imperialists; it was a revolutionary stance.

In 1994 the cultural space was opened. Imaginary redlines — racial and cultural — were erased and the Constitution, the South African bible of values, recognised all South Africans as equal. A difficulty that could not be resolved through a Constitution was the problem of inferiority and superiority complexes.

Those whose cultures had been anointed by the apartheid regime continued to think of black cultures as one thinks of relics in a museum. They made no genuine effort to understand black culture. This is the superiority complex.

Most blacks, on the other hand, saw their newly-found cultural equality as nothing more than encroachment on sacred space. Equality opened them to the so-called “neo-imperialism”, allowing hegemonic stealing of their hard-preserved cultures, so they closed off their space. This is the inferiority complex.

The problem with preserving culture is that is a terrible idea, for two reasons.

First, culture — like identity — is fluid. Culture is supposed to be alive. To truly thrive, cultures must evolve and adapt. When it is possible, a culture must usurp modern trends. (Take for example the dispute about who created rock ‘n’ roll, blacks or whites?)

As it follows then, in their preserved state, many black cultures are archaic and rather unsuited for modern life. They consist of old customs that seem terribly awkward to a modern person. The way people think about love, music, dance, leisure, or art (etc) has changed considerably.

Black youths raised in 21st century urban South Africa have very little black culture to identify with. Black culture tells them to wear long skirts and head scarves, and to leave the room when adults are talking. For leisure, old black cultures tell them to sing hymns and dance half-naked on river banks. They want hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll, miniskirts, gold stockings and red skinny-jeans. So we call them coconuts!

Second, in a globalised world, it is impossible to preserve a culture. Cultural authority is illusive. Trends are many and easily accessible. Each day carries with it a new and different cultural experience from some exotic part of the world.

Any single person carries the capacity to be the cultural authority of the day, today it is Louis Vuitton, tomorrow it is Tom Ford. There is also not a single dominant source culture, today it is New York, tomorrow it is Paris or Dubai.

When I was living in France I often heard French people moan about the “erosion” of French culture by foreigners. As an Anglicised-African with very little knowledge or appreciation of French culture, I was on the wrong side of the debate. Yet, their complaints seemed petty and amusing. I often told them they had two options: to close all physical and virtual French borders, allow no outsiders into France or to take French culture to the world.

This applies equally to blacks moaning about an erosion of black culture and the proliferation of coconut-ism. A coconut is a person that looks black and lives white. The problem is there is very little black to live. For example, there is no word for “hip-hop” or “rock ‘n’ roll” in indigenous South African languages.

For blacks to truly find their cultural footing in the new South Africa, they need to accept that old cultures are just that, old! They then need to find new ways to blend black identities with new cultures and to make those cultures their own. Where it is necessary to preserve old cultural ways, blacks must be willing to adapt culture to appeal to younger generations.

The only way to preserve cultures is to stop preserving them, to let them take a life of their own.

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    • Mbonisi

      Survival of one’s cultural identity is closely intertwined with one’s contribution to modernity. People are today talking about learning Mandarin, precisely because of China’s newly found dominance in the global economy; now the second biggest economy after the US.

      British ways are now becoming history, because Britain is no longer a global or economic power. Not much inventions are coming out of that island anymore. Even in football, they are now history despite having invented the sport. The usual arrogant white west is gradually warming up to eastern cultures, values and religions for similar reasons.

      Your culture will never survive as a people as long as you dont contribute anything to human progress. It matters not how angry you can be about foreign cultural invasions; thats just the way life is!!!

    • Mr. Direct

      @Brad – I agree, culture is fluid in nature, most people tend to forget this because some cultural elements have been around for so long. It is a topic mostly forgotten by religions, who try to grasp onto teachings that are so terribly irrelevant in this day and age.

      I hope that you are your ilk find what you are looking for.

      @Mbonisi

      You are describing global influence, but cultures do not need to extend past the border of your own town in order to thrive. I believe that a large deal of effort is required to uphold traditions, to maintain lore, and to encourage new generations to subscribe. The more positive the cultural aspect is, the easier it is to maintain.

      Perhaps the globe starts speaking Mandarin, and perhaps we will all drive Japanese cars by the end of the next century, but I can tell you that the tried and tested “western” cultural elements will still be alive and well, in the west. It does not need to be accepted in Africa or the East to survive.

    • Momma Cyndi

      I am now going to say something that is going to create a lot of flak:

      In as much as apartheid was an unforgivable crime against humanity, the one good thing that it did, was to allow me to experience various cultures instead of having to read about them in dry anthropological books. We didn’t become one huge homologous mess, we kept our individual cultures. They are priceless. Yes, they probably will erode into the great global village but, for now, we have this. For all the convoluted misrepresentations that have tainted our local cultures, they are still the purest form of truth that anyone will ever see. You are probably the last generation to have anything close to an individual culture – treasure it.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Brad, the term coconut is used in the US to put down people coming from the Caribbean. In SA this term has a different meaning.

    • Morne

      Brad, I find your pieces to be incredibly thought provoking.
      I admit that I have spent too little time in getting to know traditional black cultures, I think its because I’m an urbanised city boy, and cities are modernised spaces inviting only modern expressions of culture.
      Culture always has a context. A space and time to which it belongs as it is an adaptation of people to their environment and each other. Culture is the way people get along and make it work.
      Even families have cultures that are distinct when compared to the communities within which they find themselves.
      I like reading your pieces. You have spent time reflecting before you commit your words to public opinion.
      It would be great to have more bloggers like you.

    • Mark

      I agree totally.

    • http://none Richard Becker

      Mbonisi, please name a couple of inventions that have not come out of the West recently. China uses its huge population and draconian labour laws to grow its economy, but generally steals other people’s research and inventions without compensation.

    • Shaman sans frontieres

      I’m glad of the honesty here. The acknowledgement that people have sought, for one or the other reason, to conceal ‘cultural’ issues. Of course it’s foolish – and unworkable. As the author so very rightly says, ‘culture’ is infinitely fluid. It’s not the same thing as heritage, which is mostly a strategic choice and a rhetorical choice, about past cultural capital and values, for the purpose of identity and solidarity. Culture is utterly fluid, and unavoidably so. The only way is to drop defensiveness and to share, to explore with open and credible interest, to celebrate, to analyse, and to allow the flow of change. Same thing applies in all sorts of ways to language, which as any structural thinker knows, is at the root of ‘culture’.

      If people in SA are really concerned about their respective cultures, I’d like to see a great deal more active production of interesting and mindful and analytical discussions about indigenous languages, their etymologies, idiomatic structures and world views, their metaphoric systems, and much else. There seems to be a void within the field of African language scholarship and this is a huge lack and a huge opportunity. Where are the local Levi Strauss, Roland Barthes, and so forth?

    • Murray

      @MbonisI, I agree with much of what you say, but to contend that Britain is no longer a global & economic power is to deny the facts – facts like being the world’s 6th biggest economy (2nd in Europe) and, less credibly, its role in Iraq and the UN. But yes, its power is diminishing, a sign of changed times.
      However, on Brad’s excellent piece, culture is indeed fluid and should not be preserved in a notional embalming fluid. But what should be protected and promoted are the traditions of different cultures; the traditions that will allow a culture to live and to develop and grow.

    • Nimue

      Shaman: Beautiful comment and – for me – spot on. However, all of the aspects of culture you have identified that need to be addressed are derived from a Euro-centric paradigm: highly analytical, subject to interrogation and scrutiny for coherence, aimed at both defining and looking beyond the limits of any one culture to the entire context of human culture. Where is the African Levi-Strauss or Barthe? Many Africans believe that to be African is to hold no values that apply to non-African cultures. But, if Africans want a continent-wide culture, a common context is needed. Now that colonialism is gone, so is a common context. Context lends meaning and, without it, there may be societies (voluntary associations) but not cultures. That is real question: what kind of society do Africans want in the 21st century? A law-based society with accountabiliity and penalties for unlawfulness or a continuation of post-colonial anarchy and destruction? Or is there an as yet an undefined African Paradigm that is nature-centric and human-centric simulatneously? Just wondering…

    • Kgositsile Mokgosi

      All about being afraid of yourself or rather being disgraced by yourself. Culture is shared behavioural traits that evolve in a community staying in a common space. It is defined by the discipline. moral codes, manner of dressing (mostly influenced and in reaction to weather conditions prevailing in the environment), religion, food, art as well games people play. All peoples disgraced by their cultures have evolved as second class citizens of the world. Those that have marketed their culture have conquered the world. Circumcision is now regarded as an essential preventative mechanism for HIV/AIDS. It is part of African culture. Is the method used in the 1100’s African culture or is the practice the culture? Initiation included teaching manhood and all the necessary life skills. Is this worth discarding? Are we talking about the processes of old in enacting African culture or African culture. Yes culture evolves. Hence you will find urban African culture that evolved as they interacted in townships. When Africans lived on their traditional food they did not have cholesterol and all the “modern” diseases therefore if they preserved their food and the way they produce it many diseases could be prevented. Africans lacked only 3 things, recording, reviewing and researching. If they had adopted those from the colonialist they would have been able to make capital out of their culture. Miriam Makeba went around the world and exposed African culture which was embraced by the world.

    • A Taylor

      China must be one of the most fluid of cultures and it has come full circle. About 600 years ago it was a world leader in technology and culture – paper, porcelain, gunpowder, air recon., civil service and a vast ocean-going fleet. It all reached the west and was taken up and developed. Now we have given back and China has picked up the torch again. But the world is now very small and fast.

    • Alois

      Maybe Brad should’ve spent some time in Japan and Korea. In both countries he would’ve noticed a striking accomplishment. Both came into modernity with their cultural identities intact. There is only one country in Europe in which three cultures enjoy equality and that’s in Switzerland, where French, German, and Romansh live side by side in harmony. And despite the many languages spoken in Israel, that country defines itself as a Jewish state. So it must be wonderful to be either Korean or Japanese, at least, wherein all peoples look like one another and share similar cultural outlook.

    • nguni

      @ Richard Becker
      Mbonisi specifically mentioned Britain and not ‘the West’ when he mused on the dearth of new inventions. How Anglophile is that?! They are becoming bit players in the bigger picture. – Even within the EU from which they will hopefully soon (politically at least) separate.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Alois, you know very little about Korea and Japan. The Japanese hate the Koreans and at one time enslaved them. Koreans aren’t accepted in the Japanese society and were segregated prior to WW2.

    • Conrad

      Good piece. some Afrikaners (and a good few other purveyors of rigid categories of being) could take some advice from you. Identity becomes a problem the moment it is essentialised. However, there is also value to be found in the past. One can ‘modernise’ without junking one’s heritage altogether.

    • Olhabemgente

      Coconut, I like that, I think they are called Oreos out in the Caribbean (must be the American influence).But well, where do I sign up for my membership card? I am a city boy, whose family has been in Nairobi longer than Nairobi (I think my great gramps was ‘discovered’ or sm). Now, if we were never discovered, I would have spent my adolescence herding goats, and my whole life would be bookless. Now, I hate the smell of goats (goat meat, goat leather….goat milk’s ok tho) and I cannot imagine not reading so I’m kinda biased against my own culture, kinda shamefacedly grateful to europe. ANd just to be clear, since my own tribe does that deplorable circumcision ritual, better keep the foreskin and use a condom. Circumcision kills more sensitivity for less protection. Consider me an ‘intactivist’. I’m using tape and silicone rings to grow mine back.

      Second, those reactionary elders you mention are our collective albatross. Most africans don’t have an interesting native cuisine, textiles, LITERATURE etc so they can’t compete with europe’s cultural edifice. I don’t buy into the ‘black and proud’ feel good stuff. My ancestors were to busy worshipping THEIR ancestors to bequeath me something intricate and to be proud of. Honestly, I see all these people living ‘traditionally’, and it’s just a bunch of dirt and flies. The happiest children are born in the Netherlands, (sometimes it’s Denmark, or generally the West Baltic/North Sea region)

    • Olhabemgente

      Ctd from above:

      I would rather be born in any social position in any country between Sweden and Spain than be the King of Africa (and rule over this squabbling rabble?).The arabs and euros conquered this place end to end, and you wanna tell me that our traditions aren’t several lengths of bullshit laid end to end? What do we offer the world? Most non-African cultures could get like African cultures by a process of simple elimination of anything not necessary for subsistence.

      Now, in saying that, I acknowledge that West Africa had some pretty cool non-Islamic, post -Egyptian indigenous cultures, but my EA could float off into space with no consequence. These cultures are just a duty we are born into, and yet birth is an accident, and Africa’s birth rate has GOT to be a mistake. The whole world looks at us askance for our froggy-sprogging. On many levels, I am fine with questioning my ancestors’ judgement, reflected in their choices and bequests to us. So do people help culture survive, or does culture help people survive? In the former my heritage is a burden, in the latter my heritage is redundant, insufficient or irrelevant to my thriving today.

      Should I feel bad? I don’t venerate people cuz they managed to die before me. I am glad that the past century has eroded that cultural suffocation, allowed my people to be individuals, leave their natal areas, eat sliced bread etc. It’s not much, but I don’t ask for much.I mean, African history is rather pathetic,…