South Africa's 'cultural villages': showcase on past or seedy voyeurism?

At Shakaland, visitors experience a working model of a 19th-century Zulu homestead. But such outlets raise questions about the best way to teach about South Africa's traditional past – and who benefits.

Ryan Lenora Brown
Visitors participate in a demonstration of traditional Zulu dancing at the Shakaland cultural village in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

On a recent morning in a village near Durban, South Africa, life was unfurling quietly, as it did every day. A woman sat hunched outside her hut straining a batch of freshly brewed sorghum beer umqombothi — while another glided by with a heavy jug of water balanced on her head. In the distance, two men lugged a set of heavy drums between two huts.

And nearby, a Chinese family huddled in front of a selfie-stick for a portrait, angling their shot to catch the long row of huts trailing out behind them.

Welcome to Shakaland, population 67, where for a reasonable fee, tourists can visit a traditional Zulu homestead and participate in the “pulsating rhythm of mysterious and magical Africa.”

More than two dozen of these so-called “cultural villages” are scattered across South Africa, where they’re billed as a once-in-a-lifetime way for visitors to learn about local traditions and get a close-up on peoples and histories often left out of Western history textbooks and museums. But while some see them as a powerful way to showcase a way of life long gone – and employ local people — others view the concept as little more than seedy voyeurism created by questionable gatekeepers of the country’s history, a just-add-water version of Africa that absolves tourists of responsibility for interacting with the real thing.

“The question for me isn’t whether culture is being commodified — it is,” says Tembi Tichaawa, a senior lecturer in tourism at the University of Johannesburg. “The question is, by who? And who benefits? That makes the difference.”

From 'Shaka Zulu' to 'Shakaland'

But those answers are often far from simple.

Shakaland, for instance, began life as the set of a popular 1980s TV mini-series, “Shaka Zulu,” which chronicled the dramatic and bloody story of the famous 19th century Zulu monarch. Created by a largely white production team and bankrolled in part by the apartheid South African government, one South African poet and cultural critic said the show was “like Hitler doing the history of the Jews,” while the Los Angeles Times dubbed it “gory, foolish, and demeaning.”

Still, the production hired many locals to play Shaka’s army and loyal subjects, and when shooting finished, two of the series’ consultants  — South Africans Barry Leitch and Kingsley Holgate  — bought the Shakaland village set and hired a group of the extras to help them turn it into a “living museum” for tourists.

One of them was Bhubesi Shezi, who was 25 when a film crew came to his village in 1985 looking for “fit and physical” young men to play Shaka’s warriors in their mini-series. It seemed a welcome change to the low-paid seasonal farm labor that, then and now, provides the bulk of employment in this rural area.

He took the job, and when Mr. Leitch and Mr. Holgate asked him to stay on afterward, he agreed. Today, he’s one of three Shakaland residents who have lived here since its creation in 1986, and has spent more of his life in the village than outside of it.

 “I liked the thought of teaching people about my culture and my history,” he says. “I’ve been proud of what I’ve done here."

A question of ownership

Like all of Shakaland’s employees — the majority of whom live on site — Mr. Shezi leads a life that straddles the “traditional” Zulu culture he demonstrates for tourists and the 21st century South Africa he walks around in every day. It isn’t uncommon, for instance, to see an employee wandering the property in full Shaka-era battle regalia looking for a good cell signal to send a text message.

 “I always tried to stress to people on my tours that this is not what Zulu culture is — this is what it used to be,” says Dawn Thandeka King, a popular TV actress who got her professional start as a Shakaland tour guide. “Sure, there are some aspects of these traditions that still form part of our lives today, but culture evolves and people evolve.”

Still, says Dr. Tichaawa, the cultural tourism expert, cultural villages can raise uncomfortable questions about who gets to serve as the gatekeepers for a people’s rituals or past.

“It’s a worrying fact to me that most of the cultural villages in this country showcase black cultures, but are owned by white people,” he says. “But look, we also can’t criticize these places in that regard without pointing out people in rural areas need jobs, they needs houses, electricity, infrastructure — and often a cultural village brings those things.”

How — and how much — the benefits of cultural villages trickle down to the communities around them also varies. Some, like the Shangana Cultural Village near Kruger National Park, are actually owned and managed by local chiefs, who return much of the profit to their constituencies. Others, like Shakaland and its sister village Lesedi, near Johannesburg, are franchises of multinational hotel conglomerates

Local benefits

Ms. King says that wages at Shakaland were “basic, probably not enough,” but notes that the village has also been a springboard for local talents such as herself who may otherwise have had no outlet.

Dumisani Ngema, for instance, grew up at Shakaland, where his mother was employed, and remembers dancing in shows for tourists on weekends and after school. Shakaland paid his school fees, he says, and after he graduated, he began giving tours in the village, where he was eventually spotted by a major high-end tour company and hired as one of their guides.

He says that most visitors — as they meet ancient medicine men, and test their stick fighting skills — recognize that Shakaland is only a snapshot of a Zulu culture long gone. "I think this is a way of helping people look back on [Zulu] roots and understand where we came from." 

“The most rewarding thing to me working there was bringing black kids from the townships on tours and seeing how hungry they were to connect with the old lifestyle,” he says. “I realized there that without a culture, you’re like a zebra without a stripes. You can keep telling yourself you’re a zebra but others will only see a donkey.”

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