Diatribes against American cultural imperialism would be more convincing if the victims tried, just a little, to resist it. Instead they swoon before it, much like the heroines in Mills & Boon romances used to melt with feigned reluctance before the forceful attentions of the dark and handsome stranger.
Take October 31, a date that until half a dozen years ago had zero traction in the South African cultural psyche. But this is Halloween — originally a European religious fast for the dead, predictably transmogrified by America into a feast for the consumer. And as is increasingly the trend, the SA media was full of it, in every sense of the phrase.
The website southafrica.co.za, a self-proclaimed repository of that which defines our uniqueness, was tweeting ‘cool zombie games for Halloween’. Cape Town’s Labia cinema billed ‘Africa’s most exciting Haloween event’, with dress-up prizes and a zombie walk.
And Durban’s uShaka Marine World has a regular Haloween celebration sponsored by Coca-Cola — that ubiquitous epitome of Americanness — where ‘a frenzy of dressed up children and weird and wonderful costumes roam the grounds’. Pity the dolphins.
On the other hand, what could be more American than uShaka, with ersatz Zulu ethnicity in-spanned to front Miami-style dolphin displays? Those pretty dolphins probably blow in Southern drawls and truly look forward to their annual trick-or-treat extravaganza.
So-called ‘zombie walks’ unfortunately aren’t confined to the the Labia and uShaka. They are also the staple fare at what is still called the matric dance, but which now bares little resemblance to the high-hopes, low-octane affair of my own adolescence.
The matric ‘farewell’ was a rite of passage alright, but on a discount fare. For girls, it often meant a home-made frock acquired with an eye to being recycled into grown-up eveningwear. For boys, it was often the first long-trouser suit, with its appropriateness for future job interviews (browns and fawns) or funerals (greys and blacks) prominent among the purchase criteria.
Now the bling of the American high school ‘prom’ has taken root, with spoilt brats eagerly transformed into zombie consumers and the once-modest ‘farewell’ become an ostentatious display of parental wealth. A promenade it certainly is, with kids decked out in tuxedos and outrageously expensive designer dresses, and chauffeured in ‘elegant classic cars or modern machines for an entrance that nobody will forget’, as a hire car firm punts it in its advertising.
What is most depressing is that such conspicuous consumption is not limited to a few well-heeled schools. The latest trend of keeping up with the Ndlovus at the matric dance has become as much a financial drain on poor black families as is the more-established curse of the lavish funeral — but at least final internment has cultural and social importance, unlike a frivolous teen jol.
Nor does a thriving national culture provide any antidote. In the United Kingdom, which is slowly morphing into the 51st state of the US, Halloween was this year worth a third of a billion sterling to retailers, up from only £12m a decade ago.
So there should be no surprise that these inanities are thriving in SA. Consumerism reigns everywhere and part of the genius of doing business is creating markets where none existed before. Think of such contrived gift-giving occasions as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
But fake Americanised rituals around goblins, ghosties or prancing zombie brats be damned. Perfect contentment would be simply to preserve the SA system of English spelling — a licence, a centre, a concert programme — against marauding internet-borne US imperialists, as well as to curb the epidemic of pseudo-American accents increasingly heard among local ‘celebrities’.