What Culture?


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We South Africans are blessed with 11 official languages, but as we all know, with language comes culture, the backbone of every one of us.

What is White Culture?

Our cultures are made up of our norms and values, right down to our habits and what we eat. For some reason here in South Africa we always dwell on African culture, forgetting the meaning behind “rainbow nation” (love it or hate it, it’s us). So a few of us decided to explore the mystery (to some of us) that is white culture.

“I have grown up with parents who are British,” said 23-year-old Sophie Slater. She went on to tell a colourful tale about how her upbringing was based around English traditions she loves. She then added something that piqued our interest: “To be honest I’m not too sure what my culture entails. Unless you are Afrikaans or follow some religion, I don’t think [white culture] really exists.”

Could it be? Does the elusive white culture really not exist? Never one to back down from a challenge, we stumbled upon a 15-year-old Afrikaner boy by the name of Ryan Van Der Westhuizen.

We wandered into Ryan’s room and were immediately shocked and intrigued. Hanging on his wall is the old South African flag. As one does when seeing this flag, we asked what it was about. “My great grandfather gave this flag to my dad and he gave it me,” Ryan explained. For him, it’s not a symbol of racism; the only meaning he attaches to the flag is that of an heirloom. The Zulu’s word “ifa” comes to mind. Meaning an heirloom passed on from generation to generation to remember our forefathers. This is what the flag means for Ryan. We didn’t dwell too much on this, as when faced with the old flag one must tread lightly. So what more of Afrikaans heritage?

Most of us know that Afrikaner heritage is deeply rooted in the two “Fs”: farming and family. Ryan is no different. “The most important thing about my culture is hunting during school holidays with my grandfather and father.”  From what we know about Afrikaans culture, a typical hunting session consists of male bonding and hunting rabbit and springbok; I’m sure some biltong follows thereafter. “The other thing  would be helping around [my grandparents’] farm. Farming is another aspect in our family,” Ryan informed us.

Our search for culture was coming together. But white culture isn’t just made up of the English and Arfikaaners — our country is a kaleidoscope of different European cultures. We needed to explore further.

With every culture, there is a subculture. At least here in Cape Town, hipster culture is a subculture that has been part of many conversations lately. Which brings us to  the second exciting part of our journey of discovery. For those of you who aren’t in the know: hipsters are those white kids who hang out in coffee shops, wear skinny jeans and generally study something art-related (vs. blipsters, the black counterparts to hipsters, but that’s a topic for another story).

There is more to this subculture than skinny jeans and vintage clothing, though. Like any subculture, hipsterism has its roots firmly planted in other aspects of white culture. What we discovered is that white youth tend to have more freedom to carve the future they want. This luxury is one of the factors that have supported the rise of hipster culture. In a typical black family, parents will say you can be anything you want as long as you study to become a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant (you know, those desk jobs that allow you the utmost financial freedom and the least creative freedom). At least this was my experience when my parents were still optimistic of me being the Albie Sacks type and practising law.

I shattered their dreams when I told them I wanted to be a fashion stylist. Naturally, they told me that once I was a practising lawyer I could do whatever I wanted on the side. My rebuttal was, “But Gabby (a childhood friend) is going to be a ballerina.” At which point my older sister piped in, pointing out that although Gabby was a childhood friend and we come from similar backgrounds, Gabby is white.

What that really meant was that Gabby could study whatever she wanted, as she would never have the expectation of having to come back and care for her family. In most African cultures, regardless of your parents’ financial status, rich or poor, you are expected to work hard, earn well and a portion of your income should always go home. It’s the unwritten rule. What we found  to be different with many white families is that parents cut the umbilical cord at 18, and what you earn (or don’t) is yours.

Guzzling alcohol with your family is also fun social part of white culture. Not in the alcoholic sense, but something that is done as a family. Lauren Maitre, 24 from Etscourt, KwaZulu-Natal is of French decent. A visit to her family provided welcome culture shock.

“We have red wine, white wine, vodka, gin and beer,” Lauren’s mother Cheryl offered when I came for dinner. Cut to the average black family where my brother, 35-years of age, still sneaks alcohol from my parents’ cabinet.

The French aren’t the only Europeans who consume alcohol as a part of their culture. Lots of Italian South Africans drink wine at supper, as 23-year-old Gabriella  Pasqualotto explained. For the Pasqualottos, a glass of wine at supper is crucial to enhance the taste of the food, and drinking the wrong wine with a meal can end in disaster at the family dinner table.

Food is also a huge part of their culture. “When we visit my nonna [Italian for grandmother], we always eat traditional meals like antipasto and fresh meat.” The word “fresh” when associated with food, and the extravagant accompanying hand gestures, are also integral parts of Italian culture, it turns out.

This leads us back to the subcultures of white youth. From an outsider view, it seems that all these kids do (okay, maybe not all, but the general hipster types) is take photos, sip wine, and party the night away. It’s their expression of a freedom they are taught to explore from a young age.

What was interesting is that most of the people we spoke to initially said they they don’t have a culture. “To live as a neutral young white in SA is pretty much all I am doing,” were Sophie’s words when we asked if she was “living her culture”. The truth is, culture is so entrenched in everyone’s lives that they actually overlook it. But for two African girls ( Xhosa and Zulu), looking from the outside in, white South African culture is rich, diverse and oh-so-interesting.

Paul Ward is a 23-year-old Cape Town based photographer. After graduating in 2009 with a degree in art direction from Vega Cape Town, Paul has emerged as one of South Africa’s top young creatives. Listed in Design Indaba magazine’s 2012 Top 50 most influential South African designers, Paul also saw his blog, DiaryofWard.com, a photography blog documenting youth culture, win photography blog of the year in the 2011 SAblogawards.

By: Nana and Ndu