This year South Africa marks 22 years of freedom and as the country prepares to celebrate this milestone on 27 April, Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa has called on South Africans to focus on what unites us, rather than on what divides us.
With economic growth slowing, Minister Mthethwa pointed out that government is working hard to make the country a more attractive investment destination, adding that efforts are intensifying to deracialise the economy and promote social cohesion. “Government has also appealed to everyone to favour what unites us over what divides us,” he said.
To help improve relations between different communities, the Department of Arts and Culture has also been holding social cohesion debates, dialogues and community conversations throughout the year to encourage people to come together, discuss their differences and forge ahead with a common understanding of what it means to be South African. By February, the department had held 33 community conversations on social cohesion and nation building. These covered important aspects around nation building, including national identity, social interaction, active citizenry, volunteerism and human rights. The idea for the conversations stems from the 2012 National Cohesion Summit held by the department on social cohesion and attended by various sectors of society. Those attending resolved that to deal with the divisions of the past, the government must help open avenues for dialogue.
Getting communities involved
Minister Mthethwa said the dialogues aim to unlock opportunities for social cohesion, most of which can be found within communities themselves. “The platform enables community members to identify the social, cultural and economic capital from within the community and how these could be harnessed to the benefit of all,” he pointed out.
Recently, the department decided to change its approach to the community conversations, in a bid to ensure that these become more meaningful engagements. In the new approach, which started last month, the department will get communities to focus more on finding practical solutions to the challenges that may divide some members and would look more at issues around race and racism. Importantly, the new approach stresses continuity. Once-off engagements will be replaced by ongoing community conversations.
The Minister said connecting community members with organisations and appropriate government entities for further engagements would go a long way in ensuring that after the initial dialogue, they remained engaged.
His department plans to hold talks with the same communities annually over the next three years to determine whether the conversations have helped bring about any change in their perceptions towards issues of social cohesion and nation building.
Social cohesion advocates
Minister Mthethwa also highlighted another of the department’s initiatives to enhance social cohesion – its engagement with eminent persons in society who voluntarily act as social cohesion advocates or champions in different communities.
The five-year programme is aligned to the 12 resolutions emerged from the 2012 summit and is also informed by the National Development Plan (NDP) and the goals in the government’s Medium Term Strategic Framework (MTSF). The advocates consist of independent thinkers drawn from a broad range of sectors including the judiciary, arts, sports and entertainment, religious fraternity, business, labour, and academia.
Among other things, the advocates will be the link between government and communities. However, he stressed that the advocates are in no way government trying to nose into communities. “The fact that they are expected to be a conduit between civil society and government should imply that they will have some measure of independence. In fact, while part of their role is to assist government in its various efforts to foster social cohesion and nation building, they are simultaneously expected to hold government to account in their role as mouthpieces of the broader civil society,” he said.
In April last year, as the debate surrounding the desecration of various statues in the country was building, Minister Mthethwa held a national consultative meeting with political parties and civil society organisations to look into the current heritage landscape. Those present adopted 20 resolutions and a 10-member task team was set up to examine these further. The task team has since presented a report of its findings to the Minister, which is still to be made public. However, Minister Mthethwa said the majority of respondents during the public hearings were against the vandalism and destruction of statues. “There were some examples given of erection of new statues alongside old and offensive statues like in Bethal,” he added.
Those resolutions adopted following the debate included one to continue to remove place names that are offensive or hateful and to hold talks with communities to choose new names. Minister Mthethwa said the South African Geographical Names Council and the Provincial Geographical Names Committees were constantly reviewing offensive names as part of their mandate. “They then submit them to the Ministry for change, correction or standardisation. All the processes at the community level follow community consultations,” he stressed.
Another resolution is to look into the development of theme parks that will show the evolution of South African society. The idea is that theme parks for statues be established at local, provincial and national levels and be declared heritage sites for future protection. Minister Mthethwa said the setting up theme parks would be put to the public once the report is officially released. He acknowledged that South Africa does not have enough statues commemorating certain important historical figures and added that both government and the private sector were providing for new statues that celebrate the road to a democratic South Africa. The Liberation Heritage Route, which includes a series of museums and monuments commemorating the armed struggle, is one of these, he said.
The National Heritage Council of South Africa has been involved in developing the route since 2011. He said the deliberations had also resolved that popularisation campaigns about South Africa’s key national symbols, such as the preamble to the Constitution, the flag and the national anthem, be intensified. In addition, public symbols that up to now have reflected only one section of the country’s history should become more inclusive and reflect all history.