A jarring mix of cultures after decades of division

The writer is completing more than two decades of reporting from South Africa, the last five for the Monitor. In the first of three parting articles, he examines how the political transition to democracy is forcing society to grapple with the diverse cultures that apartheid isolated from one another.

`WHAT has happened to the Toasters?'' I inquired of taxi-driver Joshua Manzini, referring to a criminal gang of former political activists who terrorized Tembisa township in the run-up to the country's first all-race elections last April.

``They're all dead,'' replied Manzini with a broad grin. ``Members of the community killed every one of them with anything they could find.'' For Manzini, it was simple. The community had acted to protect itself.

Who was I to argue? The police force of the old regime had committed its share of atrocities in defense of apartheid.

While I knew that part of the explanation for Tembisa's method of dealing with an external threat was a conditioned response to the violence and lack of a legitimate judicial system during the apartheid era, I was also sure part of the explanation had to do with the African sense of community and the lengths to which that community will go to preserve itself.

It is the cultural manifestations of this sense of community that have provided both the most rewarding and terrifying moments in 25 years reporting on events in this diverse society.

Witnessing a ritual goat slaughter and feast at The Sowetan newspaper was another jarring experience until I understood the healing role of the slaughter in the context of the African family - whether it is to celebrate a birth or wedding or to heal the wounds of a death in the family.

The sense of humanism or compassion (ubuntu in Xhosa) - which is the essence of tribal values transposed into urban African culture - has often been overwhelming. Whether being received in the most modest African home, dancing in a wedding procession of a friend through Soweto, or witnessing the healing rituals of an African funeral, the sense of community is humbling for one reared in the individualistic ethic of Western culture.

How South Africans reconcile their diverse cultural influences will determine what kind of society emerges from the dramatic political transformation that culminated earlier this year in the installation of the first democratic government.

The deep cultural divide here carries both the seeds of conflict and the potential for unlimited mutual enrichment.

``After years of [white] Afrikaner cultural domination, the challenge now is to develop an Afro-Western culture with which we can all identify,'' says Prof. John Makhene, development manager at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), a state-run corporation that is at the center of creating a new South African culture.

The interaction of cultures has already produced an explosion of creativity in the performing arts, music, and dance. Rock groups such as Mango Groove and Johnny Clegg's Savuka have already transported the pleasing hybrid of Western and African sounds to millions of fans abroad.

The appearance of township shebeens - traditional drink and dance houses - in the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg bear testimony to the quest for cultural interaction. And productions at Johannesburg's Market Theater, which often explore cultural interaction and bring African culture to white-dominated audiences, are an enriching experience.

Overcoming divisions

The forging of a new South African culture will not come easily after more than four decades of apartheid, which discredited culture by exploiting it as a divisive factor to bolster minority rule. The apartheid era kept black and white apart in every sphere of life and made South Africans ignorant of each other's cultural heritage in a country with nine major African cultures and substantial Indian, ``coloured'' (mixed race), and Chinese minorities.

Integration in schools is gradually fostering a mutual understanding from the earliest age. But the vast majority of blacks still attend overcrowded and underequipped all-black township schools.

African languages have been introduced in most formerly all-white schools, and the government, led by the African National Congress, plans to ensure that every South African child learn an African language.

In the workplace, affirmative action programs to advance the employment of blacks at managerial levels are challenging whites to learn African languages and understand African culture. ``It is pointless to bring black people into companies before they have questioned their own assumptions and stereotypes of black people,'' Professor Makhene says. ``People base all their decisions on assumptions which are set by five or six years of age and passed from one generation to another if left unchallenged.''

Pearl Makhene, his wife, is a social scientist who consults to corporations on cross-cultural communication. ``It's still something very new, but companies know there is something wrong and they are readier to define and address the problem than they were in the past,'' she says.

At state-run broadcasting, Mr. Makhene directs cross-cultural workshops that aim to promote understanding among the multicultural staff and develop an inclusive corporate culture. ``There is much to be learned from each others' cultures, and people are often surprised by how many values they share.''

The SABC, itself caught in the turmoil of change, has discovered that cross-cultural exposure to its diverse viewers is often controversial. SABC-television recently broadcast a program on the initiation of traditional African healers (sangomas) in a bid to help white viewers understand the important place these healers occupy in traditional African society.

The program caused a storm of protest among mainly white viewers, and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC) was inundated with demands for an inquiry. The BCC found that the objective of cross-cultural exposure was a sound motivation for the program, although it questioned the time of broadcast.

Makhene says the cross-cultural workshops at the SABC focus on things that black people do that annoy white people and vice versa. These include the habit of some black people to be late, which has become known euphemistically as ``African time,'' and the higher noise levels among blacks in the workplace.

``The long and short of it is that there are two different cultures. African [black] culture is a `we' culture based on the community and communal experience. So people have nothing to hide and have no need to talk softly so others can't hear them. Western [white] culture on the other hand is an `I' culture - it's a far more individualistic culture,'' he says.

An understanding of African attitudes toward death in African society is vital for white employers in dealing with their black employees, he adds. ``An employee who asks for time off to bury his father could make the same request a year or two later when his uncle dies, because in African society the brother takes the place of the father when he dies. Once people understand why people behave the way they do, they can relate better to them and develop mutual respect and cooperation,'' he says. ``Then comes personal and team empowerment and with it an increase in efficiency and productivity.''

Role of ancestors

Another facet of African culture is the prominent role played by ancestors in regulating conduct in African society. ``The ancestors are absolutely vital because they are intermediaries with God,'' Makhene says.

In his seminal work ``My Traitor's Heart,'' author Rian Malan traces the tribal past of a black man who was convicted of multiple murder after killing numerous whites in their sleep by hammering their skulls. The ``hammer man,'' as he became known, was seen by Western-oriented liberals as a victim of apartheid who could no longer contain his hatred for whites.

But an investigation of his childhood in rural Natal shows that the Western view was only a fraction of the story. In fact, the hammer man was the product of an incestuous relationship - the ultimate insult to the ancestors - and was ostracized as a complete pariah by his own people.

President Nelson Mandela symbolizes the straddling of the cultural divide. A chief in the Xhosa-speaking Tembu tribe, he looks as much at ease with tribal elders slaughtering an ox as he does in suit and tie as the country's first black president. Mandela has scrupulously maintained his links with the tribal world and customs he grew up with, despite studying in Johannesburg to become an attorney.

When Mandela was elected president, his tribal status was celebrated by a Xhosa praise singer, clad in tribal regalia, who shattered the silence of Parliament with a celebration of excited sounds.

Mandela has already pointed the way to the forging of a new cultural identity in South Africa.

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