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Searching for authenticity in South African cultures

This is the fourth is a series of seven dispatches from a visit by students in the Southern Oregon University Honors College to South Africa.

When I was in elementary school, my teacher referred to the United States as “melting pot,” in which cultures from around the world coalesced into one. Today, I like to think of American culture as more of a “tossed salad,” in which we share the same bowl, but retain the individuality of our various distinct “ingredients.”

As one travels from one part of America to another, both similarities and differences become obvious. For example, visualize an image of a teenage girl walking. She is wearing Nike shoes, drinking a Coke, listening to music through her earphones, and sending a text message on her phone. Can you picture her in your mind? Now, imagine her in New York City’s Spanish Harlem. Then picture her on a farm in North Dakota. Finally, visualize her on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona.

Does your mental image of her change? How about the music she is listening to, or the language she is using in the text she is sending? Simultaneously, Americans share a melting-pot culture but often retain elements of unique tossed-salad subcultures. Aware of this apparent contradiction in the U.S., I’m not sure why I was so surprised when I traveled last month to South Africa as a part of the Southern Oregon University Democracy Project.

In South Africa, we visited the “Shangana Cultural Village,” which celebrates Shangaan culture (consisting primarily of Zulu and Tsonga ethnic groups). We met the Chief and his wives. We asked questions of a woman who served as the village “traditional healer.” We ate a Shangaan meal, including roasted worms as hors d'oeuvres. We shopped in the village market where artisans sold their handmade African gifts. To conclude our visit we watched a group of young people dance and sing Shangaan songs around a bonfire. Despite sounding authentic, it was not. While not exactly fake, the Shangana Cultural Village was obviously designed to attract tourists. The term, “Anthropological Disneyland” comes to mind. We should have known when we booked our reservations online, that the Shangana Cultural Village had one foot in traditional Shangaan culture, and one foot in modern Western culture.

Our visit to the Shangana Cultural Village reminded me of the old South African comedy film, "The Gods Must Be Crazy." In this movie, a man named Xi and his tribe of Bushmen are living happily in the Kalahari Desert, until an airplane pilot discards a Coca-Cola bottle. The glass bottle lands unbroken at Xi’s feet. Initially, the tribe views the bottle as a present from the gods, and they find many uses for it. Eventually, since there is only one bottle, the tribe members find it difficult to share, and conflict arises.

The majority of the film follows Xi as he walks to the edge of the world to return the bottle to the gods. During the parts of the film when there is a focus on the tribe of Bushmen, it has the feel of an anthropological documentary. However, even when the movie was released in 1980, there were no Bushmen who were unfamiliar with Western inventions like planes, television, and Coke bottles. Perhaps half a century earlier this could have been true, but not by 1980. The filmmakers were promoting cultural inauthenticity. Experiencing the Shangana Cultural Village, and reflecting on "The Gods Must Be Crazy," prompted me to think about what it means to be culturally authentic in 2017.

Subconsciously perhaps, I had expected to find a village of people in South Africa that was relatively untouched by modern technology, and that had escaped any preoccupied with making money. I believe now that this was an unrealistic expectation. Did an absence of a truly “traditional village” mean that South Africa is devoid of cultural authenticity?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “authentic” as:

• Worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact.

• Conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features.

• Made or done the same way as an original.

• Not false or imitation.

Based on these definitions, I realized that cultural authenticity is obvious in the South African national anthem (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBKjWRjwMkY). There are 11 official languages in South Africa, and five of those languages are found in the national anthem. It starts in Xhosa, and transitions to Zulu. Then it shifts to Sesotho, followed by Afrikaans. It ends in English, with the words, “Sounds the call to come together, and united we shall stand. Let us live and strive for freedom in South Africa our land!”

This is authentic. It recognizes the unique cultural, ethnic, and linguistic realities of South Africa. Implicitly, it acknowledges that South Africa is a “tossed salad.” It alludes to a shared historical past that involved “conflict” resulting from colonialism and systemic racial segregation. It asserts a love South Africans have for the land itself. Perhaps most importantly, it calls for unity. The values of unity, freedom, and democracy that are evident in the South African national anthem are reflected also in the South African Freedom Charter. This document sets forth guiding principles, such as:

• The People Shall Govern!

• All National Groups Shall Have Equal Rights!

• All Shall Be Equal Before The Law!

• All Shall Enjoy Equal Human Rights!

• The Doors Of Learning And Of Culture Shall Be Opened!

I was forced to revise my understanding of authenticity. It does not correlate to the degree of one’s dependence on technology, and the way a group earns its livelihood. Instead, it is remaining true to one’s individual and collective values. Being authentic requires a respect for diversity and a willingness to work collaboratively with others who may have different skin colors, speak different languages, or worship differently. Authenticity requires valuing one’s self and valuing the equal worth of others.

Contrary to my initial expectation, the SOU Democracy Project to South Africa was not so much about discovering people who have avoided modernity by clinging to traditional ways of life. Rather, it was about comparing the ways people treat each other in light of the homogenizing effects of modernity. Through this experience, I reexamined my understanding of what it means to be authentic and what we must value if we are going to coexist peacefully in this world.

—Dr. Ken R. Mulliken is executive director of the Honors College at Southern Oregon University.