“Let me get this straight.
Your partner got killed…
… you lost your job, you got thrown
in jail, your girlfriend walked…
… and now you’re a security guard
making 182 dollars a week?
Know what you are, Hank?
You’re a black man…”
This is a quote from Earl (played by Martin Lawrence, an African-American actor) in his dialogue in the director Dennis Dugan’s 2003 movie, “National Security”. He is talking to Hank (played by Steve Zahn, a white actor). They were both rejected from the LAPD and took up jobs as security guards. Hank’s partner in the police service was killed by the same robbers he was chasing after as a security guard with Earl. Earl got thrown into prison for a crime he never committed; his girlfriend left him; and he then got a low-wage paying job as a security guard. All these to Earl were attributes qualifying Hank as a black person – as it is a common experience of African-Americans and black people in general.
I thought of opening this commentary which is meant to be my final instalment in a series that pays tribute to September – which we celebrate as a Heritage Month in South Africa. My readers do know that I am an exponent of the dialectics of culture – as eloquently expressed by that foremost Jamaican-British sociologist, Stuart Hall. The dialectics of culture is a concept that explores the dynamic and often complex interactions between different cultural elements, ideas and forces. It draws on dialectical thinking, a philosophical approach that examines how opposing or contradictory forces (thesis and antithesis as Marx phrased them) interact and evolve, ultimately leading to the synthesis of new ideas or cultural forms. In the context of culture, the dialectics of culture examines how cultural elements, ideas and practices collide, interact and evolve over time.
One of the key aspects of the dialectics of culture is cultural conflict. Cultural dialectics often emerge from cultural conflicts, where different cultural groups or ideas clash. These conflicts can be based on differences in values, beliefs, traditions, or identities. For example, clashes between traditional and modern cultural values are common in societies undergoing rapid social change. This is eloquently articulated by Chinua Achebe in “Things Fall Apart” and Ngugi wa Thiongo in “The River Between”.
This conflict then leads to the synthesis and hybridisation of new cultural forms. When cultures interact and borrow elements from each other, hybrid cultures and practices may emerge. This is evident in the fusion of musical genres, the blending of culinary traditions, and the development of new languages or dialects.
Such synthetic culture may gain hegemony over others in which one dominant culture exerts influence over others. This can lead to the assimilation or suppression of minority cultures, as well as resistance and cultural preservation efforts by marginalised groups. Our struggle against the dominance of the American pop culture should be located within this context. So, let me raise my clenched first to salute Nollywood for challenging the Hollywood aesthetics.
Cultural dialectics contribute to the ongoing dynamism of cultures. As cultures adapt to changing circumstances, they may incorporate new ideas, technologies and practices while retaining core elements of their heritage.
This has been accelerated by the advent of globalisation which has intensified cultural dialectics by facilitating the flow of ideas, media and people across borders. This has led to the coexistence of global and local cultural influences, with varying degrees of adaptation and resistance in different contexts.
This therefore implies they influence the construction and negotiation of cultural identities. Individuals and groups may navigate multiple cultural identities as they respond to the changing dynamics of their cultural environments. It’s within this context that Brandhill Africa™, the publisher of this news portal, brand positions itself as a GLOBAL PAN-AFRICAN competitive identity and an economic diplomacy group.
By the way, on 12 September we also mourn the gruesome death in detention of Steve Biko in 1977. He was a prominent advocate for Black Consciousness, a movement he co-founded in South Africa during the late 1960s. His collection of writings and speeches, “I Write What I Like”, emphasised the importance of Black people in South Africa and across the world embracing their identity, culture and pride.
Biko stressed the significance of Black people recognising and embracing their own identity. He believed that self-respect and self-acceptance were crucial steps in the fight against apartheid and racism. He mused: “Black Consciousness is an attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time.”
He encouraged Black people to reject the notion of racial inferiority imposed by apartheid and colonialism. He argued that Black Consciousness was a way to overcome the psychological damage caused by these oppressive systems. “The first step, therefore, is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth,” he asserted.
Looking at the emerging polarisation of Blacks in South Africa, Biko should be turning in his grave as he emphasised the need for Black unity and solidarity. He believed that Black people should come together to work collectively for their liberation: “Merely by describing yourself as Black, you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being.” The construct of Black in this instance, referred collectively to indigenous African, Indian and Coloured groups in South Africa.
He argued that passive acceptance of oppression was not a solution. He said: “We regard our living together not as an unfortunate mishap warranting endless competition among us, but as a deliberate act of God to make us a community of brothers and sisters jointly involved in the quest for a composite answer to the varied problems of life.”
It is within this Black Consciousness context that I situate the construct of Black – and indigenous African by extension, which I have dealt with previously on this platform – aesthetics. In our world brimming with diverse cultures and artistic expressions, the realm of aesthetics stands as a powerful testament to our human creativity and ingenuity. To requote Biko, it is “the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time”. Furthermore, he said matter-of-factly: “Being black is not a matter of pigmentation – being black is a reflection of a mental attitude.”
The last quote reflects Biko’s belief that Black identity goes beyond physical characteristics; it is about a mindset, a sense of self-worth, and the celebration of one’s cultural heritage. It resonates with the idea that Black aesthetics, as a cultural expression, is deeply tied to a sense of identity and pride in one’s cultural heritage.
Among the many vibrant threads in this rich tapestry, both Black and Indigenous African aesthetics hold unique and profound places. They are celebrations of creativity, resilience and the enduring spirit of peoples whose contributions to the world of art, fashion, music, literature and more have left indelible marks on our global cultural landscape. Black African artists such as Gerard Sekoto; musicians such as Miriam Makeba; fashion designers such as Laduma Ngxokolo; and authors such as Zakes Mda have made significant contributions to the world of art and culture.
Just to illustrate the above point, let me focus a bit on “Maxhosa by Laduma”, which is an iconic South African fashion brand founded by Laduma Ngxokolo, a visionary designer celebrated for his unique fusion of traditional Xhosa aesthetics and contemporary fashion. I had the privilege of witnessing him taking Milan fashion exhibition by storm on 23 September 2015 when I served as South Africa’s Consul-General: Milan, Italy. I saw how she took breath away from the iconic Franca Sozzani, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, during her walk about of the exhibition. His brand has become synonymous with bold and vibrant knitwear that beautifully encapsulates the rich cultural heritage of the Xhosa people. Maxhosa’s designs often feature intricate patterns and geometric motifs inspired by Xhosa beadwork and symbolism. With a commitment to sustainability and ethical production, Maxhosa by Laduma not only celebrates African heritage but also contributes to the global fashion landscape. It’s a testament to Laduma Ngxokolo’s creative genius and his dedication to preserving and promoting South African traditions through innovative and fashionable designs.
The dialectics of culture, like all dialectical processes, involve tensions, contradictions and negotiations. It reflects the dynamic nature of culture, which is never static but continually shaped by the interactions and conflicts among various cultural elements. Recognising and understanding these dialectics can help societies navigate cultural change, celebrate diversity, and preserve meaningful aspects of their heritage.
I believe while we celebrate African culture’s engagements with foreign cultures, particularly the hegemonic eurocentrism, we have to guard against its appropriation. For example, the appropriation of African fashion and cultural elements by Western fashion brands has been a topic of concern and debate. I remember being invited to a fashion exhibition in Milan in 2016 and found on show the Machangani bags by Louis Vuitton which for me highlighted instances where African cultural elements were incorporated into Western fashion without proper acknowledgment or respect for their origins. Yes, a bag we buy for less than R100 retailed for over €3000. As a brand architect, this for me exhibited the power of brand management (including deriving value from brand associations).
I wish you all the best during this last weekend of our Heritage Month. I hope to see some of you at the annual Standard Bank Joy of Jazz taking place tonight and tomorrow at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg.
Saul Molobi (FCIM)
Group Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Tel: +27 11 483 1019
Mobile: +27 83 635 7773