Heritage day, Braai Day or Shaka Day: Whose Heritage is it Anyway?

South Africa’s Diverse Culture Artistic and Linguistic Heritage

Introduction

South Africa, called by some people the 'Rainbow Nation', a title that captures its diversity and 11 official languages. September is since 1994 officially heritage month, when the histories and cultural practices of all its peoples are celebrated and due recognition given to the men and women who have contributed to the heritage and culture of the nation. Freedom of cultural, religious and linguistic expression is enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. South Africa is a country where creative expression flourishes and its cultural diversity are embodied in its arts and culture.

Population

The Black population of South Africa is separated into four major ethnic groups: namely, the Nguni groups which consist of Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi peoples; the Sesotho-Setswana groups, the Shangaan-Tsonga groups, and the Venda groups. The majority of the White population (about 60%) is Afrikaans speaking, and the remaining 40% are English speakers. Three million people, designated as Coloureds, have a mixed lineage, which often consists of indigenous Khoisan people.

South Africa’s Asian population is mostly Indian in origin and is largely based in kwaZulu-Natal. Largely, English although many also speak Tamil, Hindi, Telegu, Gujarati or Urdu. Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, is the most important Hindu festival, usually falling around late October and November every year. The Muslim community celebrate Eid as their major religious function. The multi-ethnic cities of Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg have large number of Germans, Portuguese, Italian and French speaking communities.

Language  

There are eleven official languages in South Africa. These are English (9.6%), Afrikaans (13.5%), Ndebele (2.1%), Sepedi/Northern Sotho (9.1%), Xhosa (16%), Venda (2.4%), Tswana (8%), Southern Sotho (7.6%), Zulu (22.7%), Swazi or SiSwati (2.5%) and Tsonga (4.5%). Much of the country’s regional media use the vernacular when possible. South Africa also recognises other non-official languages such as South African sign language, Khoe Khoe and the San. Many other languages from all over the world are spoken here too, including Portuguese, Greek, Italian, French, and Chinese.

Food

South Africa’s cultural diversity is expressed in a number of ways; one of the most famous is the different cultural influence that goes into the food that people eat. Maize meal porridge and meat, accompanied by a variety of vegetables such as cabbage, onions, beetroot, carrots, potatoes and morogo (indigenous spinach), amongst others, are food favoured by most Black South Africans. In rural communities, people gather weeds such as blackjack, purslane, pigweed, thistle or goosefoot and many others and turn them into tasty stews.

The Venda, Shangaan and Northern Sotho (Bapedi) people enjoy mashonzha, also known as Mopani worms. They are found in and around Mopani trees in the Lowveld areas of Mpumalanga and the Limpopo Provinces. They are fried, grilled or cooked, and spiced with chilli. Food such as curries, meat or vegetable is served with rice, roti or naan (home made breads) are foods favoured by Indians.

The Khoi and San people enjoy a surprisingly varied menu of edible roots, leaves, plants, berries and nuts gathered from the "veld" (field). They gather eggs, being particularly fond of ostrich eggs. They also hunt for meat such as antelope, birds and small animals. The traditional Xhosa menu is called “umngqusho”, which is made with samp (crushed dried maize kernel), beans, butter, onions, potatoes, chillies and lemons. South African’s love to braai and is very popular way of entertaining.   

Music

South African music speaks volumes about its ability to celebrate all aspects of its diverse culture. Firstly, is the multilingual national anthem, ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’. Elsewhere in South Africa, people play kwaito (African house music), jazz, hip hop, Afrikaans rock, African gospel, classic rock, pop, traditional drums, Afrikaans sakkie sakkie, and many more.

Zulu dance involves high stepping and stomping the ground in rhythm. Dancers hold weapons and shields with their hands raised high. The dancers kick over their head and fall to the ground in a “crouch” position. In Zulu dances, ankle rattles, shields, headdresses and belts are used as props and to differentiate social class and societal roles.

Xhosa traditional music places a strong emphasis on group singing and handclapping as accompaniment to dance. Drums are used occasionally, and they are not musical expression as they are for other South African ethnic groups. Other instruments used by Xhosa people are mouth harps, rattles, whistles, flutes, and stringed-instruments constructed with a bow and resonator.

The most famous dance of the Venda is the Domba, or python dance which is held annually at one of their most sacred sites, Lake Fundudzi to secure good rains for the following season. Another famous dance is a royal dance called the Tshikona, which can be considered as the Venda national dance. Traditionally, Tshikona is a male dance performed at funerals, wedding or religious ceremonies. Each dancer has a pipe which is made out of a special indigenous type of bamboo and has only one note and they blow it in at a specific time so as to build a melody with the other pipes. Drums form an important part of Venda culture and there are legends and symbols linked to them. Most sets of drums are kept in the homes of chiefs and headmen, and comprise one ngoma, one thungwa and murumbas. Drums are always played by females.  

The Shangaan–Tsonga people have developed a number of musical instruments. The fayi is a small, stubby wooden flute that produces a breathless, raspy, but haunting sound, and is often played by young boys. The xitende is a long thin bow tied on each end by a taut leather thong or wire, which runs across a gourd. The Shangaan-Tsonga people are also known for the beat of drums and horns and wide variety of musical instruments such as the mbila. Shangaan–Tsonga male dancers performed the muchongolo dance, which celebrated the role of women in society, war victories and ritual ceremonies.

The Indian dances are separated into classical dances and folk dances. These classical dances are usually spiritual and the folk dances of Indians are also spiritual and religious, and it is performed during celebrations. Like the Indian culture, Indian classical dances are equally diverse in nature. There are numerous classical dance forms in Indian culture. Each form represents the culture and ethos of a particular region or a group of people. The most popular classical dance styles of Indians are Bharata Natyam of Tamil Nadu, Kathakali and Mohiniattam of Kerala, Odissi of Orissa, Kathak of Uttar Pradesh, Kuchipudi of Andhra Pradesh and Manipuri of Manipur.

The Afrikaner community hold folk dancing events (volkspele) as well as perform their traditional music. Symphony music, ballet, opera, jazz and is enjoyed by all communities.

Traditional clothes

Traditional clothes are one of the most creative forms of expression and one where South Africans love to show their diverse culture. Traditional Zulu dress code is animal skin for men and skirts decorated with hardwood beads for women. The Indian ethnic clothes are dhoti, kurta, and salwar kameez, sari, turban and sherwani for men.

Xhosa dress includes intricately sewn designs on blankets that are worn by both men and women as shawls or capes. The other symbol that explains the Xhosa tradition is face-painting by women. For the Xhosa people, face painting allegedly improves beauty and in fact no traditional attire is complete without it. The dots and painting can be found on the face, arms and legs, depending on the style of the dress that is worn.

The Tswana dress in traditional animal skins, communicate themes of nature and imitate animals through dance, clapping and song. The women clap and sing to help the dancers reach a trance and soon the dance becomes frenetic. The Basotho people wear seshweshwe, which are colourful German-print clothes, and the men wear blankets. 


References:
• A taste of South Africa’s traditional African food. Available at:http://www.south-africa-tours-and-travel.com/traditional-african-food.html [accessed on 16 September 2014] Hattingh, M. (2013). Cultural diversity in South Africa. (Online) Available at: http://www.dreamstoreality.co.za/cultural-diversity-in-south-africa/ [accessed on 03 September 2014].
• Kwaa Prah, K. (2007). Challenges to the promotion of indigenous languages in South Africa. The Centre for the Advanced Studies of African Society: Cape Town. (Online). Available at: http://www.casas.co.za/FileAssets/NewsCast/misc/file/204_CV_Challenges%20to%20the%20Promotion%20of%20Indidegous%20Languages%20in%20Sou_.pdf [accessed on 3 September 2014].
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• Venda dance and music. (Online) available at: http://www.morningsun.co.za/venda-dance-music/ [accessed on 17 September 2014]
• Phelony. (2011). Zulu traditional dance. (online) available at: http://www.studymode.com/essays/Zulu-Traditional-Dance-640429.html [accessed on 18 September 2014]
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Last updated : 19-Sep-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 23-Sep-2014