Today my Johannesburg tour theme is “Culture”. Linda (pronounced “Leendah”), my guide, and I have decided to head out of town to visit the Lesedi Cultural Village. Located just over and hour from Jo’burg Lesedi was established to educate locals and tourists alike about the main African tribal groups that first lived in the area. Later, we’ll head back to Jo’burg to tour a number of contemporary art galleries located in the trendy “Arts on Main” area downtown.
We arrive at Lesedi just after 10 am. The place looks strangely quiet. There are no tourists around – just a couple of staff. It turns out that I had read the paper wrong and the cultural village and show don’t begin until 11:30 not 10:30 which means that Linda and I have about an hour to kill in the middle of nowhere. Undeterred Linda announces that we’re going for a drive – “To see the dam”.
Within about 20 minutes we’re driving beside a large lake ringed by cottages and docks – it’s quite beautiful and could be cottage country pretty well anywhere.
Tying together the 56 km of shoreline around the lake is the Hartbeespoort Dam. The name means “pass of the hartebeest” (a species of antelope in Afrikanns). Opening in 1923 it took nearly two years to build.
The purpose of the dam was to irrigate over 16,000 hectares of surrounding farmland via a network of over 500 kilometres of canals. The ensuing lake has an area of over 2,000 hectares and contains enough water to fill 78,000 Olympic sized swimming pools!
Although construction of the Hartbeespoort Dam was an important and massive undertaking for the area unfortunately, since the early 70’s, water treatment associated with the dam has been poorly handled. The result has been notoriously poor water quality with the main sources of pollutants being industrial and domestic effluent from Gauteng (the provincial area surrounding the dam). It’s sad – such a beautiful lake, such a noble purpose, such a mess.
Unexpectedly, there is an arch constructed at the entrance to the dam. It was built as a gateway and is an obvious replica of the Arc de Triomphe – a strange sight here in the middle of South Africa. Carved onto the arch are a couple of quotes, one in particular seems ironic in light of the dam’s water quality: “without water agriculture is dry and miserable”.
Eventually it’s time to head back to the Lesedi Cultural Village. The village celebrates five largest traditional South African tribes: the Pedi, Sotho, Xhosa, Zulu and Ndebele.
For a tourist attraction I find Lesedi very well done – interesting and engaging but not over the top kitschy. The village is set up such that there is a “camp” for each of the five tribes. Members of the tribe reside in the village, wearing their traditional clothing. Our “guide” (a very entertaining Zulu warrior) talks to us about the characteristics of each of the tribes as we move from camp to camp.
For me the highlights of the tour include the Zulus and the Pedi camps. The Zulus are fascinating because of their historical significance as warriors while the Pedis wear kilts. Yes, kilts.
First a little about the the Zulus. The Zulus are the largest ethnic group in South Africa and are known as the warrior people. They were among the main aggressors against colonial invasion. In fact, in 1879 the Anglo-Zulu War began as a result of the then Zulu king Cetshwayo refusing the British demand that he accept British authority and disband his army. The Zulus inflicted an early devastating defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana. that was the worst defeat the British would ever experience against any African enemy. In the end however, the British won the war, captured the Zulu king and divided the Zulu kingdom into 13 chiefdoms or sub-kingdoms. These sub-kingdoms re-commenced fighting against each other and the Zulu never regained their independence.
In contrast to their known warriorism, the Zulu are very warm and amicable people at a personal level. Ubuntu (literally, “humanness,” “good moral nature,” “good disposition”) shapes the everyday life of the Zulu people. This comes from a notion that a human being is the highest of all species. There are hundreds of proverbs written about ubuntu.* 1
At 7 million, the Pedi are the second largest African language group in South Africa. This tribe arose out of a confederation of a number of smaller chiefdoms – clearly they understood the concept of economies of scale! Because of their mixed origins I find the history of this group confusing and difficult to follow. What did, however, capture my attention is the fact that the traditional dress for the Pedi men is the Scottish kilt!
Although there is no clear reason why they wear kilts, one of the myths about them goes like this :
In 1878 the British colonial leader, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, advanced north towards the Pedi after defeating the Zulus. The Pedi leader, Sekhukhune, had just fought against the Afrikaners and beaten them. Shepstone demanded 2 000 head of cattle from the Pedi. Sekhukhune handed over only 200, later raising this to 245, plus some elephant tusks.
Shepstone wasn’t happy about it and when Major General Garnet Woolsey arrived, the soldiers went about conquering the Pedi to take their land. The story goes that the men in the front ranks of the advancing British army were wearing kilts, which fooled the Pedi into thinking they were women – so they did not shoot or attack.
By the time they realized that they were mistaken about the British front line it was too late and the Pedi lost the war. Afterwards the Pedi men decided they liked the kilts, which were given to them by the Scottish regiment as part of a reconciliation pact. The kilts remind them not to be so easily fooled.
On the other hand, Dr Deborah James, an anthropology lecturer at Wits University in Jo’burg says that, while it makes a lovely story, it’s more likely that the kilt is used for dancing because of the way it twirls and flips, and because it looks “smart, beautiful and regimental. The men are expressing a kind of military ethic. It’s a combination of modern military with a harking back to the glorious days of [Sekhukhune’s] Pedi empire.” *2 Personally, I like the fact that there continues to be so much mystery around why this African tribe likes to wear kilts !
Here are a few more shots from around the Lesedi Village:
Back in Jo’burg for the afternoon where Linda and I tour a few art galleries. The prominence of South African artists has really grown over the last few years. There are beautiful works, some that focus on the traditional and historical culture of the country, others that take a much more modern approach. I find some of the sculptures particularly breath-taking. We start at a few of the high end, not for your average consumer galleries with art works that are amazing but well beyond my price range!
Afterwards we head downtown to a warehouse district called “Arts on Main”, a much more affordable (and exciting) option. The area is incredibly cool with artists and co-ops operating out of a series of warehouses and shipping containers. It’s a very trendy area, loaded with small cafes and restaurants.
Later that evening, sitting in a popular seafood restaurant in the trendy Rosebank area I’m again struck by how rich the African culture is: the past, present and future are all within an arm’s reach in the art, clothing, music, food and people. No matter where you are in this city. From the Lesedi Village to the Rosebank galleries; from Mandela’s first home to the Constitutional courthouse, everything I’ve seen in Johannesburg speaks of the strong relationship between the past and the present. Yes, there area still huge political and social issues in this city. Shackles from the past have yet to be discarded and still impede forward progress. The current political landscape is, well, less than ideal with enormous challenges surrounding unemployment (currently sitting at 25%), the currency crisis facing the Rand and extreme political corruption at all levels, starting at the top. There are also huge pockets of poverty, the education system needs an overhaul and there are still a number of dangerous neighbourhoods to avoid.
However, in spite of everything Johannesburg is vibrant and booming. One gets the sense that this city wants to succeed. All the people I’ve met have spoken about how Jo’burg is “the” place to be in South Arica. Some even call it “mini-Manhattan”. It’s where the majority of universities are, it’s the centre of commerce and it has an energy that is not found in other South African cities. The downtown core is undergoing revitalization to improve both its image and safety. There are strong art, theatre and music scenes throughout the city. Overall, I think that it will be fascinating to follow Johannesburg in the coming years to see just how far all of its energy can take it!
*1 Excerpt from: http://www.everyculture.com/wc/Rwanda-to-Syria/Zulu.html
*2 Excerpt from: http://mg.co.za/article/1997-06-13-the-tale-of-the-kilt