Caught between an ugly past and unknown future, young people thrive in the present
South African youngsters find themselves at the epicentre of a cultural vacuum, where mores of culture are being substituted by modes of lifestyle.
Their sense of being is increasingly superseded by their way of doing.
Contrary to the perception that young people are drawn to what is foreign because they believe it is better, I think that their cultural appropriation decisions are made in self-preservation mode.
History tells young people that their ancestors could not fight off foreigners who stole their land, livestock, living and lives.
Their present tells them that they have inherited the generational sorrows of that past defeat, and battling intergenerational trauma is the story of their lives; that it is only the future that holds any hope of redemption.
Surely this would explain why the legacy of the past is disheartening, the present is overwhelming, and solace only lies in future aspirations.
This is why they would rather be in no-man’s-land, making it up as they go along, than be embedded in a culture that engenders a life of surviving but not thriving.
There is, of course, a longstanding outcry against young people forgetting their roots, abandoning their culture, undermining their customs and disrespecting their elders.
The custodians of culture insist that if you don’t know where you come from, you won’t know where you are going.
The pragmatist dismisses the notion as a fallacy peddled by superstition, fear and sentimentality.
I think we could get some insight into the mechanics of the cultural vacuum by understanding how young people would engage this expression.
One of the first people to use the expression was James Baldwin, an African-American writer and social critic, who stated: “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”
I interpret Baldwin’s axiom to mean that knowledge of your history affords you wisdom to achieve more than you would if you relied only on first-hand experience.
Baldwin appears to be romanticising heritage and overlooking that culture comes with its own bouquet of limitations because of the fallibility of the people who construct it.
In this respect, young people often question why some staunch cultural advocates appear to be barely surviving.
Instead, they are poor ambassadors of a heritage supposedly rich in wisdom.
British author Terry Pratchett turned the expression into a sequential process, and said: “If you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are. And if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong.”
A young person would most likely dismiss Pratchett’s formula, believing that – using an example of the technological age – every time you lose your way or take a wrong turn, the GPS course-corrects and begins your new route from where you are, not from where you initially started.
In other words, young people are not afraid to make mistakes or to get lost; their greatest fear is not trying at all (think of the expression “yolo” – you only live once).
So a cultural code of conduct with threats of doom and death won’t faze someone who is not afraid to die, to take risks, to fall and to fail.
Another interesting version of the expression is by tennis star Maria Sharapova: “If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know who you are”.
Sharapova makes the incisive point that the previous versions I have mentioned only alluded to.
She makes the direct connection between heritage and identity, which I think is the gist of the cautionary expression.
In terms of identity, the basic scenario would be that the youth know their paternal and maternal family, their geographical origins and where they feature on the family tree.
A more comprehensive genealogy would need to date back centuries and include a repository of inherited mores – customs, values, traditions, morals, practices and so forth.
However, a host of historical cultural twists and turns means that a young South African may not be able to trace their roots and accompanying knowledge heritage.
All that they can access are arbitrary accounts of what is done “in our culture”.
No wonder the idea of “who you are” has become a placeholder for whatever a young person decides to identify as – as and when.
African-American author Maya Angelou expanded on the expression, but with a caveat, when she said: “I have great respect for the past. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going. I have respect for the past, but I’m a person of the moment. I’m here, and I do my best to be completely centred at the place I’m at, then I go forward to the next place.”
Angelou makes it clear that the past deserves honour, but that it is the present that demands priority because it informs progress.
It is interesting that this perspective, which focuses on the present, comes from an elder and, as such, breaks the stereotype that elders use the past as their compass.
I think a young person would admire Angelou’s view and consider her woke in that she is culturally conscious, but also pragmatic.
This is the “gogo” who all the kids would have gathered around for practical advice on how to navigate a diverse and promising but scary world.
I think there needs to be a partnership between ancestors (elders) and descendants (youngsters) which combines strategies for surviving and thriving; a pragmatic relationship between culture and lifestyle.
This will not only fill the cultural vacuum, but will do so in a way that harnesses the past, the present and the future – each according to their time zones.
While elders are custodians of the past, young people are the custodians of the future.
Together, they are the architects of the present.
Setlaelo is an author