South Africa is often called the ‘Rainbow Nation’, a term which was coined by the former Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, and neatly describes the country’s multicultural diversity.
The original ‘locals’
Black South Africans make up around 80% of the population and belong to a variety of ethnic groups.
Because of its colonial past, South Africa has a large number of Afrikaans- (descended from Dutch settlers) and English speakers (the British began colonising the region in the 1800s).
French Huguenots, Germans and Portuguese arrived from the 1600s and brought many slaves from India and modern-day Indonesia. Islam and Hindu traditions and culture are also therefore prominent.
Black African culture is most obviously known for its art, dance and music – these have been profoundly influenced by more than two centuries of colonialism and the work of Christian missionaries.
Today, songs reflect a number of different styles such as gospel, jazz and rock, but often have a strong local flavour. Styles such as kwaito (house music), mbube (Zulu vocal) and kwela (jazzy street music often with a penny whistle) incorporate indigenous sounds.
Art is also becoming a fusion of traditional and modern. Artists draw inspiration from the masks, statues and figurines of tribal culture, but also employ Western techniques and mediums.
Art forms such as dancing and textiles perhaps retain the strongest links to traditional black culture, because they express identity and shared history.
Gumboot dancing was born in the mines of South Africa, where black Africans were given Wellingtons to protect their feet and communicated in the dark by slapping and thudding their boots.
The beauty of beads
Curiously, the tradition of beaded jewellery in African culture relied on European beads. These were brought by traders to barter for African goods such as ivory. Initially, large beads were exchanged, but a century later European traders introduced tiny glass beads which could more easily be strung on threads or sewn onto leather. Traditional Xhosa beadwork, for example, is made by stitching the beads onto backings of cowhide or goatskin.
Adornment is important in African culture for both men and women. Traditional beadwork reflects not only an individual’s history and experiences – patterns and colours have meanings; for example, blue is for loneliness or saying ‘I will wait for you’ – it also distinguishes a person’s ethnic group, such as Xhosa, Zulu or Ndebele.
In 1962, Nelson Mandela wore Xhosa beads at his sentencing (rather than his usual suit), sending a message of African identity and defiance.
Among native black South Africans, there are many different ethnic groups and nine officially-recognised local languages.
The Zulu and Xhosa speakers are the two largest groups – accounting for nearly 40% of the population – with Pedi, Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, Swati/Swazi, Venda and Ndebele speakers making up the rest.
The various tribal cultures have rich oral traditions. Stories, poems and epics were learnt by heart and recited out loud. Slowly, these stories are working their way into written literature.