WITH excitement hitting fever pitch for South Africa’s semi-final play-off against Wales at the Rugby World Cup this weekend, a version of the ancient Maori war dance, the haka, performed by a local group of boys captured the imagination of social media far and wide.
Stomping in the dusty streets of what seems to be a local town in rural South Africa, the group performs their war dance with a mix of Afrikaans phrases and their own moves, and phrases and moves similar to those of the haka made famous by the All Blacks rugby team.
The performance drew both laughter and admiration from bystanders in the video, and quickly went viral with most pundits complimenting the group.
However, albeit on the face of it, playing out innocently, a very particular social dynamic underlies this street performance, namely that of “cultural appropriation”.
Cultural appropriation takes place when individuals or groups make use of cultural symbols unique to ethnic groups different to themselves, assigning meanings and values to symbols other than the original.
Transplanting cultural symbols, traditions and language is problematic, because most often this is done out of context and without reflecting the history, identifies and socio-political associations they may represent.
This dynamic is especially problematic in post-colonial environments that must deal with the histories and legacies of appropriation of local cultural “artefacts” by a colonial power, which represents an enactment of power hierarchies with and between societies.
A prime example of this is the western-styled format of university graduation ceremonies – the season of the year that campuses now enter.
Here students wearing strange gowns and hats, singing ancient Latin anthems and walking across a stage, are capped by senior officials as qualified practitioners and thought leaders.
Such “foreign” formats may well represent a remnant of colonial tradition having captured local custom. However, cultural appropriation becomes a double-edged sword when the less powerful appropriate and assign new meaning to the symbols and customs of the more powerful – cultural appropriation as a performance of protest.
Understood in this way, cultural appropriation is a matter of voice – the agency and freedom of diverse groups to determine and express unique identities in relation to others, especially when diverse groups of people share a stage together, design political processes and live together in shared spaces.
In an ever-increasing globalised world, “voice appropriation” takes the form of cultural symbols and artefacts that are used as commodities for commercial trade, such as when Hollywood appropriates African languages and symbols to represent fictitious African nations – a struggle of “authorship”, not only in terms of copyright but the rights and dignity of groups honoured for their unique origins.
However, cultural appropriation offers a third option to group dynamics in addition to the established notions of misappropriation or protest, namely that of transitional symbols that make new perspectives of the past and original designs of the future possible.
This potential contribution of appropriation follows when the cultural symbols of diverse identities combine to mediate togetherness, build shared identities and celebrate difference.
“Transitional appropriation” emerges when a symbol is known and honoured with a localised version of its original meaning, such as when a group of boys in a dusty street of a rural town in Africa in their own language, and with their own moves, offer a version of the haka to express unity and pride – the original purpose of the war dance of a nation on the far side of the world.
- Rudi Buys is the executive dean and dean of humanities of the private and non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute.
*Originally published in The Cape Argus on Wednesday, 24 October 2019.