South Africa

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With 11 official languages, South Africa is surely among the world’s most multi-ethnic societies. Considering its recent history of apartheid or institutionalised racial segregation, including systematic discrimination, land appropriation, and human rights violations, the nation has come far indeed — though most South Africans agree, not nearly far enough.

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The African National Congress has been the ruling political party since the apartheid / minority rule colonial system was dismantled in 1994; with no legally defined capital city, the republic’s 3 branches of government are seated in Cape Town (legislative / parliament), Pretoria (administrative / president and cabinet), and Bloemfontein (judicial / supreme court) — with its constitutional court in Johannesburg. Cape Town is South Africa’s original city and second most populous, though also geographically its smallest; ‘Joburg’ is its largest, while the busy port city of Durban, founded in just 1824, is its most modern.

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The story of South Africa is one of many peoples and a very rich cultural milieu: 80.2% are indigenous or ‘African’, also referred to as ‘Black’ and representing 4 major ethnic groups with numerous subgroups and languages; another 8.8% are officially designated ‘Coloured’ or mixed race, 8.4% ‘White’ (European descent), 2.5% Asian, primarily of Indian heredity, and 0.5% ‘Other’. The Dutch and British both had a colonial presence, while Germans and European Jews also migrated to the country in large number.

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The traditional South African system, of bonded family groups living together in villages, was traumatically disrupted in the 20th century apartheid era, with European colonisation, minority rule and racial segregation, redistribution of land and forced migration, and relocation of impoverished job-seekers from village to city — typically head-of-household males without their families.

 

One dramatic example of such social disruption is that of District 6, an area in the centre of Cape Town that saw the government-sanctioned displacement of 60,000 residents — immigrants, Cape Malay Muslims, former slaves, Xhosa, and Afrikaans [European descendants], generally lower middle class to impoverished. The area, established as such since 1867, was declared a slum, ‘dangerous’ and ‘a detriment to society’, due to its interracial demographics. Its demolition for government use is widely considered today to be a matter of theft and social disruption.

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During the Dutch colonial period in South Africa (1652-1795; 1803-06), slavery and slave trade began immediately in 1652, under the Slavery and Forced Labour Model; it was continued through the early years of British colonisation, ending in 1834 by British decree for all its colonies. Slaves were brought in from other areas in a trading process; many descendants of former slaves live in South Africa today, particularly in Cape Town. Some Africans were complicit, in a desire for trade in European goods, particularly weapons which in turn brought power; others were entirely displaced, such as the pastoral Khoikhoi who were often forced into servitude. Violence was a hallmark of this system, deeply buried within the South African psyche.

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In the mid-19th century, orphaned children in South Africa were typically sold or otherwise placed into servitude; child labour still exists today, equally among boys and girls, and although on the decline remains a key social issue. According to Statistics South Africa, 1 in 4 children live without their parents, 7% of whom are orphaned and another 18% of whom have no parent in the house; currently, more than 500k are working in order to survive — 200k+ of whom have been injured in the process. Being forced to work also severely limits their education level. The profound effect on the psyche of a child who has to parent him/herself, and to work at a young age — to be concerned with the very concept of survival — cannot be overstated.

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One of the ongoing legacies of the apartheid era can be seen in the townships — impoverished communities, the result of earlier segregation and displacement policies, work migration and loss of family and community bonds, unemployment and lack of education opportunities, and other factors. Some of these are formal settlements, while many informal / illegal such have often sprung up nearby; typically, these communities consist of poorly constructed homes too often built by hand from scrap materials, without necessary facilities such as running water or electricity, often in danger of flooding and other disasters, with a high rate of both crime and disease. The oldest of these, Langa in Cape Town, was established nearly 100 years ago and has a 200k population, largely Xhosa; the largest, Soweto in Johannesburg (pop. 1.3 million), was home to both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, site of the strongest demonstrations against apartheid and colonial rule.

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The Cape Malay ethnic group represents another community rooted in slavery, its origins in then-Dutch colonial Indonesia from which Javanese were brought as slaves to Cape Town, later also from other SE Asian colonies of the Dutch — typically by way of Madagascar and East Africa. They introduced Islam to South Africa, along with many other cultural elements in food, language, dress, music, housing, and more. As a distinct group, Cape Malays along with those of Khoisan descent are included in the broader designation of ‘Coloured’ which most often refers to ‘mixed race’ — a political as well as social holdover from apartheid days that, during white minority rule, held a mid-level social status no longer recognised.

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A community of Jewish immigrants was established in Cape Town in the early 19th century; in an early 20th century wave, most came from Lithuania, with a significant number also from the Greek island of Rhodes. The 1937 Alien Act sought to prohibit further Jewish immigration, as did the South African Gentile National Socialist Movement, or Grayshirts, a Nazi organisation, and the pro-German/anti-British — and anti-Semitic — Ossewabrandwag group. At its height, the Jewish community in 1970s reached 120,000; approximately 70,000, of whom 85% are Orthodox, remain in the country today — with heated controversy over the state of Israel and Zionism, pro-Palestinian Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions [BDS] movement, and any comparison between Israeli governance and that of apartheid South Africa.

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One of the strongest associations many people have with South Africa is that of Nelson Mandela, lawyer and freedom fighter against the discriminatory apartheid system, political prisoner for 27 years, and the nation’s first post-apartheid — and first black — president. Mandela, along with Bishop Desmond Tutu, another revolutionary strongly associated with South Africa’s resistance against minority rule and systematised segregation, were leading figures in this endeavour — though criticised by both the leftist and rightist parties for attempting to bridge the gap between them. Mandela is locally known by his true Xhosa name, Madiba, and as the Tata, or Father, of the (newly reborn) Nation.

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Many others also fought against the unjust apartheid system, and many lost their lives in the process; the country hosts numerous memorials to these revolutionaries, viewed by many as martyrs. Their legacy today is the ANC — and perhaps even moreso, the Economic Freedom Fighters [EFF], a far-left political party deemed extremist by some; led by politician Julius Malema, former (and expelled) president of the ANC’s Youth League. The EFF supports land and economic reform, transparency and anti-corruption measures, and other initiatives such as free healthcare and education to bridge the vast socioeconomic gap that remains as a legacy of the apartheid system. It is currently the 3rd largest party in both parliamentary houses.

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The concept of ‘Mother Africa’ is alive and well in South Africa; the continent is known to have been the origin of modern homo sapiens and as such is Mother to us all, a concept also referred to as ‘Mitochondrial Eve’. As to the status of women in South Africa, the nation currently ranks 19th out of 149 on the Global Gender Gap Index; women represent 52%  of the labour force and 42% of parliament, while 73% of women over age 25 have a secondary school education. The Women’s National Coalition [WNC] is an umbrella for all women’s organisations in the country; their current focus is on training women for parliamentary, local government, and community leader positions, alongside basic education and gender issues.

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South Africa has often been described as a country of contradictions, challenges, and potential. Those born after 1994 are typically called “born-frees.” Culturally, South Africa is a widely diverse group of cultures with outside historic influences as well; their collective struggle against apartheid and birth of a “Rainbow Nation” initially engendered a high degree of social cohesion, but the ANC party has also fallen short of many of its original goals and given in to corruption in some areas. Some say that the racial divisions, though prioritised in reverse to the apartheid system, have not lessened but rather become even wider; a large percentage of Afrikaans or those of European descent have emigrated, while the impoverished townships remain. The culture itself is a bright mix, its economy second in the continent only to that of Nigeria, and the only African nation in the G20 — but with unemployment at 29% and a new approach to racial discrimination in policy, the society’s future is unclear.

~EWP

 

United Arab Emirates

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United Arab Emirates, a small island consisting of 7 emirates or sheikdoms, together a federal constitutional monarchy with its 7 emirs or sheikhs as federal council and a president and prime minister elected from among them. Officially an Islamic nation, the country provides for religious tolerance — as it must: UAE population, at 9.5 million, a growth of 5.4 million since 2005, consists of 11.5% citizens — and the remainder, foreign migrant workers. UAE has the second-largest Arab economy after Saudi Arabia.

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Bedouins, one of the earth’s earliest peoples and desert nomads of the Arabian world, are at the core of UAE’s several millennia-old culture. Primarily Arabic and Persian, the Emirati culture has also been influenced by the ancient Romans, Portuguese, and British, the latter of whom were in UAE most recently — from 1922 until its 1966 independence. With such a majority population of foreign migrants, the UAE government has made a concerted effort to identify, strengthen, and celebrate Emirati culture — so that it is not lost.

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In a country with such a high percentage of foreigners, most of whom are male labourers, women represent only 28% of the total UAE population. Gender roles remain largely defined in Emirati culture, and both men and women still wear traditional dress — with modest attire generally required. UAE is among the more conservative Arabic nations; women must have permission of a male guardian to marry or remarry, for example. The status of women is on the rise, however: the number of women in the labour force has recently surged to 51%, and women hold 22.5% of parliamentary seats — with the president decreeing a 50% quota in December 2018. Emirati women are highly educated, making up 77% of tertiary enrollment and 70% of all university graduates.

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Education is highly valued in UAE, well funded with a curriculum set to match the nation’s development goals; the preservation of Emirati culture is also given high priority. Government initiatives of cultural preservation, known as “Emiratism,” include the promotion of Emirati identity, prioritising of citizen employment, and other sociocultural initiatives.

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The fine arts are highly valued by Emirati people. Architecture is inspired by Islamic, Arabic, and Persian styles; there is a strong emphasis on literature and poetry, music and dance. In visual arts, contemporary styles — including themes of social criticism — can easily be seen, in addition to the influences of Islam in sacred art forms. 20190212_165515_3

Emirati culture is a blend of tradition and modernity, of defined gender roles and a current emphasis on gender equality — with education of women far outpacing that of men. Based in Bedouin, Arabic, and Persian traditions, hospitality and etiquette are especially high values. However, the federation has also been often accused of human rights violations — as journalistic freedom of speech is strongly curtailed, and its criminal law, by most measures, draconian.

~EWP

Serbia

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Serbia conjures many and widely varied images. A Slavic culture since 6th century CE, secular state with guarantee of religious freedom — though 85% Serbian Orthodox, and a population of 7 million that is 83% Serbian, this relatively monocultural country has a long history — and a tumultuous modern era.

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In addition to its Slavic cultural foundations, Serbia was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for several centuries, which remains a notable element of Serbian culture today. Soon after Ottoman retreat, Yugoslavia, a composite of 6 countries, was born: first as a pan-Slavic kingdom (1918-1941), then a socialist republic (1945-1992), in which Serbia as such had a leading role; together with Montenegro, a federal republic under this name continued from 1992 to 2003.

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A March 1941 coup d’etat in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia led to the instillation of a weak government — and was overrun by Axis Powers just 1 month later, then partitioned among Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria to the war’s end. In Serbia, the Holocaust resulted in mass murder of Serbs, Jews, and Roma, and the country was second in Europe (after Estonia) to be declared Judenfrei — Jews having been executed on the spot, as in Poland and USSR, rather than deported to camps.

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Communist purges in Serbia, of Germans, Serbs, and Hungarians, took place 1944-45 and resulted in 55,000-100,000 deaths — a figure that remains elusive and controversial to this day. This period of chaos and mass violence ultimately ushered in the second Yugoslavia, this time socialist, with Belgrade as its capital.

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Serbs, at 36%, made up the primary ethnic group. With a ‘Titoist’ single political party government 1948-1990, Josip Broz Tito (president, 1953-1980) remains a cult figure to this day; his mausoleum, “House of Flowers,” is maintained as a shrine — to him, and to Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav Wars (1991-2001) — a series of violent actions among various of the former partner nations — ultimately resulted in 140,000 deaths and multiple charges of war crimes including genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war rape, and are widely considered the most violent wars in Europe since World War II.

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Serbian culture, Slavic with a recent Ottoman influence of several centuries and an especially violent and traumatic modern era, much of which remains unresolved, is not easy to define. Orthodox religion is a strong component, beneath which still lies ancient Slavic traditions; visual and performing arts, literature and music, and aesthetics overall are highly valued. Relationship is primary, especially in the form of family and close friends; there is a staunch pragmatism, of living in the moment — and a certain defensiveness and defiance, accompanied by dark humour, understandable in light of recent history.

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On the Hofstede cultural scale, Serbia scores very highly for power distance or hierarchy (86) and even higher for uncertainty avoidance or risk aversion (92); the culture scores especially low for individualism (25), and for indulgence or leisure (28) — and on the median for masculinity or distinct gender roles (43) vs femininity or overlapping roles, and for long-term orientation or planning (52). Though not easy to describe, it can surely be said that Serbs are passionate — and tend to be proud, both personally and nationally.

~EWP

Malaysia

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Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy of 30 million people — multi-ethnic and multicultural, a key factor in guiding policy. The country has an array of historical cultural influences: once the Malay kingdom, successively colonised by the Portuguese (450 years), the Dutch (130 years), and the British Empire (130 years — minus 4 years of Japanese wartime occupation, 1941-45), independent since 1957. Modern Malaysia consists of 3 primary ethnic groups — Malays + indigenous (collectively called bumiputera) who constitute 62%, followed by Chinese (21%), and Indian (6%) — plus 62 other local ethnic groups, and nearly 10% foreign residents. Social cohesion has long been a primary focus of this nation.

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While Portuguese and Dutch historic influences cannot be disregarded, the British era is the most recent — and remains a factor in Malaysia’s cultural matrix to this day. Elements of this legacy include English proficiency in more than 60% of the population, educational reforms, development of rubber, tin, and tea industries, political structures — and the very multicultural nature of Malaysia, as migrant workers from China, India and elsewhere came in large numbers during the British era. Above all — while never extolling the nature of colonialism — Malaysian culture today has a high degree of openness to the global community as a result of this history.

 

 

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Malaysia is a Muslim-majority culture, with more than 61% of the population adhering to same; while religious freedom is constitutionally protected, Islam is identified as the nation’s official religion in that same governing document — and as such is a key cultural factor. There is a high degree of religious tolerance, if not integration; the three primary ethnic groups generally practice different religions and on this basis, alongside other cultural features, tend to remain socially segregated.

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Owing to the significant Chinese population, Buddhism is the second largest religion at 20%, while Taoism and other indigenous beliefs also factor highly in Chinese Malays culture; most of the Indian culture is Hindu, though some are Muslim, and Christianity, Bah’ai, Sikhism, as well as animistic and folk religions are also present. Malaysia has been criticised by human rights groups not for religious intolerance but for the persecution of the nonreligious — as atheism is culturally and even legally unacceptable.

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The market economy of Malaysia is considered one of the “ASEAN-6” — a top emerging economy alongside those of neighboring Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and also Philippines. Open and industrialised, theirs was considered one of the most competitive in Asia for 2014-15: 6th in Asia and 20th globally. Vision 2020, a development policy launched in 1991, aims for Malaysia to be a self-sufficient, fully industrialised nation by this year. A centre of Islamic banking, the country boasts the highest number of female workers in that industry.

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Malaysian women have a relatively high status among Muslim-majority countries, though average for East Asia; participation in the labour force is 53.5% compared to 77.7% males (2017), while education status is one of the highest globally: 48% females in tertiary education compared to 38% of males, girls consistently outperforming boys in achievement testing, girls encouraged to enter STEM fields, and nearly 50% of researchers are female. While a recent change in government — the first of its kind since independence in 1957 — promised a minimum 30% participation of women, however, this has yet to be achieved.

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Three key areas of concern among Malaysians (2017 survey) are: governance, unemployment, and immigration. Social issues focus primarily on adolescents: teen pregnancy and abortion, alcohol and substance abuse, and suicide, while teens themselves identify post-graduate unemployment and lack of future prospects as a key concern. Other concerns, especially in East Malaysia, are income disparity, social inequality, and lack of political representation. Undoubtedly, these concerns have sparked the recent ‘shock election’ that signifies a major political shift; community initiatives to address social concerns at the civic level have also skyrocketed.

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Malaysian culture, then, is a rich milieu of 3 dominant ethnicities, numerous smaller indigenous groups, historical foreign influences — and attempts both social and political toward social cohesion and some measure of integration, while celebrating this multi-ethnic and multicultural nature. A 1971 “National Culture Policy” first attempted to define Malaysian culture from a legal standpoint, though it is a continually evolving process.

~EWP

Senegal

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Senegal, 108th globally in GDP ranking — and 151st, in GDP per capita — nevetheless has one of the most well-developed tourism infrastructures in the African continent, including a new international airport outside of its capital city, Dakar. Once the capital of French West Africa, with banking and other institutions still serving the area, the country has a newly minted commitment from Senegalese-born entertainer Akon — to build a 2,000-acre futuristic “Akon City” complete with its own cryptocurrency, development to commence in July.

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Senegal is home to a number of ethnic groups, the Wolof making up nearly 50% of the country’s population, with another 24% Fula and 15% Serer. The latter are deemed an ethno-religious group as their indigenous religion is still practiced today, and syncretised with Catholicism in a way similar to Cuba’s Yoruba, Haiti’s Santeria, or Ecuador’s overly of Pachamama onto the Virgin Mary. While French is the official language owing to earlier colonialism, languages of these groups are widely spoken — even in the capital of Dakar, where Wolof is more likely to be encountered.

 

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Though Senegal is constitutionally a secular nation, more than 95% identify as Muslim — and Islamic schools are more popular than the French education system. The Serer indigenous religion is still practiced, though most often syncretised with Catholicism, and a small percentage identify as adherents of Protestantism or other religions. Education is free and compulsory to age 16, though there is still a high degree of illiteracy, with a current literacy rate of 51.9% overall — 64.81% for males and an appalling 39.8% for females, despite a long history of valuing schools for girls.

 

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Women of Senegal have been making steady progress, though gender roles remain largely dictated by both tradition and religion. One area of success is parliament, due in large part to a quota system implemented in 2010: women hold 42.7% of the total seats, ranking 3rd in Africa and 7th in the world for same. They are the only Muslim-majority country with such a record — often accredited to a longstanding Sufi tradition of encouraging the development of girls and women. The World Bank places Senegal’s female participation in the labour force at 35%, however, with income disparity a key issue. Amsatou Sow Sidibe, former — and future — presidential candidate, aims to become the country’s first female president.

 

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The culture of Senegal places an exceptionally strong emphasis on hospitality. Creative expression, in the form of both traditional and contemporary arts, is also highly valued; Senegal is particularly known for its musical contributions to the world. Oral tradition in the form of storytelling, with the professional storyteller known as griot, is another key element of Senegalese culture.

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Senegalese people have a history of colonialism by both Dutch and French, the latter of which remains a significant cultural influence; prior to that time, they were also engaged in the Atlantic slave trade. Having reasserted their independence in 1960, they are a young nation with a quasi-democracy, who have remained largely stable since that time — with a strong work ethic and focus on the development of their nation and their society.

~EWP