Inherited Culture

Last week we met Rolan, a CAST volunteer.  This week she shares her thoughts about Heritage Day, and reflects on having a South African identity:

Every year, on the 24th September, South Africa celebrates the rich cultural diversity of its people. Heritage Day, first introduced as a National Public Holiday in the early years of our democracy, is a time to reflect on our black-and-white history of cultural hegemony, and thus, come to appreciate the many ‘colours’ of our Rainbow Nation in present-day South Africa.

Local radio and television broadcasters have taken great strides in producing programmes that showcase local cultures with the aim of facilitating greater understanding of the many ethnicities that make up the collective South African identity. Whether this has been effective in lessening prejudice and encouraging integration amongst the different ethnic groups is debatable.

The experience of segregation during the apartheid era is still deeply etched in the minds of many, in particular those still suffering the consequences of the injustices of the past, whom have yet to experience the socio-economic developments of the ‘new South Africa’. Because of this, we are still largely divided along racial lines, with subdivisions of language, religion, and class.

A recent conversation with an American colleague about the term ‘coloured’, currently used to classify mixed-race South Africans, highlighted the need to address its continued usage. This term, historically used to refer to all people of colour, has been discarded in many countries around the world, due to its derogatory connotations. While some would agree that the same needs to be done locally, others have come to embrace this term as an act self-affirmation to distinguish a unique identity.

However, while researching this topic, it is surprising to find that most, if not all, of the writings concerning ‘coloured’ people focus only on the Afrikaans-speaking population of the Western Cape. It is understandable that, being the largest local ‘coloured’ population, this group attracts much interest and attention. However, this poses the danger of spreading the assumption that there is little variation within this racial group as exists in others.

As a non-Afrikaans speaking coloured person from the KwaZulu-Natal province, my own ancestral history is a testament to this variation. Like many ‘coloured’ families, our existence in this country began with a white European settler intermarrying with a local indigenous woman. This gave rise to mixed-race offspring who commonly adopted their maternal culture. However, unlike the majority of the ‘coloured’ population whose identity is characterized by Afrikaans as the mother-tongue, my grandfather and his siblings were raised to be English-speaking due to the British nationality of their father, and his own animosity towards the Dutch settlers.

This creates an interesting “exception” to the rule of what it means be a ‘coloured’ South African without the Afrikaans language to anchor our cultural identity. In my curiosity, this led to further research into how the non-Afrikaans speaking coloured population find a sense of identity and belonging.

My immediate assumption was that religion plays a significant part in this. It is well evident that Christianity has brought with it the Western culture by way of the early Christian missionaries travelling from countries such as Italy, Germany, Belgium, and Ireland. In the process of converting local African people to Christianity, their own indigenous cultural practices were undermined and denigrated as being ‘uncivilised’, resulting in a shift of cultural identity. Through the last century, the practice of the Christian faith has led to the increased assimilation of those descending from indigenous cultures into the Western world.

The inextricable link between religion and culture has undoubtedly informed my identity as a non-Afrikaans speaking ‘coloured’ person. In celebrating Heritage Day this year, I will reflect on my ancestral history that has, over time, led to my practise of the Christian faith and embracing the Western culture through the lens of a South African identity.