Heritage, Rugby and the Rainbow

By Charlene Houston · 21 Sep 2011

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Picture: letdown102
Picture: letdown102

The discerning tourist knows that cultural displays are staged by locals to meet her expectations. Those responsible for the opening ceremony of the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand understood that the world wanted a unique, definitive ‘kiwi’ experience.

While I enjoyed the ride, revelling in the journey through the indigenous Maori people’s history complete with interpretative script, I thought about our own staging of culture in South Africa. What is the gaze we respond to?

South Africans generally use the stage at official opening events or in cultural villages for a spectacle dominated by dancing natives representative of the ‘Zulu nation’ in tribal dress, usually in celebratory mode. In doing this, we struggle to reflect our nation in all its diversity and moods.

The performance extends beyond the stage, as we also tend to amplify our citizenship of the rainbow nation when we run into tourists or when we heed the call to support our national sports teams.

The problem with the rainbow nation narrative is that we only wheel it out for visitors and then we tuck it away again, as we continue living in our separate worlds, doing all we must to avoid having the courageous conversations that can set us on a path to authentic unity.

With the Rugby World Cup upon us, headlines such as ‘Unite behind the Boks’ and ‘Be the rainbow nation again’ give us the signal to turn on the performance again. It’s become an open cultural secret among South Africans that we ‘behave for the visitors’, sweeping our family problems under the carpet.

Rugby has a close association with the national project. The Rugby World Cup theme song, “World in Union,” took on a special meaning for South Africans when it was sung at the 1995 World Cup, which we hosted. The significance of the combined performance by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and PJ Powers, was not lost on South Africans and its lyrics resonated with the emerging nation’s identity as these extracts suggest:

“Gathering together

One mind, one heart

Every creed, every colour

Once joined, never apart”

The song’s verses portend the beginning of a new dawn, shared destiny, and life of dignity for all South Africans. It has also received substantial airtime on radio stations in the run up to and during the 2011 world cup. At the same time, the movie Invictus has also been rescreened on television, contributing to the ‘gees’.

This reminds us of Mandela’s position on sport, as an activity that has the power to unite, and unconsciously, we are cued to embrace rugby and the national team.

I’m not implying that there’s a problem with this, but rather drawing attention to the way the elements of our culture come to be.

South Africa’s oldest living rugby fans have lived through transitions from British colonial oppression to apartheid and then to democracy. These systems have both contributed to and scarred the cultural landscape. Seventeen years of democracy has been a relatively short time to correct their negative effects.

Healing or “moving on,” as we like to call it in South Africa, is only possible when we can “let go” of the hurt. But this will only happen when we have an honest dialogue about the past, acknowledging each other’s perspectives, seeking pardon and in this way allowing others to release their burdens. Then the rainbow nation can transcend superficial displays to become more of a way of life and a genuine culture.

South Africans can’t afford to undermine the power of “cultural work” in restoring dignity, identity and humanity to our people. We ought to be taking the work of representing diverse cultures in South Africa more seriously.

Unlike the last Rugby World Cup hosted in New Zealand, this time the organisers met the expectation of the tourist’s gaze for more of that “haka stuff.” Apart from the music associated with New Zealand, it was good to see that the story did not pretend that the Maori were always in New Zealand. It showed them arriving in their waka. The sea was a strong part of the narrative, appropriately so, since the harbour was the genesis of so much cultural interaction (like South Africa). It was reassuring to see a progression through New Zealand’s history, which included acknowledgement of the recent and devastating earthquake in Christchurch.

In contrast, South Africa’s mainstream heritage practitioners have come up with a set of customs, languages and dress that are too rigidly defined, thus having the effect of boxing people into cultural stereotypes. In appeasing the curious tourist, mainstream heritage practitioners have come up with a number of products that say “this is Africa” or this is “Zulu/Ndebele/San.”

These stereotypes of people are based on apartheid and colonial categories of African and South African people. It suggests that culture is fixed, whereas people are constantly relocating, shifting identities and groups, speaking different languages to what is expected, eating foods not thought to be typical of them and adjusting their value systems as they are influenced by new (and old) ideas.

British sociologist and cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, says the meaning of something is constructed and therefore changeable as a result of actions that create that meaning.

For us here in South Africa, Heritage Day has become Braai Day and Women’s day is confused with Mother’s Day or even Secretary’s Day, as many women have observed recently on Facebook and Twitter. Rugby, or sport in general, has come to signify the unity of all South Africans. These changes remind us that culture is dynamic and not fixed.

As Heritage Day approaches, our official showcases could learn from community museums, dissident artists, independently funded historical and cultural projects as well as academic and other initiatives where cultural workers have found ways to represent change and its impact on cultural practices over time, moving away from representations that perpetuate stereotypes.

We’ve now been enticed to visit New Zealand, expecting our own Maori experience. Think about whatever you see on display at Auckland’s waterfront, Queen’s Wharf. Remember there are no lions roaming and no loin clad, spear brandishing men to be found on Nelson Mandela Boulevard.

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

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23 Sep

Maori Robbed Off Their Land

Perhaps you'd do well to remember that the Maori were robbed of their land and rights and that there are no half clad Maori warriors wandering around Auckland or Wellington either, you patronising person. Is this some group whinge you want - oh, we're so awful, look how much better other white colonial nations can rip off local cultures. I must pack for Perth 'cos there they've actually killed most of the locals so its really safe...

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H Hlongwane
26 Sep


This is a really wonderful wonderful piece of writing especially because we struggle to be honest about our lack of a national identity and the fact that the rainbow is a myth. The essentialism of a south african culture is not served by portraying one persepctive of South Africa as a broad expression-e.g zulu dance,as you rightly say. Keep writing and ignore the well named asinine.

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