It was a Thursday when I visited the National Archives in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa – a little used archive but a friendly one. I happened to be the only visitor at the time which was probably a good thing, given my reaction when a document was brought to me by someone in almost traditional Zulu dress. There’s all this nonsence about appropriating other cultures clothing, yet I seldom see people of different cultural backgrounds wear their culturally related items unless they’re going to a formal occasion. One of the many things I get angry about having grown up under Apartheid was that I, classified white, was deprived of experiencing our rich South African cultural heritage. It’s only in subsequent years and having spent time in Tanzania and visiting other African countries that I’ve been able to do so and proudly embrace it despite some of ‘my own’ [white and black] having issues with it. So, you can imagine my reaction on seeing a South African black employee in near traditional dress in a government building during working hours. I therefore did the natural thing and asked, only to be told, ‘we’re a cultural institution.’ I prompted further, explaining I’d not come across this in Pretoria or Cape Town on any of my visits to similar institutions. It then materialised – it was ‘Culture Day.’
Not long after another staff member came through in a Madiba shirt, not too unsual in post-1996 SA, but the context was becoming apparent. Permission was given for taking a photo but before it could be taken, my Zulu had disappered. He returned carrying his own camera for our cultural day photo – I, fittingly, was wearing trousers made out of Masaai blanket. The reading room assistant then disappeared saying he was going to ‘call the chief’ – ‘what now?’ was going through my head when a tall white woman and a man came in. She was addressed as Chief – I still don’t know her name, and she explained about Culture Day. Once a week, usually Friday, but as that Friday would be Heritage Day and a holiday Friday had become Thursday, was deemed Culture Day when staff were encouraged to wear something specific to their culture. So, my Zulu man was dressed appropriately, as was his colleague in a Madiba shirt, the white man whom I’d seen come in earlier to explain something was wearing ‘vellies’ or veldskoens – shoes for the field/veld – made of leather. The premier/head of Arts and Culture of Kwa-Zulu Natal was the inspiraton behind the day and encouraged staff across the province to participate. More photos were taken – black and white standing together in front of a map of Africa celebrating our diversity and unity.
Natal, in feel, is very different to other parts of South Africa, perhaps because there are fewer different cultural groups and that it’s relatively small, but as a visitor in my own country, I felt incredibly welcome and more importantly ‘part of’. Thank you Nicholas Maduna, Siyabonga Mncwango, Thando Maphumulo, the Chief and others for making my visit to your place of work such an incredible experience – wouldn’t it be wonderful if this spirit could be spread across the rest of the country?