With over 10 official languages, a vast range of ecosystems and climates, and a fascinating if chequered history, South Africa is about the most culturally diverse country in the world. But here are five places that show SA’s cultures best.
From the humble Khomani People – known also as the Kalahari Bushmen – to the fierce and noble Zulu, the cultures of South Africa breathe life into the landscape.
Each culture is as distinct in its history, perspective, art and language as the cities to the wilderness and the cold peaks of Mafadi to the baked earth of the deserts.
Within and beyond its boundaries, this country’s cultures are what bring the land to life with a vibrance and vitality that’s hard to describe.
Here’s a short video exploring a few of the most interesting cultural aspects of South Africa:
When we were in South Africa recently, we found it hard to get a handle on the bewildering realms of culture here.
From the arid lands of the Kalahari to the sweeping blue of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, South Africa’s landscape is the beating heart of the romance of travel.
5 places to experience and understand South African culture
Of course, a place like South Africa has a million ways and places of experiencing its culture, but here are the places we think really highlight the country and explain its diversity, attitudes and personality.
1. Where we all came from – the Cradle of Humankind
The subterranean visitors’ centre – Maropeng – is cleverly put together and gives a lot of information about human evolution and the archaeological site.
But the cave system, which you can go into, brings it all to life. You get to see the spot where archaeologists unearthed the fossils of ‘Mrs Ples’, a 2.1-million-year-old Australopithecus skull, and Little Foot, an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton more than three million years old.
These caves continue to deliver evidence of our pre-historic existence and are an active dig site. It’s the one of the richest sources of hominid fossil sites in the world.
The hour-long tour of the caves is challenging at times, with lots of stairs and very low crawl-height ceilings.
2. Soweto, Mandela’s House and the Apartheid Museum
Although Apartheid happened throughout South Africa, Johannesburg was certainly the most affected. Joburg’s townships – slums where black Africans were sent as part of segregation – are now both cultural hubs and important reminders of what people went through.
Soweto, the country’s biggest township with over two million residents, was home to Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, whose house you can – and should – visit.
Stay at Lebo’s in the north of the township and take a tour in their bright yellow tuktuks. You can also hear stories from people who lived through Apartheid at Lebo’s, and the dinners they serve up are excellent.
For more information, check out our full story on Lebo’s and Soweto here or watch our video around Soweto below.
Closer to the city centre, the Apartheid Museum is the most concentrated source of information about the atrocities committed during the 1948-1994 regime. If you go anywhere in Johannesburg, make sure it’s here.
It’s heartbreaking, haunting and utterly horrendous the things people did (and still do) to each other because of the colour of skin. And yet an example of how we can change for the better.
Along with the Seven Pillars of the South African Constitution – democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom – everybody should learn about what happened here.
It’s a sadly under-taught part of our history.
3. Durban’s beaches, Zulus and nightlife
On the east coast of South Africa, the city of Durban looks out across the Indian Ocean. Its 600km of beaches and warm waters are a surfer’s dream, while its cruisy nightlife makes for a perfect break by the sea.
Culturally, Durban is interesting for two reasons: firstly, this area is part of the KwaZulu Natal – the Zulu Kingdom. For a snapshot of traditional Zulu life, you have to visit the Zulu Village at the PheZulu Safari Park.
The Gasa clan have been performing traditional dances, rituals and ceremonies here for over 30 years here. It’s fascinating and beautiful to watch, and the singing and music is enchanting.
Durban is also home to a big population of migrants from the Asian subcontinent. In fact, it’s said that Durban is the biggest ‘Indian’ city outside India. Indians were brought to South Africa to work on the Transvaal railways. They brought many customs and traditions – not to mention food.
One dish unique to Durban is ‘bunny chow’. Nothing to do with rabbits or rabbit food, this dish gets its name from the Indian cooks who created the dish known as bania. A loaf of bread halved and hollowed out, then filled with your choice of curry.
It’s unbelievably tasty and, as people who love a curry, we’re shocked we haven’t had this before.
This restaurant – House of Curries – in Durban’s fun-filled Florida Road is a top spot for bunny chow.
4. Rourke’s Drift and Isandlwana
Made famous by Michael Caine’s performance in the 1964 movie Zulu, Rourke’s Drift is the historic battle site during the Anglo-Zulu wars of 1879 where 139 British soldiers held off over 4,000 Zulu warriors.
More Victoria Crosses were awarded in this single battle than any other in the British Empire.
What the film doesn’t tell you is the day before, thanks to an error by commanding officer Lord Chelmsford, 1,300 of the British colonial army were massacred by an enormous Zulu force at the site of Isandlwana.
Tales of these two epic battles are brought to life by the incredible guides of Fugitives’ Drift Lodge Owners and founders of this beautiful park and lodge – the Rattray family – are widely respected for their work with the Zulu nation.
For more information, you really should check out our full story of the battles and Fugitives’ Drift.
You should also watch our video walkthrough too!
5. On Safari in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and the Kalahari Bushmen
In the Western Cape, a spear of South Africa pierces the Kalahari Desert, its tip forming a confluence of countries: Namibia on the left, Botswana on the right and cleaving between them is South Africa.
This section of the Kalahari Desert is known as the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Not only is it home to a huge number of beautiful native birds, animals and plants, it’s also the lands of the nomadic San People.
For centuries, these ‘Kalahari Bushmen’ have roamed the dessert, but these days the Khomani 2,000-strong community is restricted to a small section of the Kalahari.
As the government tries to reconcile with the Khomani, programmes like the !Xaus Game Lodge – a safari lodge owned and run by the tribespeople – are aiming to give back something back.
We stayed at !Xaus Lodge (pronounced similar to ‘house’ but with a ‘k’) and had an incredible time. There was also an opportunity to visit a Khomani village and speak with some of the San who worked there making handicraft. It was a remarkable experience.
There’s also a short video walkthrough we’ve put together you should check out too:
These are just a few of the ways to learn about and enjoy the wide-ranging and fascinating cultures of South Africa. We loved our time there and can’t wait to go back again. There’s just so much to see and do.
Have you been to South Africa? Do you have a top place you’ve been to there or anywhere that shows off a country’s culture?