South Africa

South African traditions and customs

What traditions and customs are there in South Africa?

A review of the customs and traditions of South Africa, the southernmost country on the African continent.


Food in daily life

It consists of the traditionally simple food of starches and meats characteristic of an agricultural and frontier society. The early pioneer farmers of Afrikaner sometimes subsisted entirely on meat when conditions for the grain trade were not favourable.

There is only one specialty cuisine on the Cape, with its mix of Dutch, English and South East Asian cuisine. Food plays a central role in family and community life for all groups, except perhaps the British.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

The gift and provision of food, centered on the ritual slaughter of livestock, is central to all rites of passage and notable occasions in black communities. The slaughtering and brewing of traditional grain beer are essential to ensure the participation and goodwill of the ancestors, who are considered the guardians of good fortune, prosperity and well-being.

Indigenous communities maintain their native culinary traditions and apply them on Islamic and Hindu ritual and ceremonial occasions. Afrikaners and people of color gather on weekends and special occasions for multi-family barbecues called braais, where community bonds are strengthened.

Basic Economy

South Africa accounts for forty percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s gross national product, but until the end of the 19th century, it had a primarily agricultural economy that had marginally productive land and relied on ranching.

Because this was the main economic enterprise of both black Africans and white settlers, conflict between these groups centered on possession of grazing land and livestock. In 1867, the world’s largest diamond deposits were discovered in the Kimberley in the Midwest.

The wealth of these fields helped finance the exploitation of the largest gold reef in the world, discovered in the Witwatersrand in 1886. On this vein of gold the city of Johannesburg was built. Diamond and gold magnates like Cecil Rhodes used their wealth to finance political ambitions and the expansion of the British Empire.

Powered by mining, the country underwent an industrial revolution in the early 20th century and became a major manufacturing economy in the 1930s.

Despite the discovery of new gold deposits in the Orange Free State in the early 1950s, the mining industry is now in decline and South Africa is seeking new means of participating in the world economy.

Big industries

Mining remains the largest industry, with earnings from diamonds, gold, platinum, coal and rare metals accounting for the majority of foreign exchange earnings. Today, a significant portion of that revenue comes from owning and operating mines in other countries, particularly in Africa.

With the decline of the mining sector, other industries have emerged, such as automobile assembly, heavy equipment, wine, fruit and other products, weapons, tourism, communications, and financial services.


South Africans are customarily polite and circumspect in their speech, although residents of major urban centers may lament the decline in once-common courtesies.

Each of the different cultural groups – corresponding to native speakers of English, Afrikaans, Tamil and Urdu, and of the Southern Bantu languages, who are from different religions and countries of origin – has its own specific expressive forms of ownership and respect Social.

Black Africans strongly mark the social categories of age, gender, kinship, and status in their etiquette. Particular honor and pride of place are accorded to age, genealogical seniority, male adulthood, and political standing.

Rural Africans continue to practice formal and even elaborate forms of greeting and social respect, despite the fact that such forms are paralleled by a high incidence of serious interpersonal and social violence.

While more Westernized or cosmopolitan Africans are less formal in the language and gesture of etiquette, social status categories are no less marked, whether in the homes of wealthy college graduates or in cramped, cramped working-class bungalows..

The guest who does not greet the parents of a household with the name of their eldest child preceded by ma or ra (Sesotho: “mother/father of…”) or at least one with an emphatic ‘me or ntate (Sesotho: mother /father[of the house]) will be considered rude. The young person who does not jump from a chair to make way for an adult will be subject to a harsh reprimand.

Comparable forms are practiced in Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish communities with an emphasis on age, gender, and seniority, in accordance with religious prescriptions and places of original family origin.

British-born South Africans insist on a quiet and detached reserve mixed with pleasant humor in social interactions, regardless of their private views of others. Afrikaners are more direct and sharp in their encounters, quicker to express their thoughts and feelings towards others, and do not indulge in social legerdemain.

In general, despite the aggressive rudeness that afflicts stressful modern urban life everywhere, South Africans are customarily hospitable, helpful, understanding and very anxious to avoid verbal conflict or bad manners. Even among strangers, one of the strongest criticisms one can make in South Africa of another is that the person is “rude”.


Pre-Christian marriage in black communities is based on polygamy and the health of the bride and groom, which involves the transfer of wealth in the form of livestock to the bride’s family in exchange for their productive and reproductive services on the husband’s farm.

Christianity and changing economic and social conditions have drastically reduced the number of men who have more than one wife, although this practice remains legal.

Monogamy is the norm in all other groups, but divorce rates are over fifty percent and cohabitation without marriage is the most common form of domestic life in black and colored communities.

Despite the fragility of marriage ties, marriage ceremonies are one of the most visible and important occasions for sociability and often take the form of an elaborate, multi-purpose, lengthy communal feast involving considerable expense.


Religious beliefs

Despite the ruling ANC’s socialist roots, South Africa is traditionally a deeply religious country with high rates of participation in religious life among all groups. The population is overwhelmingly Christian, with very few Jewish, Muslim and Hindu minorities.

Among Christian denominations, the Dutch Calvinist Reformed Church is by far the largest, as most whites and some colored Afrikaners belong to it. Other major denominations include Roman Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Anglican, the latter led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Apostolic and Pentacostal churches also have large numbers of black members. Indigenous black African religion centered on ancestor worship and guidance, belief in various lesser spirits, spiritual modes of healing, and seasonal agricultural rites.

The consumption of grain beer and the ritual slaughter of cattle accompanied the numerous occasions of celebration of family and community rituals. The most important ceremonies included life cycle rites such as births, initiation, marriage, and funerals.

Religious practitioners

Indigenous African religious practitioners included herbalists and diviners who dealt with the spiritual needs and ailments of both individuals and communities. In some cases their clairvoyant powers were used by chiefs to advise and prophesy.

Historically, Christian missionaries and traditional fortunetellers have been enemies, but this has not prevented the dramatic growth of hybrid Afro-Christian churches, religious movements, prophecy, and spiritual healing alongside mainstream Christianity.

Other major religions are Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. For Afrikaners, the Dutch Reformed Church has provided a spiritual and organizational base for their nationalist cultural politics and ideology.

Rituals and Holy Places

All religions and subnational ethnic groups have established shrines to their tradition where momentous events have occurred, their leaders have been buried, or miracles are believed to have taken place.

The tomb of Sheikh Omar, for example, a 17th-century leader of resistance to Dutch rule in the East Indies who was transported to the Cape and became one of the first leaders of the “Malay” community, is sacred to Muslims. of the Cape.

Afrikaners hold the site of the Battle of Blood River (Ncome) in 1838 sacred because their leader Andries Pretorius made a pact with his God promising perpetual devotion if victory over the much larger Zulu army was achieved.

The long intergroup conflict over the land itself has led to the sacralisation of many sites that are well remembered and frequently visited by large numbers of South Africans of all origins.

Death and the afterlife

In addition to the beliefs in the soul and in the afterlife of the various world religions in South Africa, belief in and ongoing consultation with family ancestors remains strong among Black Africans.

Important shrines where ancestors are said to have caused miracles include Nkokomohi and Matuoleng caves in the Eastern Free State, both sacred healing sites for the Basutos, and the holy city of Ekuphakameni in KwaZulu-Natal, built by the Afro-Christian prophet Zulu and founder of the Nasrid Church of Jerusalem, Isaiah Shembe in 1916.

Formal communal cemeteries, not a feature of pre-colonial African culture, have since become a focus of ancestral veneration and rootedness in the land.

Disused tombs and ancestral shrines have recently featured in land restitution claims by expropriated African communities who lack official title to their former homes.

Secular celebrations

Secular celebrations and holidays are much more numerous than religious celebrations. The old festive calendar of commemorations of milestones in the history of colonial settlement, conquest and political domination has not been abandoned.

In the service of political reconciliation, old holidays such as December 16, which commemorates the victory of 800 Afrikaner settlers and their black servants over 4,000 Zulu at the Battle of the River of Blood in 1838, are now celebrated as Day of Reconciliation.

Holidays commemorating significant events in the black struggle for political liberation include Human Rights Day, when 61 black protesters were shot dead by police in Sharpeville on March 21, 1961, and Human Rights Day. of Youth, recalling the start of the Soweto uprising, when police opened fire on black schoolchildren protesting the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in township schools, on 16 June 1976.

Other holidays emphasize the social advances guaranteed by the new Constitution, such as Women’s Day, which also commemorates the march by women of all groups to protest against the extension of the women’s approval laws in Pretoria on August 9, 1956.

Arts and Humanities

Arts support

Pre-colonial African cultures produced a wide range of artistic artifacts for both use and beauty, such as clothing and personal adornments, beadwork, basketry, pottery, and external house decoration and design.

Today, these traditions not only continue, but have developed into new and established forms in exquisitely crafted folk and folk crafts, and even in painting. Among the most famous is the geometric design of the painting of the houses of the Ndebele.

Urban South Africa has highly developed traditions across the range of arts and humanities genres and disciplines, long supported by government and liberal universities, among the most prominent in Africa.

During the colonial period, these traditions spread to non-European population groups who also produced renowned artists, scholars, and public intellectuals, despite the obstacles deliberately placed in their path by white apartheid cultural authorities.

Drawing on the work of artists-in-exile such as the painter Gerald Sekoto, painters and graphic artists vividly expressed the struggles and sufferings of black South Africans during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Social dislocation and poverty, along with the rich evocations of a regenerated African popular culture, have inspired graphic artists of all backgrounds in the 1990s.

More recently, other pressing social concerns have taken precedence over the arts and humanities, and public and private support has dwindled.

As the government struggles to make once-racially exclusive arts and educational facilities accessible to all, arts councils have seen severe funding cuts and many once-vibrant arts institutions are closed or threatened with closure. The government-sponsored Johannesburg Biennale art festival has yet to attract a significant crowd.


The country has long had important writers from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Black literature thrived under the adverse conditions of apartheid, but today there is no black writer, playwright or journalist of the stature of E’skia Mphahlele and Alex la Guma from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Yet the white population continues to produce world-class literary artists, including Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer, two-time Booker Prize winner JM Coetzee, and the distinguished bilingual Afrikaans novelist André Brink.

Graphic arts

Graphic artists with a rural folk background who have transitioned into the contemporary art world, such as the renowned painter Helen Sibidi, have found a ready international market.

In the second half of the 20th century, South Africa also produced a number of world-class art and documentary photographers, whose works vividly evoke all aspects of this diverse, powerful, conflicted and divided society. Among these photographers are the elders Ernest Cole, David Goldblatt and Peter Magubane, followed by new talent like Santu Mofokeng.

Performing arts

The theatre, during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, a thriving formal elite and informal folk art, has recently fallen on hard times.

Even Johannesburg, the country’s urban cultural hub, has seen the closure of several major downtown theater complexes, now shrouded in urban decay, and the virtual disappearance of popular black city theater. The large Pretoria State Theater complex has recently been closed due to insolvency and mismanagement.

New opportunities and interesting choreographers are appearing in the field of contemporary black dance, but the public and the budgets are still very small. The four major symphony orchestras in South Africa have also disbanded or are threatened with disbandment.

On the other hand, popular music, especially among black South African musicians and audiences, whether in live performance, recording or in the increasingly diverse industry of broadcasting, is thriving in the new era and offers great potential for artistic and financial expansion.

South Africa has highly trained and talented digital and video artists, but the market for their work in the country is limited. Local television production provides them with some employment, but the South African film industry is dying.

The very slow pace of economic growth and the high and rising levels of unemployment and taxes have created an unfavorable environment for artistic and intellectual development in the new non-racial society. One sector where both artistic and financial progress is taking place is the growth of arts festivals and performances.

The largest of these is the National Festival of the Arts, held each year in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, which attracts large numbers of spectators to a feast of the best new works in theatre, film, serious music, lectures and visual arts and crafts.

Other local festivals have sprung up after the example of Grahamstown, and all have achieved some success and permanence on the national cultural calendar.

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