Don’t touch me on my culture

Vootrekker

Chinese people and the Voortrekker Monument. It’s not an association you’d usually make and yet, by all accounts, Chinese tourists are flocking there.

There is some debate over why this is happening. Some attribute it to unimaginative tour operators eager to show visitors the world’s biggest wheelie bin. Others defend it as a destination, saying that it’s almost certainly the world’s best monument to Voortrekkers.

For my part, I suspect they’re going there because they think it’s a Chinese-built nuclear power station, complete with biltong fuel rods kept cool in pools of distilled denial. Or perhaps it just looks comfortingly familiar, its monolithic outline reminding them of the Glorious People’s Dissent Incinerator back home.

I can imagine them walking in a long line, taking photographs and dutifully listening to audio-guides. But here’s where it gets interesting; because at some point a couple of them might gaze at the hallowed concrete ox-wagons, make delicate gurgling sounds, and spit. Is this an act of ideological iconoclasm? A political statement about manifest destiny? No. It’s just spit.

It would be a wicked generalisation to suggest that all Chinese tourists spit like footballers, but it would be overly polite to pretend that many don’t. Indeed when the tour buses disgorge tourists at the Chinese restaurant near my home – a neon-lit temple to tartrazine and MSG – some of us locals give them a wide berth.

But, oddly, give them a wide berth is all we do. Sometimes we glare disapprovingly, but none of us ever goes up and says: “Welcome to South Africa. Just one thing: in this country we try not to glaze our public spaces in sputum.” Why? Because, we assume, it’s their culture, and culture, above all, is beyond reproach.

Culture is riding high these days, whether dripping off promenade railings or leaping off the front pages of newspapers. Some of it has been joyful, for example, Easter, a cultural event celebrating sacrifice and rebirth at which children are pumped full of sugar so that their parents might understand the true meaning of suffering.

Then there was the revelation – or was it a Revelation? – that Nkandla is a holy place, and that culture dictated that a man should never be touched on his kraal. (Does this make Thuli Madonsela the Richard Dawkins of South African politics, or simply the devil? Watch government news feeds for details.)

The Japanese have been at it too, running the culture flag up the masts of their whaling fleet to see if anyone salutes: according to Tokyo, the new ban on Antarctic whaling violates Japan’s “whaling culture”. Perhaps they have finally realised that the old “scientific research” chestnut is just making them look stupid. After all, since the banning of commercial whaling in 1986, Japan has killed more than 10,000 whales for “research” without making any major whale-based discoveries, leaving us no choice but to conclude that Japan’s marine scientists have the collective intelligence of a mollusc.

But culture! Ah, that’s a different matter altogether. Tell us you have a fire pool because Public Works made a mistake or that you’re killing whales for endless zero-result research, and we’ll call you a scoundrel. But tell us it’s your culture, and suddenly the mockery is replaced with earnest conversation about multiculturalism.

And that’s just how the powerful like it. Culture has been co-opted as a tool by the corrupt, the lazy, the violent and the rotten; it is a get-out-of-jail card, as sacrosanct as religion, but used to serve entirely earthly lusts and to gag those who cry foul.

I am not qualified to condemn the idea of culture, mainly because I barely understand it: I am a blurred hybrid of faded cultures, a photocopy of a photocopy, without a clear sense of what it means to belong to any one culture. But I can be suspicious of it. As I understand it, culture is a carapace. It is a protective shell that hardens around the soft pulp of human frailty.

It provides a sense of safety, of purpose, of an orderly progression towards a meaningful future. But if it is to remain useful it must be shucked off at regular intervals to allow us to grow and change. To leave it unchallenged and unexamined is to risk having our humanity prescribed to us by the small, suffocating confines that kept our ancestors safe but which are no longer useful in this time and this world.

So next time you’re at the Voortrekker Monument and you see a Chinese visitor letting fly, perhaps have a word. Then again, why are you at the Voortrekker Monument? Oh, it’s your culture? Okay, forget I said anything…

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First published in The Times and TimesLive

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