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.