Opinionista Letlhokwa George Mpedi 7 April 2021

Hounding of isiNdebele activist at Midrand mall speaks volumes about our ingrained apartheid legacy

It is about time that South Africans start celebrating their diverse cultures and people. There is nothing as revolting as witnessing our cultures being trampled upon locally, while they are celebrated more abroad than at home. The same applies to our cultural icons, who we tend to celebrate when they are at their deathbeds or from their graves.

It is often said that “clothes maketh the man”. This antique saying seems to find more resonance in the modern age of materialism, where people are judged by whatever trendy clothes they wear. However, it stands to reason that whoever does the judging must be prepared to be judged as well. This, in a way, betrays the absence of a clear-cut answer to what or how clothes make a man. The point is that the acceptability of clothes worn depends on a variety of factors which include the wearer and the setting – i.e. time, place and occasion. In brief, context matters.

This conundrum was aptly illustrated by the recent debacle involving the Ndebele activist and author, Thando Mahlangu, who was hounded out of a shopping mall in Midrand for wearing an isiNdebele outfit. 

Understandably, the incident drew a torrent of backlash and a national outcry. All of a sudden, it all seemed as if we had taken a giant leap back to the dark days of colonisation, Christianisation and of course, apartheid, when black South Africans were shamed and vilified for daring to wear their traditional attire.

But then, there was something bizarre, and indeed disturbing about that particular incident. The alleged perpetrator, who happened to be a mall manager, was not a descendant of the colonial masters who frowned at all things African, at least from a cultural and identity perspective. As is now public knowledge, the “offender” was “one of us”; a fellow black South African. But yet, he saw something inherently unfitting and inappropriate about Mahlangu’s style of dress. The garments did not fit his definition of a codified dress decorum. Indeed, Mahlangu’s outfit was an ensemble originating somewhere in the heart of darkness. Alien, backward, barbaric and offensive! And so, it was a case of access denied for Mahlangu.

The incident might have happened a month ago, but it still lingers on in our minds. Amid the chorus of condemnation of the management of the shopping centre and the “perpetrator”, what was glaringly missing was why the man resorted to such drastic measures. His actions must be seen within the context of a deeply ingrained apartheid legacy of indoctrinating and brainwashing black children to see everything Western as superior, while detesting all things African. This is the type of self-hatred that was unleashed at Mahlangu, and which manifested itself in the most detestable way imaginable.

Although the resulting anger was understandable, this was perhaps not shocking. Till today, many black South Africans, and indeed Africans, are struggling to shake off the demons of colonialism in them. At the height of apartheid, for instance, many urbanised black South Africans had this “obsessive” penchant for dressing stylishly in designer labels.

As a young boy, I was exposed to such ethnocentric tendencies in my father – a proud construction worker in his heyday. Whenever he travelled, one would mistake him for a lawyer, accountant, or someone in a white-collar job – spared the travails of working in dusty environments. An impromptu trip would not be complete without a three-piece suit and silky shirt, topped with a tie and well-polished formal shoes and a matching hat. My mother, albeit being a housewife, would dress up in a two-piece suit for an errand as insignificant as going to a post office.

I do not by any means suggest that my folks did not deserve to dress well, look and feel good whenever they felt like it. I guess that’s what the period in time necessitated. To be respected, trusted and, most importantly, taken seriously, one had to look the part. We all know of some professions that dictate a particular dress code for their employees, even to the levels that are out of reach. And yet, dress well they do. For example, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the co-founder of the first law firm in the country to be run by black partners, resplendent in his elegant suits, is (still) a sight to behold. He is reported to have said: “If you want to preach a revolutionary message, wear a suit.”

While the recent isiNdebele mall drama was despicable, a lot of good can come out of it. In fact, some good seems to be emerging. For instance, more spotlight is now being shone on cultural prejudices that are (un)wittingly harboured by some members of society, waiting for an opportunity to raise their ugly heads.

Beyond the profession, formal wear was a status symbol in social gatherings. It elevated people’s pride and dignity, ensuring that they kept their heads up. Even so, I must say I am the first to concede that the preceding theory of associating stylishness with dignity is shaky at best. The point is that one can be dignified in any type of dress so long as it is presentable – be it traditional or not – without being exuberant.

Take, for example, Anton van Wouw’s sculpture, The Accused. It is described as follows: “It shows a testifying mineworker, his arms close to his sides, his eyelids heavy and weary, his brow deeply furrowed, and his expression one of bewilderment and unease. There is no way of knowing on which side of the law the mineworker stands, but despite his obvious anxiety, he remains proud and dignified.” Given the fact that the subject of the sculpture is modestly clothed, it can be concluded that it takes more than attire to be proud and dignified. Thus, clothes alone do (or should) not make a man.

That was then. Times have changed. Today, we have the Constitution which protects everyone against unfair discrimination based on, among other grounds, race, creed, ethnicity or social origin, culture or language. The Constitution accords everyone the right to use a language of his or her preference and participate in the cultural life of their choice. It is within this context that the isiNdebele-clad Mahlangu who strode into a mall in his cultural attire was well within his rights to do so. To be thrown out by the shopping mall’s manager for being “indecently clad” in today’s South Africa was an infringement of his rights in the worst manner imaginable.  

It is about time that South Africans start celebrating their diverse cultures and people. That is what “unity in diversity” calls for. There is nothing as revolting as witnessing our cultures being trampled upon locally, while they are celebrated more abroad than at home. The same applies to our cultural icons, who we tend to celebrate when they are at their deathbeds or from their graves.

Coincidentally, the isiNdebele culture, (specifically its painting) is known and celebrated throughout the world. By way of an example, Dr Esther Mahlangu’s artwork has featured on, among others, luxury cars, e.g, BMW 521 (1991), BMW 7 Series Individual (2016) and, Rolls-Royce Phantom (2020). Indeed, her artwork is exhibited at near and far away places. She is proud, rightly so, of her isiNdebele culture, including the signature isiNdebele attire. In 2018, the University of Johannesburg conferred an honorary doctoral degree on her.

Lest we forget, she once remarked that she does not want her culture to die. Neither should we. The question though, is what should we do to preserve not only the isiNdebele culture but all other cultures in South Africa? Yes, something is being done to preserve arts and culture in South Africa, particularly by the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture. However, a question that begs to be answered is “is that something enough”? Judging by the ignorance, errors of judgement or whatever you may want to label it, there is room for improvement.

While the recent isiNdebele mall drama was despicable, a lot of good can come out of it. In fact, some good seems to be emerging. For instance, more spotlight is now being shone on cultural prejudices that are (un)wittingly harboured by some members of society, waiting for an opportunity to raise their ugly heads.

We need to appreciate that if we are to share our vibrant cultures with the world, that cannot happen in a meaningful manner in a climate characterised by self-hate and identity crisis, among others. The task of preserving our cultural values can only be successful if we do it as a collective. One way of achieving this is to build momentum for our national Heritage Day and Africa Day celebrations by encouraging people to regularly don cultural attires, especially on Fridays. This has proven to be successful previously with the wearing of national sports teams’ colours in anticipation of (global) competitions.

As Marcus Garvey reminds us: “A people without the knowledge of their history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. A concerted effort to preserve our heritage is a vital link to our cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational and economic legacies – all of the things that quite literally make us who we are.”

We owe it to our future generations. DM

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All Comments 5

  • Oh come on, a mall manager is surprised by an unusually dressed man and acts unthinkingly. That’s about it.
    But maybe not such a bad thing that this got so much coverage: I hope more people might find the courage to dress unusually -yes, and even tribally – and creatively.
    Makes me realise I dress to fit in, to merge with the crowd, be invisible – not much courage here!

  • While I am uncomfortable with the notion of ‘traditional’ … I am reminded of the title of a book by a leading English art critic Sir Herbert Read many decades ago – “TO HELL WITH CULTURE – like sauce added to otherwise unpalatable stale fish !”

  • Next …. Maybe this mall manager will refuse admission to a woman (irrespective of hue) dressed in a sari ! OR better still … dressed in a safari suit !

  • Once again a big deal made out of a somewhat stupid action by someone in authority. Cry
    racism, it always attracts attention. People just do stupid things, and we see it all the time in
    this country.

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