South African people and Culture

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CULTURE AND PEOPLE

Identification. South Africa is the only nation-state named after its geographic location; there was a general agreement not to change the name after the establishment of a constitutional nonracial democracy in 1994. The country came into being through the 1910 Act of Union that united two British colonies and two independent republics into the Union of South Africa. After the establishment of the first colonial outpost of the Dutch East India Company at Cape Town in 1652, South Africa became a society officially divided into colonizer and native, white and nonwhite, citizen and subject, employed and indentured, free and slave. The result was a fragmented national identity symbolized and implemented by the white minority government’s policy of racial separation. Economic status has paralleled political and social segregation and inequality, with the black African, mixed-race (“Coloured”), and Indian and Pakistani (“Asian”) population groups experiencing dispossession and a lack of legal rights. Since the first nonracial elections in 1994, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has attempted to overcome this legacy and create unified national loyalties on the basis of equal legal status and an equitable allocation of resources.

Location and Geography. South Africa has an area of 472,281 square miles (1,223,208 square kilometers). It lies at the southern end of the African continent, bordered on the north by Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Swaziland; on the east and south by the Indian Ocean; and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean. The independent country of Lesotho lies in the middle of east central South Africa.

Among the prominent features of the topography is a plateau that covers almost two thirds of the center of the country. The plateau complex rises toward the southeast, where it climaxes in the Drakensberg range, part of an escarpment that separates the plateau from the coastal areas. The Drakensburg includes Champagne Castle, the highest peak in the country. The larger portion of the plateau is known as the highveld, which ends in the north in the gold-bearing Witwatersrand, a long, rocky ridge that includes the financial capital and largest city, Johannesburg. The region north of the Witwatersrand, called the bushveld, slopes downward from east to west toward the Limpopo River, which forms the international border. The western section of the plateau, the middleveld, also descends towards the west and varies in elevation between the highveld and bushveld. Between the Drakensburg and the eastern and southern coastline, the land descends to the sea. Toward the eastern coast there is an interior belt of green, hilly country that contains the Cape and Natal midlands. Nearer the coast there is a low-lying plain called the eastern lowveld. Southwest of the plateau the country becomes progressively more arid, giving way to the stony desert of the Great Karroo, bordered on the east by the lower, better watered plateau of the Little Karroo. Separating the dry southern interior from the sandy littoral of the southern coast and West Cape is another range, the Langeberg. On the southwest coast is Table Mountain, with Cape Town, the “Mother City,” set in its base, and the coastal plain of the Cape Peninsula tailing off to the south. The southern most point in Africa, Cape Agulhas, lies sixty miles to the east. South Africa also includes part of the Kalahari Desert in the northwest and a section of the Namib Desert in the west. The chief rivers, crossing the country from west to east, are the Limpopo, Vaal, and Orange, which are not navigable but are useful for irrigation. A major new water source was created by the damming of the Orange and the Malibamatso below their sources in the Lesotho Drakensburg.

South Africa

Demography. The population numbers approximately forty million, comprised of eight officially recognized Bantu-speaking groups; white Afrikaners descended from Dutch, French, and German settlers who speak Afrikaans, a variety of Dutch; English-speaking descendants of British colonists; a mixed-race population that speaks Afrikaans or English; and an immigrant Indian population that speaks primarily Tamil and Urdu. A small remnant of Khoi and San aboriginal populations lives in the extreme northwest. Rural areas are inhabited primarily by Bantu speakers (black African) and Coloured (Khoisan, European, Southeast Asian, and Bantu African) speakers of Afrikaans. The largest language group, the Zulu, numbers about nine million but does not represent a dominant ethnic grouping. Black Africans make up about seventy-seven percent of the population, whites about eleven percent, Coloureds about eight percent, Indians over two percent, and other minorities less than two percent. Most South Africans live in urban areas, with twenty percent of the population residing in the central province of Gauteng, which contains Johannesburg, the surrounding industrial towns, and Pretoria, the administrative capital. Other major urban centers include Durban, a busy port on the central east coast; Cape Town, a ship refitting, wine, and tourist center; and Port Elizabeth, an industrial and manufacturing city on the eastern Cape coast. During the 1990s, urban centers received immigration from other sub-Saharan African countries, and these immigrants are active in small-scale urban commercial ventures.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. South Africa has early human fossils at Sterkfontein and other sites. The first modern inhabitants were the San (“bushman”) hunter-gatherers and the Khoi (“Hottentot”) peoples, who herded livestock. The San may have been present for thousands of years and left evidence of their presence in thousands of ancient cave paintings (“rock art”). Bantu-speaking clans that were the ancestors of the Nguni (today’s amaZulu, amaXhosa, amaSwazi, and vaTsonga peoples) and Tswana-Sotho language groups (today’s Batswana and Southern and Northern Basotho) migrated down from east Africa as early as the fifteenth century. These clans encountered European settlers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the colonists were beginning their migrations up from the Cape. The Cape’s European merchants, soldiers, and farmers wiped out, drove off, or enslaved the indigenous Khoi herders and imported slave labor from Madagascar, Indonesia, and India. When the British abolished slavery in 1834, the pattern of white legal dominance was entrenched. In the interior, after nearly annihilating the San and Khoi, Bantu-speaking peoples and European colonists opposed one another in a series of ethnic and racial wars that continued until the democratic transformation of 1994. Conflict among Bantu-speaking chiefdoms was as common and severe as that between Bantus and whites. In resisting colonial expansion, black African rulers founded sizable and powerful kingdoms and nations by incorporating neighboring chieftaincies. The result was the emergence of the Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Venda, Swazi, Sotho, Tswana, and Tsonga nations, along with the white Afrikaners.

Modern South Africa emerged from these conflicts. The original Cape Colony was established though conquest of the Khoi by the Dutch in the seventeenth century and of the Xhosa by the British in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Natal, the second colony, emerged from the destruction of the Zulu kingdom by Afrikaners and the British between 1838 and 1879. The two former republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal (South African Republic) were established by Afrikaner settlers who defeated and dispossessed the Basotho and Batswana. Lesotho would have been forcibly incorporated into the Orange Free State without the extension of British protection in 1869. The ultimate unification of the country resulted from the South African War (1899–1902) between the British and the two Afrikaner republics, which reduced the country to ruin at the beginning of the twentieth century. Even after union, the Afrikaners never forgot their defeat and cruel treatment by the British. This resentment led to the consolidation of Afrikaner nationalism and political dominance by mid century. In 1948, the Afrikaner National Party, running on a platform of racial segregation and suppression of the black majority known as apartheid (“separateness”), came to power in a whites-only election. Behind the struggles between the British and the Afrikaners for political dominance there loomed the “Native question”: how to keep the aspirations of blacks from undermining the dominance of the white minority. Struggles by the black population to achieve democratic political equality began in the early 1950s and succeeded in the early 1990s.

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National Identity. Afrikaners historically considered themselves the only true South Africans and, while granting full citizenship to all residents of European descent, denied that status to people of color until the democratic transition of 1994. British South Africans retain a sense of cultural and social connection to Great Britain without weakening their identity as South Africans. A similar concept of primary local and secondary ancestral identity is prevalent among people of Indian descent. The Bantu-speaking black peoples have long regarded themselves as South African despite the attempts of the white authorities to classify them as less than full citizens or as citizens of ethnic homelands (“Bantustans”) between 1959 and 1991. Strong cultural loyalties to African languages and local political structures such as the kingdom and the chieftaincy remain an important component of identity. National identity comes first for all black people, but belonging to an ethnic, linguistic, and regional grouping and even to an ancestral clan has an important secondary status. People once officially and now culturally classified as Coloured regard themselves as South African, as they are a residual social category and their heritage is a blend of all the other cultural backgrounds. Overall, national identity has been forged through a struggle among peoples who have become compatriots. Since 1994, the democratic majority government has avoided imposing a unified national identity from above instead of encouraging social integration through commitment to a common national future.

Ethnic Relations. A strong sense of ethnic separateness or distinctiveness coincides with well-established practical forms of cooperation and common identification. The diversity and fragmentation within ethnic groupings and the balance of tensions between those groups during the twentieth century prevented inter ethnic civil conflict. While inter group tensions over resources, entitlements, and political dominance remain, those conflicts are as likely to pit Zulu against Zulu as Zulu against Xhosa or African against Afrikaner

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Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. The consists of the traditionally simple fare of starches and meats characteristic of a farming and frontier society. Early Afrikaner pioneer farmers sometimes subsisted entirely on meat when conditions for trade in cereals were not favorable. A specialized cuisine exists only in the Cape, with its blend of Dutch, English, and Southeast Asian cooking. Food plays a central role in the family and community life of all groups except perhaps the British.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. The gift and provision of food, centering on the ritual slaughtering of livestock, are central to all rites of passage and notable occasions in black communities. Slaughtering and the brewing of traditional cereal beer are essential in securing the participation and goodwill of the ancestors who are considered the guardians of good fortune, prosperity, and well-being. Indian communities maintain their native culinary traditions and apply them on Islamic and Hindu ritual and ceremonial occasions. Afrikaners and Coloured people gather at weekends and special occasions at multifamily barbecues called braais , where community bonds are strengthened.

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Basic Economy. South Africa accounts for forty percent of the gross national product of sub-Saharan Africa, but until the late nineteenth century, it had a primarily agricultural economy that had much marginally productive land and was dependent on livestock farming. Because this was the primary economic enterprise of both black Africans and white colonists, conflict between those groups centered on the possession of grazing land and livestock. In 1867, the largest diamond deposits in the world were discovered at Kimberley in the west central area. The wealth from those fields helped finance the exploitation of the greatest gold reef in the world, which was discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1886. Above this gold vein rose the city of Johannesburg. Diamond and gold magnates such as Cecil Rhodes used their riches to finance political ambitions and the extension of the British Empire. On the strength of mining, the country underwent an industrial revolution at the turn of the twentieth century and became a major manufacturing economy by the 1930s. Despite the discovery of new gold deposits in the Orange Free State in the early 1950s, the mining industry is now in decline and South Africa is searching for new means to participate in the global economy.

Land Tenure and Property. African communal notions of territory, land usage, and tenure differ fundamentally from European concepts of land as private or public property. This led to misunderstandings and deliberate misrepresentation in the dealings of white settlers and government officials with African chiefs during the colonial period. In the establishment of African reserves, some aspects of communal and chiefly “tribal trust” land tenure were preserved, and even in white rural areas, forms of communal tenure were still practiced in areas with African communities. African Christian mission communities in some areas drew together to purchase land after colonial conquest and dispossession, only to have that land expropriated again by the Land Acts of 1913 and 1936, which confined black Africans to thirteen percent of the land area.

After the democratic transformation of 1994, programs for land restitution, redistribution, and reform were instituted, but progress has been slow. The white minority still controls eighty percent of the land. In the wake of agricultural land invasions in Zimbabwe, the Department of Land Affairs has pledged to speed land redistribution. However, it is not certain whether dispossessed people who qualify for land redistribution can make profitable economic use of the land

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Political Life

Government. Political life in black African communities centered on the hereditary chieftaincy, in which the senior son of the highest or “great wife” of a chief succeeded his father. In practice, succession was not straightforward, and brothers, older sons of other wives, and widow regents all competed for power. Building large states or polities was difficult under those political conditions, but a number of African chiefs founded national kingdoms, including King Shaka of the Zulu.

European political life began with the Dutch East India Company in the Cape; this was more a mercantile administration than a government. With the transfer of the Cape to Britain in 1806, a true colonial government headed by an imperial governor and a parliamentary prime minister was installed. The legal system evolved as a blend of English common law and European Roman-Dutch law, and people of color, except for the few who attained the status of “free burgers,” had few legal rights or opportunities to participate in political life. In the 1830s, the British Crown Colony of Natal was founded on the coast of Zululand in the east. A decade later, Afrikaner emigrants from the Cape ( voortrekkers ), established the independent republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, ruled by an elected president and a popular assembly called a volksraad . The founding and development of European colonies and republics began the long and bitter conflicts between African chiefs, British and Afrikaners, and whites and black Africans that have shaped the nation’s history. Since 1994, the country has had universal voting rights and a multi-party nonconstituency “party list” parliamentary system, with executive powers vested in a state president and a ministerial cabinet.

Inkhatha march.