South Africa is an exhilarating, spectacular and complex country. With its post-apartheid identity still in the process of definition, there is undoubtedly an abundance of energy and sense of progress about the place. Travelers too are returning to a remarkable land that has been off the trail for way too long.
The infrastructure is constantly improving, the climate is kind and there are few better places to see Africa's wildlife. But if you want to understand the country, you'll have to deal with the full spectrum. Poverty, the AIDS pandemic and violence remain a problem.
The influx of foreign visitors in recent years has brought about an explosion of tours and activities: everything from abseiling off Table Mountain to sipping cocktails while watching lions. As a backdrop to all this, South Africa continues to go through huge upheavals as it comes to terms with democracy, and in these terms it is a young country. Democracy has precipitated change both good and bad - the dissolution of physical and psychological barriers around skin color at one end of the scale, the well-publicized crime problem at the other. It is both an invigorating and challenging time for South Africa, and a great time to visit and observe this metamorphosis first hand.
Full country name: The Republic of
GDP: US$146 billion
South Africa is a multiracial society and defining distinct subgroups by skin color only will potentially get you into trouble. Those of Afrikaner and British descent won't be too happy to be confused with one another, and there are several major and many minor groupings in the traditional black cultures.
The mingling and melding in South Africa's urban areas, along with the suppression of traditional cultures during the apartheid years, means that the old ways of life are fading, but traditional black cultures are still strong in much of the countryside. Across the different groups, marriage customs and taboos differ, but most traditional cultures are based on beliefs in a masculine deity, ancestral spirits and supernatural forces. In general, polygamy is permitted and a lobolo (dowry) is usually paid. Cattle play an important part in many cultures, as symbols of wealth and as sacrificial animals.
The art of South Africa's indigenous populations can be one of the only ways to connect with lost cultures. Rock and cave paintings by the San, some of which date back 26,000 years, are a case in point. In other cases, such as the elaborate 'coded' beadwork of the Zulus, traditional art has been adapted to survive in different circumstances. Zulu is one of the strongest surviving black cultures and massed Zulu singing at Inkatha Freedom Party demonstrations is a powerful expression of this ancient culture. The Xhosa also have a strong presence; they are known as the red people because of the red-dyed clothing worn by most adults. The Ndebele are a related group, who live in the north-western corner of what is now Mpumalanga in strikingly painted houses.
Aside from the Afrikaners, the majority of European South Africans are of British extraction. The British are generally more urbanized and have tended to dominate the business and financial sectors. The Afrikaners (more or less rightly) feel that they are more committed to South Africa, and have a charming term for the man with one foot in South Africa and one in Britain: soutpiel or salt dick (his penis dangling in the ocean). There is also a large and influential Jewish population and a significant Indian minority.
The British can take most of the blame for the food dished up in South Africa, although the situation is improving dramatically. Steak or boerewors sausage, over boiled veggies and chips are the norm, and where the food gets more adventurous it often turns out pretty scary. Vegetarians will not have a good culinary time. African dishes are not commonly served in restaurants, although you can get a cheap rice and stew belly-filler from street stalls in most towns. Beer and brandy are the popular swills, and South Africa's excellent wines are becoming more and more popular.
Although South Africa is home to a great diversity of cultures, most were suppressed during the apartheid years when day-to-day practice of traditional and contemporary cultures was ignored, trivialized or destroyed. In a society where you could be jailed for owning a politically incorrect painting, serious art was forced underground and blandness ruled in the galleries and theatres. The most striking example of this was the bulldozing of both District Six, a vibrant multicultural area in Cape Town, and Johannesburg's Sophiatown, where internationally famous musicians learned their craft in an area once described as 'a skeleton with a permanent grin'. Groups such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo have managed to bring South Africans sounds to a wide Western audience, both during and after apartheid.
One of the most exciting aspects of the new South Africa is that the country is in the process of reinventing itself and, with such a large proportion of the population marginalized from the economic mainstream, this is occurring without much input from professional image makers. Hopeful signs include gallery retrospectives of black artists, both contemporary and traditional, and musicians from around Africa performing in major festivals. The new South Africa is being created on the streets of the townships and cities.
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