Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Precarity and Performance: The Production of Ngoma Dance and Rooibos Tea as Cultural Commodities in the Post-Apartheid Heritage Industry

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Precarity and Performance: The Production of Ngoma Dance and Rooibos Tea as Cultural Commodities in the Post-Apartheid Heritage Industry

Article excerpt

Sarah Ives. 2017. Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea.

Durham and London: Duke University Press> xv +255 pp.

Louise Meintjes with photographs by T.J. Lemon. 2017. Dust of the Zulu: Ngoma

Aesthetics After Apartheid. Durham and London: Duke University Press> xii + 338 pp.

The heritage industry in South Africa, perhaps more than most places, relies on maintaining links to a troubled past, one wrought by conflict and conquest, racism and exploitation. In the post-apartheid era, in a context of a downward spiraling economy and the concomitant rise in unemployment and inequality, the commodification and monetization of cultural heritage has taken off, albeit in deeply ambiguous ways. Both Sarah Ives, Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea and Louis Meintjes, Dust of the Zulu: Ngoma Aesthetics After Apartheid, consider the origins, authenticity, ownership, and agency surrounding two important South African cultural commodities, rooibos tea and Ngoma Zulu dance performance. Both books explore efforts made by various actors and stakeholders as they construct and make claim to a positive, often idealized, nostalgic image of a cultural commodity, herbal tea in one case and "singing-dancing-drumming warrior" performances on the other. In so doing, the stakeholders seek to redeem each product from negative associations grounded in the colonial and apartheid pasts. Both products are also explained in terms of their "African-ness" by way of their natural origins in Africa among people with "African" identities and also a sort of uber-African essence whereby they gained added legitimacy through the representation of "authentic Africa" as exported to the world. Through often very personalized narratives, including first person observations, both authors raise compelling existential questions about the interplay among things, people, consciousness and identity, and illuminate the complex relations between production and consumption in a highly racialized capitalist context.

Ives, a Stanford-trained anthropologist, and Meintjes, a music and cultural anthropologist at Duke University, paint deeply intimate portraits of the people and places, geographic and temporal, involved in creating, developing, and deploying indigenous identities tied to specific commodities. Both authors write in a lively engaging style with well-organized and compelling narratives. They both also provide first-hand accounts and detailed field notes, in some cases even serving as participant-observers of activities related to the production and performance of the commodities---Ives attends Rooibos farmers' association meetings and Meintjes films helped in the promotion of the Zulu dance performances. A central concern of both authors is the context of profound, persistent precarity in South Africa. The authors emphasize the historical and current precariousness of the majority of South Africans who struggle to make a living in the country. In both stories, the cultural products are also associated with violence; direct violence committed by people, and the structural violence inherent in South African society, past and present. It is, for the authors, this very precarity that defines and makes possible the essence of the cultural resources that people draw upon.

As the authors highlight the continued acute poverty and inequality in South Africa, they illuminate the creative and marginally successful outcomes South Africans have achieved in the heritage industry, but which remain fragile and threatened by the vicissitudes of racism and global capitalism. It is, apparently, a key element of South African brands that the apartheid past and the struggle against it are seen as integral to authenticity. This dimension also accounts for the authors' interest in questions surrounding indigeneity in the heritage industry and nostalgia for cultural forms that can provide opportunities to make a living and hope for the future. …

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