Speech by Minister Pallo Jordan Opening of the National Conference on Cultural Legislation

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21 Apr 2007

Thank You, Programme Director,

Advocate Mancotywa, CEO of the National Heritage Council,

Traditional Leaders here present,

Members of our Legislatures here present,

Distinguished guests and representatives from the many organizations and bodies representing our diverse multi-cultural society,

This is a landmark conference and it is indeed an honour for me to address a gathering representing so wide and diverse a spectrum of our democratic South Africa. I believe that the outcomes of this conference will place us in a better position to discuss and enrich our understanding of the promotion of cultural diversity and nurturing the diversity of cultural expression in our society.

The “term cultural diversity” is a concept that under-girds certain intangible, yet very important human rights. Indeed it is enshrined in our own constitution along with recognition of the right of freedom of expression, the right to artistic creativity, freedom of the media, the right of citizens of this country to use the language of their choice, and the right to participate in the cultural life of the country as they choose.

An old song says: “You Never Miss Your Water Till Your Well Runs Dry”. I shall recast that somewhat, to say, “You Never Realize the Value of a Right Until it is Under Threat”! I say this because the pressing need for discourse around cultural diversity is no accident. The urgency that attaches to these discussions today is not unrelated to real, to perceived, to imagined and sometimes, to misconstrued threats to our cultural diversity.

As South Africans we come to this debate with a particular experience as a society; as diverse cultural communities living in the same country; as former victims of cultural aggression; as the former perpetrators of such aggression and as an emergent democracy.

One might say that term “culture” and cultural issues have historically been among the most abused in the policy-making of this country. This was especially so during the days of colonial and apartheid rule. We should always bear that abuse in mind when debating cultural practices. We should never lose sight of the manner in which colonial administrators, Native Affairs “experts”, “ethnographers”, homeland politicians and others linked to past regimes have employed the term “culture” as a one-size-fits-all alibi for abuses of power, for the manipulation of people and their outright oppression. The lessons to be gleaned from that experience might well be very negative, but that experience also carries within it important warning signs that should alert us to the glib use and misuse of notions of culture, of cultural integrity, cultural authenticity and even the “preservation of cultural diversity”.

A few months ago I had the honour to host the President of the People’s Republic of China at the Cradle of Humankind. He visited that site in order, among other things, to make a substantial donation to the African World Heritage Fund. That site, where it is believed the first humans emerged, is the profoundest testimony to our shared humanity. There could not be a more eloquent assertion that all of us are members of the same human family. But, that common descent has not reduced the individual members of our single family into a colony of ants – all identical in every respect - our common humanity does not make for sameness. Just as within a single family unit, there are individuals each of whom is distinct from the other, so too the human family is as varied, as diverse, and is made up of dissimilar units.

But what do the terms we use actually mean? There are probably so many definitions of culture that probably each one of us has his/her own. The definition I tend to prefer is that culture embraces virtually the totality of socially transmitted behaviour patterns, including language, belief systems, institutions, customs, traditions, the arts and all the other products of human work, imagination and thought. What is important in this definition is the notion of “socially transmitted behaviour.” Which implies that this thing we call culture is not pre-ordained, it is not sent down from on high, it is not coded into our genes. Culture is the outcome of the variety of ways that human societies have adapted to, made, remade, reconstructed, deconstructed and recreated their environment. This suggests that culture is not genetically transmitted and is exceedingly dynamic; it is always in motion and is never static.

One can, by extension, also accept that since culture is “socially transmitted behaviour” it is eminently transferable - from one geographic location to another, from one group of people to another, from one person to another, from one environment to another, from one time to another , from one generation to another, etc.

My third premise is that this human family of ours has over the ages built up a huge fund of knowledge and experiences that have been shared amongst us in a myriad of ways. Humans are compulsive communicators, humans are fast learners, with an inexhaustible capacity to imbibe knowledge and experience as well as integrating the experience of others into our own. No section or portion of the human family can therefore claim to be the exclusive repository of wisdom, knowledge, valid experience and worth. We all have something to teach to others; we all have learnt from others; we all have been enriched by such inter-action with others; and, what is more, it is precisely that capacity to teach, to learn and to be enriched through such exchanges that makes us human.

Our own conference should, I believe, proceed from the recognition that all human civilizations have been shaped by such interaction within, between and amongst differing and diverse cultural communities. The idea that there is some pristine, unaffected, totally stand-alone culture or cultural community is a foolish, but often, extremely dangerous myth. Cultural autarchy is a pipedream at best, an unrealizable fool’s errand that when pursued, has inflicted untold damage on individuals and society at large. Mutual cross-fertilization among cultural communities has been and continues to be the leavening of progress within the human family. It is something to be welcomed and not rejected.

Our South African experience demonstrates the dangers that can lurk behind misguided attempts to seal-off cultural communities from each other like silos of different grains. The Verwoerdian nightmare of “separate development” was built on such absurd assumptions. Colonial conquest, the commercialization of agriculture, industrialization and a host of other factors having thrown African, White, Coloured and Asian together in one society, the notion that this historic omelette could somehow be unscrambled was bound to result in tragedy. The pretext for these hare-brained policies was “culture”, at times even the “preservation of “ a distinctive culture.

But our country’s past abounds in experiences that warn against the converse attitude. Intolerance towards cultural diversity can be as destructive a force, resulting in forced “assimilation”, cultural denigration, racial chauvinism, racial oppression and cultural aggression. Colonial administrators, their conscious and unconscious helpers and, very often, the colonized themselves , always proceeded from the premises that their own way of doing things was better; that their own way of interpreting the world was superior ; that their belief systems were “civilized” and that the sooner the colonized behaved like them, the better. The liberal “assimilationism” advocated by many opponents of naked racism, like colonial policies and those of apartheid, all denied the multi-dimensional character of our human family, seeking to suppress it or otherwise snuff it out by pressing all of humanity into one mould of their making. “Assimilation” yielded as terrifying an outcome as undisguised racial oppression. Cultural diversity is the living expression of our very humanity. But that humanity finds equal expression in our capacity and willingness to learn from others.

From that primeval group of hominids there evolved the human family with its rich medley of hues, hair textures, facial features and the like. As South Africans our identity is rooted in our past. What we call “South African” is the outcome the dynamic interaction on African shores of at least three streams of human experience, African, European and Asian. We have no choice but to accept these outcomes as the verdict of history, and we should not feel threatened by cultural wares from other parts of the world. Each and every one of the cultural communities in this country, however we may define them, has been impacted upon by co-existence with the others. And, if you doubt that, just think about how South Africans speak .Think of the vocabularies of any of our languages. Think of the distinctive South African expressions that you won’t hear anywhere else.

If what I have said is true, what is it at this time, in this country that necessitates a conference like today’s?

What is it that is happening amongst us today that compels us to discuss the promotion and protection of the diversity of cultural expressions within our society?

Perhaps that is the question we should examine today?

One conjecture is that the manner in which many are experiencing the cultural interaction amongst South Africans makes them feel that it is one-sided. That what we are witnessing today is not cultural cross-fertili zation, but rather the forced homogenisation of South African culture because of the economic dominance of one section of our society ; because of the economic dominance of that one cultural community .

In affirming the importance of the diversity of human culture are we by so doing suggesting a sort of uncritical cultural relativism? I think not.

As the treasure trove of human knowledge expanded and increased exponentially as a result of inter-human contact, so too has the corpus of values and ethics. Progress has been achieved both by adding as well as by subtracting; as we learnt, so too we discarded; and we discarded to take on what was new.

Upholding cultural diversity does not, nor is it intended to imply the fanatic defence of any and everything pertaining to a particular culture. There are practices that experience has demonstrated are harmful, dangerous and even destructive. This is an appeal that while we should treat the cultural practices of others and our own with respect, that does not require us to shed the faculty of reason. We should always retain the ability to judge even those things we hold close to our hearts with a measure of objectivity. Sentiment should not shut out the cold light of reason.

To take an example: I see that according to the guidelines issued, one of the matters we shall be discussing is what is referred to as “the traditional African family”. It is important that we interrogate that concept, the traditional African family.

How “traditional” is what we might conceive of as the traditional African family?

I have just been to the Eastern Cape for izimbizo. I the non-urban areas, I noticed the inordinate number of women in the audiences. This is the result of labour migrancy. Many men are away from the villages, working in urban areas. That has been a pattern in the Eastern Cape since about 1858. That is, one and a half centuries!

Now, the migrant labour system did not put an end to the family. But the family had to adapt to the reality of the migrant labour system. Does that not imply a redefinition of roles in the family? Did that not require adjustment of certain norms to cope with new realties? Bombarded by all these pressures, could the African family remain unaffected?

So, I raise again the question: How “traditional “is what some imagine is the traditional African family? Does such a “traditional” African family exist at all, or is it merely some romantic image of our imaginations?

I raise these not because I have the answers, but to pose the sort of challenges you will have to wrestle with.

Some two years ago in an argument with an old friend, my interlocutor suggested that our Constitution was somehow deficient because it defined a very specific role for traditional leaders. He went on to suggest that the institution of monarchy, what we euphemistically refer to as traditional leadership, was peculiar to Africa and that our Constitution makers had ignored this very African reality. I immediately pointed out that while eight members of the EU are constitutional monarchies, there are only two in Africa, one absolute monarchy, but that most African states are republics.

How many of the cultural practices we imagine are Africa specific are in fact quite universal? And, how many that we imagine are universal, are in fact Africa specific? How has the inter-human contact over decades, centuries or even millennia altered and transformed our cultural practices such that our ancestors would not recognise them? How many of our most sacred rituals are in fact borrowings from others? What have we done with borrowings in order to indigenize them and thus integrate them more easily into existing practice?

Again, these are questions that cry out for answers.

If we borrow so readily, shed just as easily, and absorb so calmly, why at other times do we find it so difficult to let go? Is the past like the rubble from a derelict building on a construction site? Can it just be carted away for disposal as waste ?

We know that entire communities, groups, and individuals have internalised aspects of the past as defining their identities. Yet others, in order to cope with the complexities and trauma associated with rapid change and transformation, cling on to the past, or rather what they perceive to be the past, for security.

Are the romantic ideas many have of the past at all relevant in the 21 st century? Do they make us more effective or do they impair our effectiveness in the present?

I have no answers. They most emerge from the exchanges at this conference, which hopefully will help guide our legislative interventions and inform how we respond to the challenges thrown up by a pluralist society.

As we celebrate our thirteenth year of democracy, and we recall the commitment made by all South Africans twelve years ago to value, respect and nurture cultural diversity, it is my sincere belief that this conference and debates in it will equip us to face the next thirteen years with even greater confidence.

I wish you success in your deliberations and you can all look forward to an enriching day as the collective wisdom assembled in this room engages in one of the most important topics of the African Century.

I thank you.