Address to the HSRC Conference by Minister Pallo Jordan at Stellenbosch University

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27 Nov 2008

This is a landmark conference and it is indeed an honour for me to address a gathering representing so many of the thinkers, movers and shakers in the field of culture. Hopefully this conference will place us in a better position to make our distinctive contribution to the international debate on the issue of cultural diversity and promoting democracy, not only in our own society, but globally.

The “term cultural diversity” has been employed as 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 to use the language of their choice, and the right to participate in the cultural life of the country as they choose.

As South Africans we come to this international debate with a particular experience as a country and as an emergent democracy. South African history abounds with debates around culture and cultural issues. One might say too that culture and cultural issues have been among the most abused in the policy-making of this country, especially during the days of colonial and apartheid rule. We bear that abuse in mind when debating cultural issues. 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 the preservation of cultural diversity.

My starting point is our shared humanity, that all of us are members of the same human family. But, just as common descent does not reduce the individual members of any single family into a colony of ants – all the same and identical in every respect - so too our common humanity does not make for sameness.

The second premise from which I proceed is that there are probably so many definitions of culture that each one of us very likely 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 neither pre-ordained, nor is it sent down from on high, nor is it 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 exceedingly dynamic ; it is always in motion and is never static.

By extension, I 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.

The third premise I would like to submit 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. 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 learn, to teach, to imitate and to be enriched by such exchanges that makes us human.

This conference should, I believe, proceed from the recognition that human civilization has been shaped by such interaction within, between and amongst differing and diverse cultural communities. No human community can lay claim to cultural autarchy. Mutual cross-fertilization among cultural communities has been and continues to be the leavening of progress within the human family. It is something we welcome and should not reject.

Our South African heritage springs from the very cradle of humankind. Yet, from that primeval group of hominids there evolved the human family with its rich medley of hues, hair textures, facial features and the like. A group of independent experts set up by the Director General of UNESCO defined cultural diversity as “the manifold ways in which the cultures of social groups and societies find expression.”
Cultural interaction and contact amongst various peoples and nations has historically been among the chief agencies of social transformation. The internal dynamics of societies invariably drive transformative processes within them, but contact with others can often initiate the speediest change between the two cultural communities. The South African experience since the mid 17th century is a case in point.

Along with the muck of colonial and racial domination, South Africa also imported from Europe the ideas and values associated with the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The bearers of these ideals more often than not were Christian missionaries. Though their influence is usually underestimated, immigrant intellectuals like Thomas Pringle, who helped light the torch of press freedom in our country, were significant in the dissemination of these ideas.

Thomas Pringle arrived in South Africa as an immigrant from Britain in 1820. Unlike the other “1820 settlers”, Pringle did not live in the eastern Cape, but chose to live in Cape Town where, together with John Fairbairn, he established the “South African Journal” and the “South African Commercial Advertiser”.

Thomas Pringle singular contribution to South African cultural development was to lay the foundations of an oppositional media that was directly linked to the struggle against colonial oppression and racism. A staunch abolitionist, Pringle was very critical of slavery at the Cape and regularly took issue with both the colonial government and local Whites about their policy towards the indigenous people. After his newspapers were suppressed, Pringle returned to Britain in 1827. He became the secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society that year.

The slaves whom the Dutch imported to South Africa from east Asia, carried in their baggage the Islamic faith and the intellectual traditions associated with it. We are slowly beginning to uncover the intellectual legacy bequeathed to this country by these reluctant immigrants. A second wave of immigrants from Asia during the latter half of the 19th century, the Indian indentured labourers and free passengers, added new ingredients to the evolving intellectual and political culture that we today claim as “South African”. What we regard “South African” is the outcome this dynamic interaction, over some three centuries, among three major streams of human experience on African shores.

The contradictory impact of colonialism on pre-colonial societies could be discerned even during those first two centuries of Dutch overlordship in South Africa. The Netherlands that spawned the first European settlers in South Africa was a Protestant country. Consequently it attracted many other Europeans whose religious beliefs were considered suspect by the Catholic church and the victims of religious persecution. Baruch Spinoza, the sage of Amsterdam, was originally a Spanish Jew. In Spain where the Inquisition was very active, someone of his faith could not have survived, except by feigned conversion to Christianity. The Spinoza family tried every sort of artifice to evade the Inquisitors. They attained the security they sought by settling in Protestant Amsterdam, where Spinoza was allowed to practice his religion freely.

After the Edict of Fountainbleau (1685), the Protestants of France were subjected to renewed persecution as non-Catholics. They too found refuge in the Protestant Netherlands from whence they fanned out – some going to the colonies in the Americas, some to South Africa.

It was, ironically, in the hills and valleys surrounding us that the Huguenots were settled bringing with them the skills that make this one of the best wine routes in our country. But this very enlightened attitude of religious tolerance had its obverse face. The Dutch protestants found it unacceptable to enslave fellow Christians, but had no qualms about the enslavement of Muslims and the adherents of other religions. Consequently, in the Cape, the Dutch settlers undertook no missionary work among the indigenous people, let alone try to convert their slaves drawn from south east Asia, the Indian Ocean islands, India and Sri Lanka. Islam consequently became an attractive option for many slaves in the Cape.

The first mission work among the indigenous Khoikhoi was undertaken by missionaries from the Moravian church, who established a mission station, whose tri-centennial we marked last year, at Genadendal. Being the direct off-spring of the Taborite movement, the Moravians preached an egalitarian doctrine. Genadendal thus became not only an early outpost of Christianity, but also a safe haven for runaway slaves, for the marginalized – like the impoverished among the Khoi-khoi -- within the emergent Dutch colony as well as the well-spring of progressive ideas in South Africa.

Dutch colonialism drew South Africa, its indigenous people, and those brought to Africa’s shores as slaves, into a developing international economic system that extended from Europe to the Far East, the Americas and later drew in Australia and New Zealand. A whole new world was thus opened up to all these peoples. The western Cape, the point on the South African coast where these cultural streams intersected, became a melting pot of races, ethnic groups, cultural communities and nationalities drawn from virtually every part of the world. Commercial activity, commercial farming, built on the backs of unfree labourers, and missionary work had numerous unanticipated effects on every sector of the colonial society the DEIC created in South Africa. By the time of the first British occupation in 1795, the indigenous peoples, the slaves and their European masters had been radically transformed. Though they lived side by side and probably recognized a high degree of mutual dependence, yet each component fashioned new meanings for itself through an evolving cultural life.

Within the space of one and a half centuries, colonial conquest had wrought indelible changes on those who peopled the western Cape. The once proud indigenous Khoikhoi had been impoverished by wars of aggression and unequal trade with the European settlers. Their ancestral lands were lost and their only access to them was as servants of the Europeans. Borrowing from Europe and Asia, they fused these with what they had to produce a syncretic culture that survives to this day. And, as the lost use of their own languages, many such Khoikhoi descended communities adopted the lingua franca of the western Cape, later called Afrikaans.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

During South Africa’s first democratic election campaign in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) ran a full-page newspaper ad featuring a photograph taken at its inaugural conference in January 1912. Beneath the photograph was a pay-off line that read: “Our vision of a new South Africa came to us on a rainy day in January 1912.”

The national liberatory tradition of which the ANC has historically been the most consistent representative, was the brainchild of a growing body of Christian converts living and working amongst their traditionalist brethren in the eastern Cape during the second half of the 19th century. These men and women were the bearers of the ideas, values and skills of 19th century Europe many of whom had become successful as a middling to prosperous African peasantry. Some of them owned extensive farms producing grain, cattle, wool and other cash crops for the market. Others were skilled craftsmen, a few were professionals working as teachers and clegymen.

They were committed modernists, who espoused Christianity and modern education, but nonetheless recognised the abiding values in pre-colonial African society. They subscribed to a humanism, that affirmed the dignity and worth of all people, based on our human capacity to reason. From their African roots they brought the widely held value : “Umntu, ngumntu ngabantu” – You affirm your own humanity by recognizing the humanity of others.

Reading, writing and the emergence of a literature are essential components of our cultural heritage today thanks to those 19th century pioneers. The literary tradition in the African languages began with the translation and publication of what many consider the pre-eminent Christian religious allegory in the English language; John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, which was translated into Xhosa by the Rev. Tiyo Soga in 1866. The late Master of Balliol College, Oxford, Dr Christopher Hill, characterized “The Pilgrim’s Progress” as the definitive statement of both Puritan theology and its latent radical message.

John Bunyan participated in the English Revolution of 1640 as a combatant in Cromwell’s army. Both during the years of the Commonwealth and after the restoration of the Stuarts, he was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned at the behest of the authorities of the High Church of England for preaching and publishing his Puritan views.

As the first book in an indigenous language, “The Pilgrim’s Progress” had a profound formative impact on those early generations of literate Africans. The leit motif of a continuing tension between the authorities and the conscientious citizen runs through Bunyan’s book and his personal life. Those early African converts very likely absorbed and integrated it into their own belief systems.

Colonization and conquest had entailed the arbitrary division of the African continent with absolutely no regard for the continent’s history or the integrity of indigenous communities of language, culture or religion. The boundaries established by the colonial powers split up entire communities and threw together within the borders of a single colony, ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural groups that might well have lived as neighbours, but had not regarded each other as related. Where they found it expedient, colonial powers exploited such differences to their advantage by politicizing them. The differential treatment of different communities, known as “divide and rule” has left the ex-colonial world, and Africa in particular, with a terrible legacy of mutual hatred and antagonism amongst communities defined by language, custom, religion and sometimes mere physical appearance. These ugly patterns of prejudice and tension have sometimes eventuated in the inter-communal bloodletting one has seen in places such as Rwanda, Burundi and in India and Pakistan.

Historians have observed that it is not nations that give rise to nationalism, but rather nationalism that gives rise to nations. African nationalists consequently were obliged to construct a nationalism that would simultaneously address two challenges – galvanizing the members of unrelated communities to take on the might of the colonial regime, while instilling the colonized people with a new identity. African nationalists would argue that they achieved the latter through the former – by inspiring otherwise unrelated communities to struggle together, they acquired a new collective identity, i.e. the new nation is forged in the crucible of struggle. Given the diverse character of the constituency they were required to mobilize, African nationalists crafted the inclusive definition of the nation so eloquently expressed in the Freedom Charter – South Africa belongs to all who live in it.

The struggle against colonial domination and racial oppression in our country has invariably also been a struggle affirming cultural diversity on the one hand, while asserting a shared emergent South African identity on the other.

The history of colonialism in Africa and beyond is most instructive about the dangers that lurk behind attempts to counter-pose unity and diversity. The idea that there is some pristine, immaculate, unaffected, totally stand-alone culture or cultural community is a foolish, but often, extremely dangerous myth. It is an unrealizable fool’s errand, but when it has been pursued it has inflicted untold damage on individuals and society at large. Interactive contact among cultural communities has been and continues to be the leavening of progress within the human family.

Attempts to seal-off cultural communities from each other like silos of different grains inspired the nightmare of “separate development”, better known as apartheid! The absurd assumption that after three centuries of colonial conquest, missionary activity, the commercialization of agriculture and industrialization, 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”.

The colonial experience abounds in warnings against the converse attitude; intolerance towards cultural diversity. Colonial administrators, their conscious and unconscious helpers, 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 internalized these notions, the better. The liberal assimilationism advocated by many opponents of naked racism, denied the multi-dimensional character of our human family. The chauvinist pretensions of assimilation want to press all of humanity into one mould of their making. Cultural diversity is the living expression of our very humanity. But that our humanity finds equal expression in our capacity and willingness to learn from others.

The democratic ethos pursued by the national liberation movement has its roots in the triple heritage of our country.

The two great ethical and moral traditions we have been bequeathed from the Middle East and Europe, the Judeo-Christian-Muslim and the Greek, gave us the two mythical figures of Adam and Prometheus. Both Adam and Prometheus are cast as progenitors of human history. By eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge, Adam committed the gravest act of hubris, and is judged as aspiring to be like God. That ends the age of innocence for himself and Eve, and they are cast out from the Garden of Eden to earn their living by the sweat of their brows.

By being forced to work so that they may live, Adam, Eve and their off-spring are compelled to adapt the world around them to themselves.

Prometheus too is guilty of a heinous crime, He stole the secret of how to tame fire from the Gods, and handed it to humankind, thus emancipating the human race from darkness. Once tamed, fire, rather than being a threat, became one of humankind’s most effective tools. For his hubris, Prometheus was chained to the rock where a vulture pecks at his liver!

Both these traditions sanction an act of disobedience as deliverance from human pre-history.

But there was no escaping the reality that human progress has not been a comfortable journey. The lives of entire communities were disrupted by continuous, often rapid change producing acute uncertainties. Such upheavals were even greater when the principle agent of agent came from without.

Programme director,
Distinguished colleagues and friends,
The multi-racial, mutlti-faith and multi-cultural character of this country is incontestable. Whereas the colonialist and apartheid regimes of the past used these as a pretext for domination, discrimination and oppression, we embrace these as the essential ingredients of our South African identity.

The post-enlightenment political ideals of popular sovereignty, government by the consent of the governed, and equality before the law collided directly with the institutions of colonialism and apartheid. The equality of all humans, the foundational principle of every struggle against imperial power, was first pronounced during the American War of Independence. These principles interrogated the moral basis of both colonial domination and the legitimacy of traditional rulers.

As I have tried to demonstrate, none of these principles derives from one source. They are explicit and implicit in all three the streams of human experience that have fused in South Africa, and they derive their authority precisely from their syncretic nature. Affirming diversity is a democratic obligation, but embracing inclusivity is the condition for its realization.

South Africa’s triple heritage has imparted to our country many of its distinctive features. That heritage is visible in the architecture of the South African landscape, that bears the features of the three continents; we find it in our South Africa cuisine where the textures, aromas and tastes of Africa, Asia and Europe have been melded into something new or co-exist comfortably side by side; it is best expressed in the Afrikaans language – a language that evolved in the mouths of Asian slaves, indigenous Khoikhoi and the Africans as they adapted the lingua franca of the slave quarters, Dutch, to their own uses. But its finest fruit is the struggle for freedom and democracy which drew on the best in all three these traditions to bring an end to apartheid.
The nurturing and valuing of diversity among cultures is critical not only to make the world a more interesting and inspiring place, but also as an affirmation of the multi-dimensional character of our human family.

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

I thank you.