Culture smart

Culture smart

An interesting book title turned up in a search, South Africa: the essential guide to customs & culture by Isabella Morris (2018; London: Kuperard), and was quickly ordered. Its back cover featured enticements, such as it providing a guide to local customs and traditions, the impact of history, South Africans at home, work and play, and most interestingly, dos, don’ts and taboos, as well as other practical advice and information. The cover information also says the country titles iin the series will provide an introduction to the weird, wonderful and downright odd, and give tips to help avoid embarrassing faux pas. It duly arrived and was read. Has its contents lived up to promise?

It is certainly not in the usual run of small guidebooks for travellers. Its contents are much more about custom and culture and less about tourist hotspots, and mainly it is solidly backed by experience and common sense of the author. It doesn’t provide such things as a list of hotels or restaurants, things which quickly go out of date. Its approach is much more sensible and helpful, focusing on many different strands of everyday life and providing a rather over-generalised description of the South African take on this. Over-generalised because producing any generalisation of a country with such complex socio-economic structure is bound to fall short. But know anyone who intends to travel to South Africa and isn’t already familiar with the country? This is a good short book to introduce them to basic information.

There are ways in which it could be better, one of which could be to grasp the nettle of South Africa‘s different cultural/ethnic groups and explore more thoroughly their different circumstances and approaches. Another is that highlighted information (which appears in red text boxes) could have been better chosen. The things that are highlighted are a rather rum bunch – key facts, the TRC, child-headed households and orphans, decolonisation, the African handshake, car guards, tipping, some major highlights, road rage, taxi hand signals in different languages, tsotsitaal, some South Africanisms. And while the prevalence of violence, including sexual violence and rape, is mentioned in the text, this has no appearance in the index nor is this aspect of South African life highlighted in any of the key boxes.

As for the things described as enticements earlier, there is no sign of the dos, don’ts and taboos. And, there is nothing therein that is weird or odd, nothing about faux pas and avoiding them. How interesting to think what the contents would be if these things were central.

Last updated: 6 January 2023


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