The Rainbow Nation
South Africa has often been called the “Rainbow Nation” due to its culturally and religiously diverse people. Out of an estimated total population of 50 million people about 80% are African, 9% are whites of European descent, 9% are Coloureds (of mixed background), and the remaining 2% of the population are of Indian or Asian descent.
The whites consist of a majority of Afrikaners who are descendants of Dutch Protestants and French Huguenots who arrived in the 17th century, English-speakers who are descendants of the English that arrived in the 18th century and onwards, and descendants of immigrants from other parts of Europe including Greeks, Portuguese, Germans, and Jews. The Jews of South Africa have a long history. They have been part of South Africa’s development early on from the time of colonization by Europeans.
The Coloured population are a mix of early slaves brought by the Dutch from other parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, the indigenous Khoi and San peoples of the Cape area, and the Dutch. The majority of Coloured people speak Afrikaans.
The Asian population consists mostly of people of Indian descent. Many Indians were brought as indentured laborers by the British in the 19th century to work on sugar plantations in the fertile eastern part of South Africa. There are also descendants of Malays and Southeast Asians who were brought early on as slaves by the Dutch East India Company. Furthermore, there exists a minority Chinese population.
Due to laws allowing religious freedom in South Africa, there is also religious diversity. About 80% of the population of 50 million South Africans follows a sect of Christianity. The next biggest religious group is Islam. About 1.5 % of the population is Muslim, followed by 1.2% of the population which identify as Hindu, and 0.2% Jewish. A sizeable 15% of the population does not follow an organized religion.
There are eleven official languages in South Africa: English, Afrikaans, Ndebele, Sepedi, Xhosa, Venda, Tswana, Southern Sotho, Zulu, Swazi and Tsonga. Zulu has the most speakers with 24% of the population, followed by Xhosa with 18% of the population, and then Afrikaans with about 13% of the population.
The fruit of South African cultural diversity can be enjoyed in its unique cuisine, often called “Rainbow Cuisine”. Rainbow cuisine is a mix of African, Indian, Southeast Asian, and European influences. Rainbow cuisine combines the traditional African ingredients with ingredients brought by various settlers: the Dutch and British, the Cape Malay, Indians, and the Portuguese settlers bringing with them their own unique flavors from the neighboring former Portuguese colony of Mozambique. Cape Town has become a food tourism hub thanks to the very unique Cape Malay dishes found there.
District Six (Distrik Ses)
The cultural diversity of South Africa was a challenge for the racist Apartheid regime which sought to separate the races (please see my colleague Liz’s page describing the segregation). As a result of Apartheid segregationist policies, many racially-mixed areas were demolished and their residents were evacuated.
One of the most notable forced demolitions was in the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town, also known as District Six. This cosmopolitan area was situated near the center of downtown Cape Town, within view of the port. The population of this dense area comprised of Malays, Indians, Blacks, whites, and immigrants from all over the world.
The fact that this area was a melting pot of diverse cultures, which ran counter to Apartheid ideology, greatly contributed to its destruction. In 1966, District Six was declared a white area under the 1950 Group Areas Act. Over the next decade, 60,000 inhabitants of District Six were forcibly moved and the entire area was demolished by bulldozers. After the end of Apartheid in 1994, many residents came back to the area to share their sad experiences by establishing the District Six Museum.
Some members of our group were fortunate enough to be given a personalized tour of the museum by a former inhabitant of District Six and current Museum Education Officer, Noor Ebrahim. Noor shared his sad story with us and we purchased autographed copies of his touching memoir, “Noor’s Story- My Life in District Six”.
Noor and his family had lived in District Six for three generations. He fondly remembers the cultural diversity of the area:
“We all lived here like one big family. And this, the government did not like. Even holy places like the churches and mosques were destroyed…I remember when they were bulldozing our homes, I was watching it all,” Noor recalls.
The Destruction of Fietas (Pageview)
The Fietas area of Johannesburg, also known as Pageview, was another casualty of segregationist Apartheid policy that sought to keep the races hierarchically separated. Fietas was first established in 1893 under the Kruger government as an area for people of Malay descent. Starting in 1904, large populations of Indians came to settle there. By 1934, the racial composition of Fietas was very mixed as other non-white groups such as Africans and Chinese had come to settle there. However, a strong Indian community had formed a majority.
Starting in 1957, the Africans and Coloureds of Fietas were forcibly moved to other areas by the government. In 1961, the government developed a plan to move the Indian population of Fietas to an Asian-designated area of Johannesburg, known as Lenasia. Starting in 1964, all residents of Fietas were given eviction orders and the area. Despite heavy protests and strong resistance by the inhabitants, almost all of the Fietas area was demolished and declared a white area by 1978. Today, a plaque can be found in the area commemorating the sad demolition of what used to be Fietas.
Muslims of South Africa
Muslims are a unique group within South Africa. Muslims first came to South Africa in 1654 as Malay slaves from Batavia brought by the Dutch East India Company. The first free Muslims, a group known as the Mardyckers, came to South Africa in 1658 from the southern Malaccas and were prohibited in practicing their religion of Islam under the Statute of India Placaat of 1657.
Two decades later, Muslim political exiles from the colonies of the Dutch East India Company (mostly Malay princes and religious leaders) were sent to Cape Town. Some of the famous exiles were princes, Sheikh Abdurahman Matahe Sha, Sheikh Mahmood, and Sheikh Yusuf of the Orang Cayen in Indonesia. There are many kramats (shrines) to Muslim holy men found throughout the Cape area, including a famous one for Sheikh Abdurahman Matahe Sha built at the gate of Klein Constantia. Another shrine, built for Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, the Prince of Madura, can be found on Robben Island.
Two later famous exiles brought in chains were Sheikh Yusuf Abidin Tadia Tjoessoep (who fought against the Dutch and escaped their jail twice) and the Rajah of Tambora, Abdul Basi Sultania of the Majaphit Kingdom of Java. The Rajah of Tambora is credited with writing the first Qu’ran (the Muslim holy book) of the Cape from his memory, while in exile in South Africa.
The number of Muslims increased in the 19thcentury. Slavery was abolished in 1838 in the British Empire. Therefore, the British resorted to indentured labor. Between 1860 and 1911, over 176,000 Indians were brought to Natal, in the eastern coast of South Africa. About 10% of these Indians (mostly from the Gujarat region of India) were Muslim.
In today’s South Africa, Muslims enjoy the right to practice their religion freely. Sharing a long history with the South African nation, they have proven to be an important part of the society. Mosques are found all over South Africa and the Muslim call to prayer (the adhaan) can be heard in all major South Africa cities. South African Muslims also have their own newspaper, Al-Qalam.
Bo-Kaap (“Above Town”)
One of the most well-known and most beautiful areas of Cape Town is Bo-Kaap (“Above Town”). Bo-Kaap, located on a hill, has historically been inhabited by Muslim Cape Malays, descendants of Southeast Asian slaves brought over to South Africa by the Dutch. The first South African mosque was legally built in Bo-Kaap in 1794. Interestingly enough, the first written textual account of Afrikaans as a distinct language was written by the Cape Malay Muslims using Arabic script.
The Cape Malays have preserved their unique identity well. Each year on January 2nd, they hold the colorful Coon Festival in Bo-Kaap. As a result of this unique identity, Bo-Kaap today is a major tourist attraction. Tourists come to enjoy its beautiful brightly colored houses and enjoy the unique cuisine. The Bo-Kaap Museum is a must see for people interested in learning about the history of this exotic place.
Hyperlinks to the sources of information are provided throughout the text. But the following two sources were also used in providing the author with a background of the cultural history: