Belief systems grow out of our interactions with one another and with the environment in which we live. Culture is the expression of a belief system formalised in the conventions we create for communal living i.e. our modes of work, trade, knowledge, science, technology, transport, language, arts, morals, laws and relationships.

Conventions are customary behaviours, regular routines into which we channel our actions – ritual conduct that creates a sense of stability and security; that gives concreteness to existence. In Milan Kundera’s terms cultural conventions are metaphors (in Hinduism, maya – illusion) that mask the uncertainty of existence. As each group’s culture grows out of a different environment, each one is unique. Cultures, however, arise out of common human needs so there are basic similarities between them.

Traditional belief systems and conventions demonstrate an intimate dependency on nature. Nature’s vicissitudes led to beliefs in benign spirits (rain gods etc.) that helped people prosper; and malevolent spirits (demons, witches, etc.) that thwarted their development. All aspects of the environment were endowed with spirits – the land that sustained them, animals, birds, insects, trees, plants and sky. Traditional arts: poetry, music, dancing, singing, drawing, painting, pottery, sculpture etc. expressed and reinforced beliefs about relationships to nature, to one another and to spirits and were important aspects of socialization.

We tend to think of traditional conventions as our culture; but they are not. Our beliefs and behaviours change with changing environments so our culture is our present way of life. Traditions represent a past way of life. But we cling to them because they have been handed down as authentic, have become fixed practices and their fixity gives us a sense of security.

But culture is not static; it is constantly evolving. It changes with the development of technology and the dictates of power. As technology helps to control the environment, it changes our relationships with nature, with one another, and provides new ways of doing things.

When Shaka introduced new technology in the assegai, a short, stabbing spear, it changed the traditional practice of warfare and gave him power to amalgamate neighbouring tribes and control their ways of life. In the nineteenth century, machine technology gave rise to free enterprise and capitalism and changed the way in which people worked and lived. It also made possible the colonization of Africa and that changed the cultures of the colonized.

In 1652, when the Dutch East India Company, set up a refuelling station at the Cape, there were small separate African kingdoms, states and villages all over the country with cultures closely derived from nature. The Khoi-Khoi were the first people with whom the Dutch came into contact. The Dutch, with a culture in which advanced technology had given them control of nature and ways of living that were more institutionalized, regarded the Khoi-Khoi as primitive and therefore exploitable. As the Dutch were mainly involved in barter, they probably did not have a profound effect on the Khoi-Khoi way of life.

When some of the Dutch became settlers and took up farming, they came to regard South Africa as their home and adapted their traditions to their new country. They adopted the designation “Afrikaner” and saw themselves as a local people with a right to the land. French Huguenots and Germans, who came to settle among them, were integrated into their community. All these European settlers brought new ways of living to the country. They set up farming estates and employed slaves to work on their farms. Slaves from the East Indies added to the diversity of the culture developing at the Cape. But the culture of the settlers was dominant; their farming and trading methods and their technology was changing the environment and giving them power over all. Everyone spoke Dutch and slaves and indigenous people learned to fit into Dutch ways.

Language, like technology, is a powerful transmitter of culture. The norms and values of the society in which it originates, are embedded in its vocabulary. The adoption of a language, therefore, indicates the adoption of the culture from which it arises and to which it has given form. So learning a new language leads to changes in traditional beliefs. Think of how attitudes to lobola, the African dowry system, are changing. In the old tradition it was a way of ensuring harmony between families, then in a capitalist society it became a commercial matter and the value of a bride was assessed according to educational qualifications, and now, in a culture of human rights, people question whether lobola reduces a woman to a commodity.

In the late eighteenth century, when the British took control of the Cape to secure their trade route to the East, they clashed with the Dutch over slavery. Wilberforce was a powerful voice in England advocating abolition. The Dutch resented the intrusion of the British into a way of life in what had become their homeland. When the British abolished slavery at the Cape, it was the last straw for many. To escape British control, they trekked into the interior to build new lives. Their experiences of hardship on the trek – hardships that they overcame in their determination to survive and flourish – led to a new culture of adventure, courage, fortitude, dour independence and insularity.

When the British took control of the country, indigenous cultures were incorporated into a new way of life. Christian missionaries came to convert African people; schools were opened and education inducted them into British culture. Settlements of English people in the Eastern Cape and in Natal, helped to reinforce British norms and values.

When the British brought in Indian and Chinese indentured labour they added more cultural diversity to the country. These groups were accommodated in separate ghettos and the foundations were laid for an overriding culture of segregation.

When diamonds and gold were discovered, South Africa was thrust into the machine age and a culture of free enterprise. That meant development as well as exploitation of the natural resources and the indigenous people. Cecil Rhodes, who became a mining magnate, and a Minister in the Cape Parliament, wrote:

  • I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives. (Confessions of Faith,

This assumption of white superiority became the dominant culture of South Africa. White superiority, which derived from domination, exploitation and materialism, became a taken for granted notion and its concomitant, black inferiority, derived from political and economic disempowerment, was also taken for granted. We lived in a culture of varying perceptions of racial superiority and inferiority. To assert their human dignity, black people began to adopt aspects of the dominant culture.

People like Rhodes, Barney Barnato and others, had the technology, finances and know-how to exploit the resources of the country. And under the British, South Africa acquired the institutional structures and infrastructures of industrial capitalism and urbanization. African people, having lost their land, were drawn to the cities to find work. Many became mineworkers, living in mining compounds, away from their homes, families and traditional ways of life. Others found work in the urban areas. When they abandoned their rural families and established new ones in urban informal settlements, they cut themselves off from traditional roots and the social responsibilities inherent in traditional belief systems. Their traditional cultures became sub-cultures.

The new economy had changed their way of life dramatically. They no longer had land and independence. In their relationships with their employers, they developed a culture of submission, resentment and anger at the same time as they learned to speak English and/or Afrikaans and adapt to European ways. They gave vent to their resentment in their townships, and township culture became a precarious mixture of escapism and violence. Loss of the traditional conventions that had sustained them, had hurled them into the debilitating consciousness of the uncertainty of existence.

Indians adapted their traditions to their new environments; they also learned to speak English and/or Afrikaans and began to adopt European ways. Being segregated into little shantytowns helped them to retain their traditional languages, their religious books and objects, their dress and food. Living as aliens, separated and different, never regarded as integral to the society, they developed a culture of insularity – protection against an uncertain existence.

Coloured people, living in their townships, created a way of life based primarily on European traditions, and struggled with questions of identity and human dignity in their quest for metaphors that would ground them in certainty.

In 1910, the country became a national state ruled by an Afrikaner government under British jurisdiction. Black cultural groups were now brought under a centralized administration that would determine where and how they lived. They were subject to British imperialism as well as a growing Afrikaner nationalism which was building a democracy for white people. Contradictory beliefs of Afrikaners and British with regard to Black people weakened their hegemony and helped to foster Black resistance to European control.

Capitalist institutions had turned the majority of African men into a poorly paid labour force. African women had to find the means to help support their families. Some became domestic workers in white homes; others began informal businesses as hawkers and vendors. Some worked in factories. These were coping mechanisms under which there was deep-seated resentment which exploded from time to time in defiance and protest.

The provision of education, based on the British model, assisted in the acculturation of all people living in South Africa. Primary and secondary education was free but not compulsory for Blacks; so there were few schools. Indians and Africans built additional schools that were subsidized by the government. Those who could, attended school, some went on to universities and entered professions. Through their studies, they were exposed to: Western philosophy and revolutionary ideologies, such as Marxism; the writings of African scholars in the Negritude Movement; and to African-American scholars, such as W.E.B du Bois.

These ideologies and independence movements inspired them, helped them to structure their dis-content and led to the development of a revolutionary cadre.

For African people it was the lack of opportunity that led to dissatisfaction with their circumstances; for Coloureds and Indians it was the restriction of opportunity that frustrated them.

Indian culture was a culture of resistance from the onset. The independent merchant class that followed the indentured labourers into South Africa and set up businesses, did not hesitate to take legal action against local governments that tried to restrict their enterprises.. These merchants brought Mahatma Gandhi to South Africa to fight their legal battles. Gandhi had studied law in London, and in South Africa was introduced to the writings of Leo Tolstoy by Herman Kallenbach. He developed a philosophy that reflected a fusion of Indian and European thought. In creating political organisations [the Natal Indian Congress, the Transvaal British Indian Association, etc], and establishing the newspaper, Indian Opinion, Gandhi gave form to the merchants’ resistance.

In 1906, he devised the strategy of mass non-violent resistance (Satyagraha), which combined Tolstoy’s humanism with Hindu humanism. Satyagraha was his legacy to South Africa and after he returned to India, Congress leaders continued the fight against laws curtailing Indian expansion and development. Their struggle led eventually to the Passive Resistance Campaign of 1946 -7.

The campaign did not achieve its objectives but it led to an awareness that brought the separate resistance movements of Africans, Coloureds and Indians together in a pact against segregation and authoritarian rule. The need for unity eventually generated the term “Black” that included African, Coloured and Indian. The repudiation of race as a basis for discrimination led to the formation of a united political movement that included liberal whites. This unity, posing as it did, the greatest threat to white domination, led to the rigid structuring of segregation under apartheid.

Apartheid Culture

World War II weakened British influence in South Africa and Afrikaner Nationalism came into its own. An apartheid government was set up in 1948 that gave statutory legitimacy to segregation: the Group Areas Act, Bantu Education Act, Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, etc. and validated the culture of racial contempt, suspicion, distrust, fear, derogatory stereotyping and discrimination. Even those who resisted it were forced to operate within it.

Apartheid was focussed on the development of white people – Afrikaners in particular. An affirmative action programme for Afrikaners was put in place, and Blacks had to put up with the arrogance and often incompetence of Afrikaner civil servants.

Under apartheid, South Africa continued to adapt to the industrial-capitalist culture that was sweeping the world. The establishment of institutions and infra-structures of industrial-capitalist democracy, begun under colonialism, continued under apartheid. And South Africa became part of the modern capitalist world. Race and class were conflated to reflect the hierarchical social structuring of capitalism that divides people into rich and poor. These are the foundations on which the non-racial democratic governance of 1994 has been built.

Between 1948 and 1960, Black resistance remained within the culture of passive resistance, which is based on a belief in the humanity of the oppressor. After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, Nelson Mandela rejected passive resistance and Umkonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, was established. Sharpeville had given rise to a new revolutionary determination to overthrow apartheid by violent means if necessary. In response, the government became even more despotic; it hunted down revolutionary leaders and imprisoned them.

Activists lived under surveillance, threats of banning, house arrest and imminent imprisonment; they were being tortured and murdered in prison, assassinated at their homes and in out of the way places. Those not already imprisoned were leaving the country to join training camps to continue resistance from neighbouring countries and abroad. Without leaders at home, resistance appeared to have been stamped out and black people lived in a culture of fear, suspicion, submission, collusion and violence.

Then came Steve Biko. Inspired by African-American activism, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, etc., Biko established the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa. The BCM rekindled the revolutionary spirit of the masses that led to the Soweto Uprising of 1976, which in turn led to increased state repression as well as resolute revolutionary resistance. Underground movements developed and Umkonto we Sizwe and other militia groups became an invisible presence within the country. Ordinary people living in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation escaped into traditional cultural practices to evade the stress and horrific reality of their circumstances.

South African society was divided into two major camps: people planning revolution and the overthrow of apartheid on the one hand; on the other, the Nationalist Government, intent on creating an exclusively white South Africa with its policy of separate development.

Between these camps, a subculture of collusion had developed amongst Blacks to cope with the austerity of a subjugated existence. It gave rise to a class of collaborators willing to cooperate with government. The Nationalist Government saw in them the means to further its plans for separate development. Collaborators could be used to give legitimacy to government policy: first in the Homelands System to segregate African people –the major task – and later the Tricameral Parliament to segregate the minority groups of Coloureds and Indians.

Under the Homelands System, Africans were denied South African citizenship. Every African was classified according to her ethnicity and became an alien in the country. She had no rights in South Africa because she had been declared a citizen of a Self-governing State or a Homeland.

This citizenship was based solely on ethnicity. For example, someone of Venda origin, born and brought up in Pretoria where she had lived all her life, was arbitrarily declared a citizen of the Self-governing State of Venda. She was no longer a citizen of South Africa even though she had never lived in the Self-Governing State of Venda and had never even visited it. It made no difference where she lived, she had no rights except in Venda.

So it was for all African people; they had citizenship only in Homelands and Self-governing States; outside of Homelands and Self-Governing States, they were aliens and had to carry passports. Only white people had citizenship in the country they called the Republic of South Africa. With Homelands and Self-governing States, the Government claimed to be reviving and supporting ethnic self-government and traditions. It was proud of its separate development policy.

Once the government had dealt with the African people, it turned its attention to the two small minorities, Coloureds and Indians. Earlier governments had tried to repatriate Indians and had failed. Coloureds, of course, were indigenous to the country. The Government was stuck with these groups. So it introduced the Tri-Cameral System of government. Tri-Cameral – three separate houses of parliament: one real, the House of Assembly – the White parliament, and two facades, the House of Delegates for Indians and the House of Representatives for Coloureds. African people were not part of the Tricameral Parliament; from the Government point of view they were not citizens of South Africa; furthermore they had already been “adequately” provided for in their own homelands with their own governments.

Collaborators, recognized by the government as leaders of the Coloured and Indian communities, were “democratically” [without majority consent of their communities] elected to these new separate parliaments. These new MPs controlled only minor matters pertaining to their own separate communities. In the minds of the Nationalists, who were fully aware of the facades that they were creating, the Tri-Cameral Parliament would demonstrate to the world that all Blacks now had independence and the right to rule themselves. But all the so-called leaders in the Tricameral System and in the Homelands and Self-governing States, were under the control of the apartheid government and they administered the laws of apartheid.

And we all lived together in a patently make-believe culture of happy separate development. In reality our culture, was a culture of represssion, hypocrisy, moral instability, subversion and above all violence. We became conditioned to all forms of violence and violence still characterizes our culture today.

The Tricameral System was the last straw for activists who regarded it as a declaration of war. And from the early 1980s, we were in a do-or-die culture of extreme violence. It was a time of defiance, protest marches, bombings, detentions, bannings, house arrests, roadblocks, searches, torture, murder, states of emergency, panic and fear. It was a time of marauding police terror and brutality that brought “hippos” (police assault vehicles) and tear gas to the many activist funerals in the African townships; funerals were the only rallying points left to keep the spirit of resistance high. The funeral became the symbol of the times.  

It was also a time of “necklacing” – brutal executions of “impimpis” (those suspected of collaborating with the police and government).

This reign of terror was interrupted briefly by the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990; then continued during the period of negotiations between the ANC and the Nationalist Government at CODESA[1]. And the period of transition to democracy was a period of incoherent violence, especially in the Homelands. The AWB (Afrikaner Resistance Movement), the militia group of Afrikaners on the far right, came to the fore, police terror peaked, there were mass detentions. Youth in the Homelands went wild, marching and destroying, demanding their rights and persecuting women accused of being witches.

The negotiations at CODESA, were jeopardized by the Afrikaner far right’s assassination of Chris Hani. The murder would have plunged the country into civil war but Nelson Mandela’s statesmanship, vision, strength and uncompromising demand for equity, kept the process on track and a new state based on democratic principles was created.

In 1994, South Africa held non-racial elections and the rights of all people were recognised. Our way of life changed again. We were all citizens of the country and that meant another major cultural shift – into a new psychological environment. All people of all colours became one nation living under the same laws and regulations. We were all equal before the law.

New lifestyles have been developing since then. At the same time, old cultural traditions, suppressed under colonialism and apartheid are being revived.

The reach for the traditional is a reach for human dignity. But traditional practices reflect the cultures of past environments, not present day realities. So they are not part of the mainstream and do not impact in a significant way on our public lives. They have become forms of entertainment that add colour and variety to public gatherings. At political events they are expressions of ethnic group solidarity. Their essential meanings are relegated to the private sphere.

The culture that we formally adopted in 1994 was that of liberal democracy – a culture beyond our experience. So we still live double lives; in the public domain we profess liberal democratic values; in private many are ruled by the norms and values of their traditions – the comforting fixed practices of authoritarianism. In public, communication is in English or Afrikaans, the official languages of colonialism and apartheid that remain as lingua franca. In our homes we speak a variety of African, European and Indian languages. But the general adoption of English as the language of communication weakens the hold of traditional laguages and cultural traditions.

Through the adoption of a universal language and western technology, we have joined in the global endorsement of democratic norms and values. But our socialization into apartheid still bedevils us. We still perceive and are still perceived in terms of stereotypes. To overcome the stigmas of the past, we are impelled to assert our dignity as human beings; we do so through the pursuit of power, materialism and wealth.

So we have fallen into a culture of corruption, which is as much a form of violence as apartheid was. So our conditioning in violence continues. And rape – in all its manifestations from the physical to all forms of exploitation and fraud – has become the essence of our new culture. Institutions of society, in which we formerly invested complete trust, are now in the business of defrauding us; our banks, for instance, and elected members of government. Perhaps such institutions have never been trustworthy, but with computer technology, the power to defraud has become so much easier, can be accomplished invisibly and on a large scale.

The vote and elections do not guarantee democracy. Neither does a constitution. In South Africa, they are smoke screens behind which we hide a reversion to exploitation. Under apartheid, we lost respect for the rule of law, the lynchpin of democracy. Corruption in the new dispensation makes it impossible to restore that respect. Without respect for the rule of law we have only a facade of democracy and our constitution is simply an empty metaphor.

Corruption, racism and violence continue to determine the way we live. They form the basis of our present-day culture – a reality which we cover up by paying lip service to Ubuntu and by hiding behind Nelson Mandela. During the time of the struggle, we believed in democracy as something real. But after 1994, it became clear that democracy is a set of ideals – to which we can only aspire but never make our reality. If we look around the world we will find only approximations, relative understandings of democracy – not the perfection embodied in constitutions.

That is because governance requires pragmatism; and we give our trust to governors in the hope that in their decision-making they have some commitment to the ideals of democracy; that they will be benevolent dictators. In countries where political parties have to compete for power, there is a better chance that politicians will be benevolent dictators. Where political parties are elected on racial/emotional/sectarian grounds politicians become predators.

    • Convention for a Democratic South Africa where negotiations for a democratic constitution took place.