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A Little Introduction to the Culture of South Africa
By Brianna Duff
Maybe you know South Africa from Spain’s incredible win in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Maybe, as a nature buff, you know it for its two famous wildlife reserves, the Kruger and Kalahari Gemsbok National Parks. Or as a literature lover, you recognize the names of native Nobel Laureates Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. Maybe you’ve traveled there yourself. Or, maybe, you just identify it as a vague spot on the map.
However you know South Africa, you probably only know part of it. This amazingly diverse country, with eleven official languages and topography as wide-ranging as the people who live there, has a brightly hued culture that is as vast as the continent it resides on. Here's a bit about the culture to boost your knowledge of an intriguing country:
All the travel sites say the same thing: If you’re willing to be adventurous, there is nothing better than South African food. Traditional South African food is generally cooked over an open fire or in a three-legged pot called a potjie. Because of this cooking style, meat tends to be either stewed or grilled, depending on the season, and is usually accompanied by a starch such as miellepap (maize porridge), potatoes, or rice. Common vegetables that could also be served with the meal are beetroot, carrots, cabbage, or pumpkin.
A few traditional and popular South African dishes include:
• Tripe: Considered a treat, tripe is the rubbery lining from the stomach of cattle. It is served lightly curried with fried onions and potatoes.
• Morogo: This rural ingredient is a kind of wild spinach that is usually combined with butter-braised onions and tomato.
• Amadumbe: A very traditional sweet potato and peanut mash.
• Chakalaka: This is a spicy relish that is often served alongside the main course. It is made of grated carrots, green peppers, sliced onions, vinegar, chili, and the maker’s own secret ingredient to distinguish it from other people’s chakalaka recipes!
• Boerewors roll: This is basically the South African version of a hot dog. Boerewors is a type of sausage and it is char-grilled over an open flame, placed in a bun and covered in mustard and tomato sauce
• Bobotie: This is very like shepherd’s pie, except that the minced meat is curried and the topping is a frothy custard instead of mashed potatoes.
Traditional dress in South Africa is dependent on the group of people in the area. The Zulu people dress in recognizable bright and colorful clothes (this is what you probably think of when you think of South Africa). The women especially dress in color as it denotes their marital status. Single women wear beadwork irincu bands around their waists, ankles and elbows, as well as beaded headbands and necklaces, to designate being unmarried. The Xhosa women, on the other hand, go bare-breasted to show their comeliness to young men. Women with married sons show status by wearing beaded tobacco pouches.
The Venda people determine clothing based on unique ceremonies that require particular dress. A rainmaking ceremony, for example, has men dressing in skirts made of grasses and helmets and armbands fashioned from feather.
There is also the Voortrekker population that is Dutch in origin. Their clothing is much more familiar and is designated by the particular bonnet that women wear.
• March 21st : Human Rights Day. On this day in 1960, the police killed 69 people who were participating in a protest against the pass laws; many were shot and killed. Four days later, the government banned black political organizations and the Apartheid was more deeply enforced. This day is now celebrated as a step to ensure that all people of South Africa are aware of their basic human rights
• April 27th: Celebrates the day of first democratic election in South Africa.
• May 1st : Worker’s Day
• June 16th : Youth Day: This day remembers the young people who lost their lives in the struggle against Apartheid and Bantu Education.
• August 9th : National Women’s Day
• July 18th : Nelson Mandela Day
• September 24th: Heritage Day, where they celebrate their status as a “rainbow nation.”
• December 16th: Day of the Vow. This holiday remembers a day in 1838 when a group of Vootrekkers defeated a Zulu army at the Battle of Blood River. It focuses on overcoming conflicts of the past and encourages ideals of building a new and better nation.
The South African culture emphasizes the philosophy of ubuntu – it is the idea that all people should be treated with respect and dignity because a person becomes a person through other people.
There are also some unique words used by English-speaking South African’s that are only used in South Africa:
• Robot - Traffic Light
• Howzit? - Common greeting
• If something is going to be done fairly soon, it’ll be done “now now” and “just now” is a little later on
• Shame - “You poor thing”/ “I feel sorry for you”
• Sms - Text message
• Skinner - Gossip
• Slap chips - French fries
• Ag! - I.e. “Ag no! What did you do that for?”
• Hey - This can be used as “Excuse me?” or “Pardon me?” if you haven’t heard something right, or used at end of a sentence to emphasize its importance.
• Izit? - Really?
The folklore of South Africa is rooted deeply in the landscape. Animals are often featured in many of the traditional tales and the hierarchy of the animal kingdom is often asserted. There is also a strong supernatural element in many of the stories: animals, reeds or tress can take human form and assume human characteristics, gods can take human women as brides, and thunder can deliver messages.
Because these tales come from oral tradition, they usually feature music and song as an important plot point. Audience members usually know the refrains, and they join in with the storyteller, almost as if you joined in telling how the slipper was found in the middle of Cinderella.
Thanks to the ubuntu philosophy I mentioned above, the tales focused on values of community, placing great importance on sharing of food and resources and giving rewards to these interdependent acts of kindness.
The most important difference between South African folklore and the stories from Grimm, Anderson and Perrault that we are familiar with is that South African stories are not overdressed. They do not have grand palaces and princesses wearing jewels as the Europeans did. South African tales are those of everyday life, and many times take place in the lower states of civilization.
If you would like to read some for yourself, check out this website: http://www.worldoftales.com/South_African_folklore_tales.html