22 January 2008

Notions of a white or black culture in SA are pure bollocks

Fred Khumalo at The Times: Notions of a white or black culture in SA are pure bollocks
Now let’s get to the issue of culture: black as well as white. Moving, as I do, in circles that include black and white people, I have not been able to ascertain the existence of a white or a black culture as such.

What I have been able to discern are individuals from various racial backgrounds, possibly saddled with the socialisation process from whence they come . Eugene Terre Blanche is white, but so is Nadine Gordimer. Do they have a culture that binds them? I doubt it.

Well said, Fred!

What goes to make up our culture? Our parents and extended family, our friends, our education, religion (or lack of it) and a general life experience. South Africa is, whether we like it or not, a multicultural society. I've noticed that there are some who talk as if "multiculturalism" were a bad thing, but the only way to avoid it is to go back to apartheid, and that is a failed ideology.

The theory of apartheid was based on the concept of "own affairs", and one of the goals of the apartheid education system was to inculcate "love of one's own".

The question is, what is "one's own"?

According to the apartheid theorists "one's own" was based on skin colour. You had more in common with people of the same skin colour than with those of different skin colour. The problem was, it simply isn't true, as Fred Khumalo points out. Nadine Gordimer has very little in common with Eugene Terre'blanche. And interaction with people of different cultures changes one's own culture. We interact with people from many different cultural groups, and they overlap in different ways, and we feel closer to some than to others. The more common experiences we share with people, the closer we feel to them.

Many years ago, when I went to study in Britain, I wasn't prepared for the culture shock I experienced. English was my first language. In school and while growing up I had read books published in Britain, and about British people -- novels, poems, and plays. I felt that these were part of my culture, and so it was quite a shock, when I actually got to Britain, to find that the pictures in my head when I read the books did not correspond at all to the reality. There was so much that seemed utterly alien.

After a few months in England I read a novel by Richard Hughes, A high wind in Jamaica. It was about children of English parents brought up in Jamaica, and I wrote in my diary:
But one thing clicked, and is very true to my own experience. The children are captured by pirates, and then are rescued, and eventually get to England.
The children's bewilderment lasted. London was not what they had expected, but it was even more astounding. From time to time, however, they would realise how this or that chimed in with something they had been told, though not at all with the idea the telling had conjured up. On these occasions they must have felt something as St Matthew must have felt when, after recording some trivial incident, he adds 'That it may be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet so-and-so.'
And it suddenly clicked, like a blinding flash. I know exactly how St Matthew must have felt. This afternoon, passing along on the bus a little way out of Oxford, after reading about the Jamaican vegetation, I looked out of the window and contemplated the English variety. I suddenly, for the first time since I have been in England, realised that this vegetable entity at the side of the road was a hedge! It was something I had read about in books, accepted without understanding. A hedge is a neatly trimmed row of bushes that goes round a garden, in my conception, in the image conjured up by the telling. I just could not associate it with this untidy alien thing along the side of the road -- a hedge!
And soon after that I read Laurens van der Post's book Venture to the interior, and found myself repelled by his European outlook. Even though he had been born and brought up in Africa, he thought of himself as a European, and approached Africa (in this case Malawi) as a European might. I had never been to Malawi, but I felt that van der Post's approach to it was alien. And I became aware of my Africanness. There were many cultural differences between me and my fellow-South Africans of different races, religions and cultural backgrounds, but we grew up under the same sky, and I had more in common with them than I did with any of the English people I met in my first six months in England.

I worked for London Transport, driving buses, based at Brixton Garage, where about a third of the bus crews were English, a third Irish and a third West Indian. They all spoke English, but when they talked among themselves I couldn't understand a word they said.

Thirty years later I went to Kenya to do some research for my thesis and spent a couple of weeks at the Orthodox Theological Seminary on the outskirts of Nairobi.

There were students there from many different parts of Africa, and I found the cultural interactions fascinating. The West African students gravitated to me with their complaints. They were suffering from culture shock, and I could sympathise, remembering my own experience in Britain 30 years before. I think they thought that I, coming from southern Africa, would find East African culture as alien as they did. But I didn't. I found East African culture similar in many ways to Southern Africa.

On one occasion we went to the funeral of a priest's father, and the funeral service was conducted under a tarpaulin erected outside the house, and the priest's father was buried by the cattle kraal. It seemed just like funerals I had attended in rural Zululand and I felt right at home. Though there were some differences, they were minor, and not alienating. And the feast afterwards was very similar, and also similar to a visit I had made a few months before to a Russian dacha.

On another occasion we went to a service in a rural church, which had been built by the congregation, with wattle and daub walls and a corrugated iron roof. Again, it was very similar to rural Zululand, as was the lunch afterwards, which the West African students refused to eat, very rudely, I thought. That stuck me as un-African. They lacked ubuntu. Even if the food is unfamiliar, rejecting hospitality like that is a no-no in African culture. At least that's what I thought.

Of course one of the biggest things in culture shock is food. In Kenya, the staple was ugali, boiled mealie meal, which was somewhere in between phuthu and bogobe -- the last two being different South African versions of the same thing. West African food, it appears, is entirely different.

In Zululand there was a convent of Anglican nuns, and an English sister came to join them. They followed the same rule, wore the same habits. Language was a difficulty, but the English sister could cope with that. What the English sister found most difficult to cope with was seeing fresh milk being brought into the convent, and no one being allowed to drink it until it had gone sour.

At the seminary in Nairobi they had Ugandan food twice a week, and I found that almost as difficult to cope with as the West African students did -- stewed bananas and peanut butter wasn't my idea of real food, and I think even the Kenyan students found it offputting.

On the whole I was quite surprised at how much at home I felt. But there were cultural differences. I was quite surprised that Kenyans seemed able to utter words like "Bantu" and "tribe" without embarrassment.

In South Africa the Church Unity Commission had once produced ecumenical baptism certificates, that could be used by all the denominations that participated in the CUC. Anglican clergy in Zululand refused to buy them or use them, because they had the word "Bantu" on them -- one of the CUC denominations being the Bantu Presbyterian Church, which was printed at the bottom in small type in a list of denominations that recognised the certificates.

There were some South Africans, of course, who did not share my embarrassment at the use of words like "Bantu" and "tribe", and there were some for whom "Bantu" was for a long time the epitome of political correctness. But then I didn't share their culture. They were not "my own".


Jennifer said...

A very interesting post indeed!

Yes -- it is interesting about culture shock. I think that this facet of human experience is very much misunderstood by most people who haven't experienced it.
The general view about it seems to be that if you read the right books, do the right preparation, you will not have any culture shock. But this is based on an overstimation of what can be achieved through knowledge and reason.

Steve Hayes said...


Thanks for the comment.

Of course the first time is always the hardest. After 6 months in the UK I began to feel happier about it, and after two years didn't feel quite so alienated. Since then I've visited other countries where they didn't speak English, like Thailand, Greece, Bulgaria, Russia and Albania, and some that did, like Singapore and the USA. And after the first time, it was easier to adapt to the others.

I was rather chuffed when, after a few days in Moscow, a bloke came up to me in the street and asked me for directions to the nearest Metro station, and I was able to tell him.

Anonymous said...

I like the Moscow story from your previous comment :)

But I do agree about culture shock. Also, of course, the younger you are, the easier it is to adapt. I came to the US when I was 12 (from St. Petersburg, Russia) and did not have a terribly hard time, even though I didn't speak English. I was hit pretty hard first, but it was over quicker that for most people, I think. My parents are still adapting, after 5 years.

But I do hope that the first time is the hardest because I am anticipating going to college in Switzerland in the fall, and I hope the transition will not be too difficult :)

Anonymous said...

Steve, there is a saying that goes: you can't choose your parents but you can choose your family/friedns... In your case, mine and of mant South Africans you can't choose your race but you can choose your nation. I think that your overwhelming experience and open-mindedness has allowed you to choose to identify yourself with a nation by bonding with the culture. i thing that is what we need as a nation to say that let me learn about a culture and then teach mine without imposing. Your story is a typical example that one can use to say that let learn about each other's culture before we reject it. believe it or not may people have found spiritual confort in coultures not of their own because they have learned about it and have chosen it as the right way of living for them. this shows that the politics which we are facing today could be a better ball game if we resolve our cultural differences. one of the gratest cultures that you can find within the American nation is the culture of pride. Americans have taght themselves that their country is the best and the in that way that confidence has been translated to business practice, that if it's not American then not.
The racial problems that we are facing today can be attributed to the fact that the minuite one starts to enjoy and be proud of being part of this nation, somebody comes and reminds them that "Hey, don't forget that you are inferior than me because you are xyz (racial terms)".

Steve Hayes said...

Elevation Perception,

The nice thing about the Moscow thing what not just that I knew where the station was, but that I looked enough at home in the place that the guy thought he could ask me -- that he took me for one of the locals and not just another foreign tourist.

And yes, I'm sure you'll find Sittzerland easy enough to adapt to. Once you've coped with two cultures a third is much easier. And Switzerland is multicultural, or at least multilingual.

Steve Hayes said...


One of the nice things about South Africa is that we have a big choice of cultures, which have all influenced each other to some extent.

Sometimes there is resistance, like the time a friend and I went to church on a motorbike in the middle of winter, 40 years ago. It was cold, so we wore blankets, as in Lesotho, and the respectable middle-class white suburban congregation freaked. They might not be so uptight nowadays, though. I think we've made some progress, even if we do have a long way to go still.

Anonymous said...

Growing up in monocultural Northern Ireland I had the same sense of dislocation when visiting London, and it's something I never really got used to. Even today I scurry in and out of English cities with the same bewilderment I felt when I visited Bangkok.


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