I am an English South African. Henceforth called an ESA to save my poor little typing fingers (which is most of them) This means that somewhere along the line, my parents’ parents’ parents were dropped off, most likely in Cape Town, by the ships of the British Empire back in the day when Africa in general was one of the favoured playthings of the likes of Cecil John Rhodes and other plunderers for the crown. Being an ESA – as opposed to, say, an Afrikaans South African or a smaller, more connected group like Portuguese or Jewish South Africans – can make for a confusing identity some days.
The point was first driven home back in high school, when we would have carefully arranged cultural events/presentations/insert-event-here. The basic premise was that you come dressed or ready to somehow otherwise tell the rest of your class about your culture – in the interests of learning more about each other and the different backgrounds we come from, y’know? For the Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans or any other group, it was a cinch. With a long history in South Africa and many unique and distinguishing cultural practices or ranges of sanctioned apparel, these events would always be a simple trip to your extended family before voila, you had enough cultural stories and apparel to drown the rest of your classmates. Unless you were an ESA, of course.
Like me, you speak English as your first language and had your randy great grandparents arrive on a boat from England a hundred or more years ago. You have also had precious little interaction with anything culturally British in your life, except perhaps in watching the Rand/Pound exchange rate, or reading BBC news while you surf the net (yes, I am such a dork at times). You would look like a fool wearing a bowler hat or a football scarf to cultural dress day, or telling the class about fish and chips or the benefits of tea during presentations. Because none of these things are even tangentially involved in defining the culture you grew up in. What interesting practices you have, like braais (the South African version of a barbecue – just infinitely more macho), words like Howzit (hi), Bru (comes after howzit) and possibly liberal political leanings, are all shared by most of the other groups. Except that they then have all sorts of extras, like Shaka Zulu or the Great Trek to throw in the mix while you look on awkwardly.
If your teacher in high school was particularly accommodating and your reasoning was well done you might even get off just wearing comfy casual clothes to cultural presentation day and making a nonspecific speech about a selection of fun things you did on the weekend.
The point was made clear again this weekend with myself and a number of ESA friends going to visit the annual mampoerfees in Cullinan, east of Pretoria. Mampoer (pronounced ‘mum-poor’) is the Afrikaans word for moonshine, or severely, ridiculously, criminally overdistilled hooch. The mampoerfees (literally, mampoer festival) is more generally a celebration of Afrikaner culture and entertainment, with culture-specific music, food and entertainment spanning the entire day. The point of going was largely one of stepping out of the English world and learning more about a different section of South African society, but it only served to really drive home the question of what makes an ESA. What if we had to have a cultural festival? What on earth would you eat or do that other groups don’t generally do already? It would be a dull afternoon.
It’s not all bad, mind you. It means not having any real cultural baggage to have to deal with. At least not in the way that former oppressor and oppressed cultures in South Africa’s dark past now find themselves soul searching. Being an ESA can also mean being able to pick and mix it up a little, like being able to braai and drink Black Label at the same time. If your teacher in high school was particularly accommodating and your reasoning was well articulated, you might even get off just wearing comfy casual clothes to cultural presentation day and making a nonspecific speech about a selection of fun things you did on the weekend.
It’s not a great worry and I don’t really miss it or wish for a specific cultural niche. But sometimes, like when eating a koeksister and watching jukskei, I do kind of wonder what it would have been like if I had had a different set of randy grandparents.