Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Roots of the rainbow nation -

Roots of the rainbow nation - I never know quite how to respond to things like this. There is a picture of Ndebele women, in costume, sitting before brightly-painted huts accompanying this article, with a caption that reads: "Cultural villages give fascinating insights into the way our people live." I would love to get comments from anyone who has visited a cultural village in this country, about what the experience felt like, and the impression of South Africa you were left with. I wish I knew why this sort of marketing of South African-ness makes me so uncomfortable. Is it just because it is exclusionary? As a white South African, I am directly excluded from this marketed impression of my own country. But at the same time, villages like this really do create a stagnant impression of what South African culture really is. Has anyone noticed that the only people who really seem to still live like this are those living in the artificial environment of the cultural village? South African culture, even in its deepest traditional forms, when lived in the present, is hybrid. I have a friend who works with electronic music during the semester, and then returns home to a village with no electricity. That is the reality of far more people than this frozen Utopian ideal projected by so-called "cultural villages." Perhaps the purpose of "Township Tours" is to redress this imballance to some degree. And perhaps it even works, some of the time. But I still feel that there is a big part of who we are, and what we are, that these things can't show a tourist, and that marketing ourselves like this, rather than marketing our exciting artists, development and global engagement, perpetuates the impression beyond our boarders that we are not able to engage with the "big fish." In a seminar over the weekend, there was some debate over whether Johannesburg is a world-class city, or an African world-class city, or simply an African city. Of course I don't have answers for that, but I'd like to see us becoming all of the above. Our identity as South African makes me feel that this really is the right place for me to be. I become so excited when I think that legally, we are one of the most inclusive, accepting nations. The concept of human rights, as it is built into our constitution, puts us worlds ahead of many so-called "first-world" nations, because we really are about people. We are about recognizing and including people. we are about tollerance, and more than tollerance: acceptance, co-operative co-existance, appreciation of individuality. We are first world in terms of our resource of people. But looking at the picture on this page, you would swear otherwize. I'm not saying that cultural difference is undesirable. Quite the contrary. But I am saying that rigid notions of what culture is, or what makes something authentic, or more specifically, authentically Africa, or South African, is counter-productive if it creates a false impression in the minds of others of our true level of development and potential for trans-national engagemen. Culture is about us, about our sense of self and other, and about understanding how we fit together, and into a broader context. And in that sense, it is both inward, and outward looking. Rather than marketing ourselves to an audience who are primarily interested in the entertainment value of who we are (a terrifyingly degrading and patronistic idea in itself), we should be seeking to really engage, first, by understanding ourselves, and then by understanding how we vary from others, and then by enjoying both. Selling our exoticism to the world does not open real markets. Selling our diversity, and our resultant ability to understand, however, does.

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