Why South Africa needs a critical rethink of its cultural heritage

Cultural heritage is not something stuck in time. It is dynamic. It is in the present, and it represents the future. It is easy to package ‘African culture’ and sell it to a Western audience. It is easy to romanticise about precolonial times. Yet this is a static view of culture, one that has no relevance to modern, globalised times. It is seen as quaint and cut off from the wider global discourse. After all, the West invented Africa, and defined its nature and its place in the world. South African cultural policy is beginning to challenge this, but it still needs a push in the right direction. And, the rest of the world has a great deal to learn from a South Africa deeply rooted in its African heritage. Cutting through the well-worn images of Zulu warriors, now is the time for South Africa to speak back.

Many African dances involve jumping including ritual dances of the Zulu. In the background are the typical traditional Zulu huts and vegitation (aloes) of the higher regions of Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. Source: Hein Waschefort
Many African dances involve jumping including ritual dances of the Zulu. In the background are the typical traditional Zulu huts and vegitation (aloes) of the higher regions of Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. Source: Hein Waschefort

South Africa’s cultural heritage: rethinking culture

My first experience of South Africa came as a shock. Landing at O R Tambo Airport in Johannesburg in July 1996, all I could see were workers in heavy coats and thick gloves with steam coming out of their mouths. Had I landed in the wrong place? Africa, after all, is hot. At least this is what I’d learned in school. This was my idea of Africa. After landing and meeting up with my contact Nomha my first experience of South African cuisine was in Wimpy where she kindly treated me to burger and chips.

The idea of ‘Africa’ is indeed a Western invention. In his book Politics and Post-colonial Theory: African Inflections Pal Ahluwalia writes:

‘…it is the representations of Africa which lie behind the West’s hegemonic role. It is this representation which ascribes to Africa the notion of the ‘Dark Continent’. In this way, Africa exists as an invention not only in the very scramble for Africa, but as an invention of the West’s imagination’ (p.13)

McDonald's staff member in Johannesburg, South Africa, signing up to social networking to communicate faster. Source: IBM
McDonald’s staff member in Johannesburg, South Africa, signing up to social networking to communicate faster. Source: IBM

Favouring Wimpy or MacDonald’s over African cuisine may be a sign of that hegemonic role. But this goes further when it comes to South Africa’s cultural heritage. Who defines it, and who defines it as African?

South Africa’s existing policy on cultural heritage

An imperative expressed in the Revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage, is the decolonisation of culture: ‘Placing African knowledge, epistemology, art, culture and heritage at the centre of policies, practices, institutions and programmes’. The White Paper asserts ‘The protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions ‘. It recognises the ‘equal dignity of and respect for all cultures, including the cultures of persons belonging to minorities and of indigenous peoples.’

How this decolonisation is achieved is a sticking point. My research suggests that cultural decolonisation in Africa is unlikely to take place in the formal commercial or public sectors, which are managed and controlled along Western lines. Even within local non-governmental and community-based organisations established to meet community needs, outside funding to sustain development often comes at the cost of loss of authenticity and indigeneity.

The role of the informal economy

The informal economy represents some 72% of total employment in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. According to Fantu Cheru in his book African Renaissance it is ‘..a dynamic and enduring force that has shaped African cities’, representing ‘.an alternative society, with parallel social and religious institutions alongside the official ones’. Even within South Africa, which has one of the smallest informal sectors in sub-Saharan Africa, the informal economy represents an estimated 30% of gross national income.

Five Xhosa women performing in traditional Xhosa costumes and facepaintings. Picture from the Waterfront in Cape Town. Source: Chell Hill
Five Xhosa women performing in traditional Xhosa costumes and facepaintings. Picture from the Waterfront in Cape Town. Source: Chell Hill

Cheru, a well known specialist on African policy issues and currently at the African Studies Centre, Leiden, suggests the informal sector represents a node of resistance against globalization and state encroachment. Cheru summarises by saying that ‘a closer look at the informal sector in Africa provides a glimpse of what could be achieved if Africa’s economies and financial policies were more attuned to the continent’s everyday realities’ .

Yet my research has suggested that decolonisation through indigenous culture within this important yet under-represented sector of the economy is deficient through a weak voice and lack of agency.

Indigenous culture in this sense is often viewed as an artefact to be preserved and packaged for Western consumption, rather than a lived, dynamic, interactive and diverse contribution to global discourse.

Social media giving voice to dynamic indigenous culture

The emphasis in the White Paper on the impact of digital technology on the arts, cultural and heritage sector is apposite. According to Facebook ‘… there are 100 million people coming to Facebook every month across the African continent, with over 80% on mobile.’ The widely reported voice that Facebook and Twitter gave to the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia has provided a springboard for exploring the potential of social media to give greater voice to indigenous cultures within South Africa and beyond as a dynamic lived experience.

With the development of the South African Cultural Observatory and publication of the White Paper, ‘culture’ is coming increasingly under scrutiny. With implications for other African countries, there is now a real need to rethink culture and cultural production in South Africa in terms of:

  • A lived culture. I particularly like the definition of ‘culture’ given in the White Paper as ‘The dynamic totality of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual, emotional and aesthetic features that characterise a society or social group, including its arts, but also intangible aspects such as values, worldviews, ideas and beliefs, and the expression of these in individual and social behaviour, relationships, organisational and societal forms, and in economic, political, educational and judicial systems’. Yet this needs to be more fully embraced as a working definition, and one which encompasses the totality of South Africa’s unique cultural heritage.
  • Cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue. A major policy emphasis was heralded by the UNESCO 2011 New Cultural Policy Agenda when it stated that ‘The new cultural paradigm is about the shift from the “fruitful diversity of cultures”, which used to be considered as coinciding with national boundaries, to “cultural diversity” as a result of constant processes of change and exchange among peoples, ideas and creativity, sustained by intercultural dialogue.’ Cultural heritage is about interchange, and often one which is not played out on a level playing field. Diversity and intercultural interaction is underpinned by power dynamics. South Africa knows this, perhaps more than any other nation on Earth. This isn’t just historic, it is in the here and now. There is no discussion of these power dynamics in the UNESCO Agenda. This absence is also reflected in the White Paper, and the National Research Agenda. No policy in South Africa is complete without this discussion. This discussion could make a significant global contribution to our knowledge and policy on cultural heritage, and on decolonizing culture.
  • A process of decolonization. Yet I fail to see how this can happen without the previously mentioned discussion and analysis of power dynamics within intercultural interaction and diversity of cultures. It also requires a major challenge to the nature and dynamics to what UNESCO has called the Culture Cycle – creation, production, dissemination, exhibition/reception/transmission, and consumption/participation – which has also been adopted by SACO in its Research Agenda . This largely goes unchallenged within the formal commercial, governmental and non-governmental sectors as discussed above. There is a need to look at indigenous entrepreneurship and cultural management predominantly within the informal economy, as a vehicle for challenge and change. We can learn much from the informal sector.
  • A dynamic in the age of social media. There is a need to explore how culture is experienced, expressed and sold differently; how cultural heritage is propagated and preserved differently, and; how indigenous culture (in its broadest sense) has potentially a stronger voice and agency. This has fundamental implications for the UNESCO Culture Cycle and, in the words of SACO’s Research Agenda for ‘..the development of “a diverse, socially cohesive society with a common national identity”’ as well as meeting South African Department for Arts and Culture’s 2014 Strategic Plan priorities of inclusive economic development, nation-building and social cohesion programmes, as well as radical economic transformation

As a critical cross-cultural management scholar I’ve learned much from South Africa since 1996. Certainly more than South Africa has learned from me. There is a gap in scholarship and policy on cultural heritage that needs to be filled. South Africa should take a lead in this. It is indeed now time for South Africa to start talking back, and to challenge the discourse on decolonising culture and cultural production, interrogate the concept of indigenous cultures and diversity, and contribute to global discourse on lived culture and its contribution to sustainable and culturally appropriate development through the dynamics of social media and digital technology.


  1. Good evening, Mr. Terrence Jackson. My name is Fabrice Ndanga. I must say that I like to read you, because I am very passionate about cross-cultural management in Africa. While I was writing my master thesis on management research in the African context at the university of paderbon (Germany), I realized that you are one of the rare authors to have done much research on management in Africa. Currently I live in Ivory Coast, and I aspire to be a successful businessman . However, I am increasingly interested in doing an external doctoral degree on cross-cultural management in countries such as liberia, Sierra leone, Guinee conakry and Guinee bisau. These countries are absent in the literature of management in Africa since they have experienced chronic instabilities.

    1. Thank you for your comments Fabrice. Would be happy to discuss how you might best do your PhD in this area, if you would kindly get in touch via my email.

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