Cultural Villages: Defining Moments Or Problematic Perspectives?

By Charlene Houston · 2 Mar 2012

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Picture: blackwych/Flickr
Picture: blackwych/Flickr

In a recent media article, the Mayor of Cape Town’s spokesperson stated that the City intends to establish a Khoisan village in Hout Bay’s Hangberg fishing village, as a way of building an inclusive city. In the past, similar announcements have been made in the context of boosting tourism in the village.

The question we have to ask is not just whether this village would be up to the task of fostering inclusion in a city now widely acknowledged as racially segregated, but more importantly, what do cultural villages themselves really represent?

A cultural village can be described as a designated, controlled space where “traditional” culture would be on show for visitors to gain insight into how a particular ethnic group lives. Visitors to a cultural village will find people who represent a particular ethnic group living there, wearing “traditional” dress and going about everyday life while on display.

The cultural village has to emphasise what is different or unique about each ethnic group. There are cultural villages across the country that focus on Xhosa culture, Zulu culture, and so on. There are no cultural villages focusing on Caucasian people.

The notion of a cultural village can be seen as a modern day diorama.  Dioramas were first used for displays of landscapes, habitats and objects in natural history museums. Quite problematically, a diorama was used at the South African Museum to display scenes of the early lifestyle of the San as if they are animals in nature. The display was located in the Natural History section (where nature and animal life is displayed). Today we still find San Rock Art on display in the Natural History section, not the National Art Gallery. 

These representations of the San are of a frozen, static culture. San culture could only stay the same if they were people without history and people who do not experience change. In this regard, the cultural village has the same effect as the diorama. 

Research indicates that what we produce as heritage is the result of conscious consideration. Evidence shows that decisions about what is celebrated, remembered or memorialized are often based on who has power or money.

South Africans are keen to display heritage that has been suppressed or hidden under Apartheid. There are many controversial discussions about what version of the story is told or who is recognized and often the perception is that those connected to the right people or with friends in powerful places get acknowledged through heritage production in the form of biographies, street names, films, place names, monuments and in museums and cultural precincts.

So heritage is not inherited - it is interpreted over and over again depending on who is in control of the process whereby it is produced. Therefore, heritage production will always be contested and thus provides stimulus for useful public dialogue.

Guides from !Khwa ttu, the San Education and Culture Centre 70km north-west of Cape Town, report that visitors often question their San ancestry because they are not small and/or light skinned or because they speak English and are dressed in jeans and T-shirts. The negative consequence of stereotypical images that have been circulated is such that when people meet the real live subject, in this case the San, they struggle to accept their bona fides.
The term Khoisan is a convenient way to refer to the San hunter-gathering communities and the pastoral Khoi people who later shared space with them after migrating to Southern Africa. However, there are cultural differences between and within the San and the Khoi communities and the San’s existence dates back to a much earlier time in history. Thus, in the context of discussing a cultural village, it is inappropriate to use a catchall phrase such as “Khoisan”.

André Vaalbooi of the ‡Khomani San community once said, “I think the people do not know the Bushmen. They think that all of us are the same.”

Heritage production offers us defining moments because it is about creating identity. It can play a positive role in developing a sense of citizenship and belonging while at the same time contributing to healing and reconciliation in a nation that has a regretful history.

However, the commercialization of heritage tends to limit its potential with respect to achieving this important work. Unfortunately, these projects still tend to define “types of people” in terms that served the interests of colonialism for generations.

As the “previously oppressed” reclaim identity in different ways, it is important for us to take care not to reinforce notions of a static culture through tourism, or to emphasize the idea of African people as backward and unable to embrace modernity by representing them as a people in need of enlightenment.  

The San who manage !Khwa ttu work against using stereotypes and a frozen idea of culture. They have produced heritage products that connect their past with their future. They weave the impact of environmental change, oppression and colonial conquest into their representations. They are living in the present and reinterpreting past practices to make meaning in our changing world. This is all reflected in their exhibitions and other methods of representing themselves.

The creation of a Khoisan village does not in itself promote an inclusive city. It is a case of history or culture in the service of business interests. This commercialization of culture, especially aimed at enriching a few individuals, goes against the communal ethic that we associate with the early economies of the Khoi and San people.

The connection between heritage and tourism cannot be overlooked. Cultural tourism is central to tourism in South Africa and has influenced most of our heritage products. However, it is clear that the concept of a cultural village is designed with the European tourist in mind.

Even townships have transformed from political hotspots to tourist destinations and now it’s the defining moment for Hangberg. How will they define their heritage?

Perhaps this one will be different to other cultural villages that are stereotyped. Like some community-driven museums and cultural centres, it is possible that this space can be used to interrogate problematic representations and to take a critical look at citizenship. 

To achieve this outcome, it is critical that the initiative be community driven from inception such that there is community ownership of the outcome. A transparent, participatory, widely representative decision-making process around the politics of the establishment of the Khoisan village will lay the basis for inclusion. This must also include decisions about profit sharing.

Important issues that community members must take the lead in determining are: What purpose will the displays at the Khoisan village serve? Whose interests will they serve? What are the relationships through which the cultural village and its displays will be produced? And finally, what will the displays portray and what is their message?

These questions about the politics of heritage production serve to make us conscious of how we create meaning through representations of life – both in the present and in the past. As the experience of the guides at !Khwa ttu remind us, culture and heritage is not static.

If handled carefully and with the respect that something as important as a people’s heritage should be accorded, this project could also offer Cape Town the opportunity to further discuss and debate racial segregation (the plague that continues to punish previously oppressed Capetonians). We may even get to the point of talking about how to close this divide.

In short, the notion of establishing a cultural village in Hangberg holds incredible potential for the project to create an inclusive city. But this won’t happen if it is approached as a commercial venture.

Houston is an activist, storyteller and public history scholar based in Cape Town.

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