So what can the post-apartheid “Rainbow Nation” teach the world about cultural diversity, about racial and cultural tolerance, about using the arts for intercultural dialogue?
This is one of the roundtable themes of the World Summit on Arts and Culture to be hosted in Johannesburg from 22-25 September. I wonder what “the world” would have thought had they attended the Artspeak event in Johannesburg – a preliminary opportunity for the local creative sector to engage with the Summit’s themes - on Wednesday 19 August?
Would they have been shocked to hear about Sowetans – international symbols of anti-apartheid resistance – marching in protest against the building of a new mosque in their area? They might have smiled when hearing about white South Africans having great difficulty with their new black neighbours who slaughter sheep as part of their cultural rituals. Perhaps they would have been intrigued by the story of a “coloured” man who bought a house in which to live in Khayelitsha – a “black” township in Cape Town – only to be hounded out by the local community as this was a “black” area.
These were some of the anecdotes emerging around the theme of the first Artspeak session - which echoes that of the second Summit keynote topic -: “Cultural diversity: essential for world peace or the root of all conflict?”
It wasn’t possible to talk about this theme in South Africa without the ongoing xenophobic violence against nationals from other African countries being raised as a concern. One panellist suggested that the National Arts Council should fund a Mozambican cultural festival as a means for South Africans to learn about and to have greater respect for our neighbours. An NAC board member reacted strongly saying that this would never happen, that board members would vote against such a proposal as “charity begins at home”, and that the NAC’s responsibility was towards South African artists.
In other parts of the world, governments are throwing money at (some) “immigrant communities” to integrate them into mainstream society, and perhaps reduce the threat posed by such communities, particularly those from Muslim countries. Others, in an attempt to build “multi-cultural societies”, make funding available through particular units of their arts councils or government departments to support the cultural and artistic practices of communities that may be on the margins of the dominant culture. While this raises other issues about whether such “special funding” helps to integrate or perpetuates the “ghettoisation” of such communities (another roundtable topic at the Summit), it would appear that this issue is not even on the agenda of national South African public funding agencies when the reality of our contemporary society is that there are millions of people from other African countries living among us.
The National Arts Council Act stipulates that funding is only available to South African citizens. But is it not ironic that we are hosting the World Summit on Arts and Culture on the theme “Meeting of Cultures: Creating meaning through the Arts”, and having won the bid to host the Summit, partly because of the esteem in which South Africa is held internationally for peacefully overcoming apartheid, yet we cannot fund African artists living in our country?
There is - yet again - a debate currently about the absence of “African” arts journalists with some of the debate revolving around who is an African, as the protagonist in the debate appears to equate “African” with “black”, while people of all colours in South Africa consider themselves to be African.
But while this tired neo-pencil-test debate rages, perhaps the protagonists should be asked – does this bemoaning of the absence of “African” arts journalists also refer to arts journalists from other African countries living in South Africa? For while there are one or two such “African” arts journalists working in our media, there can be little doubt that our own cultural and artistic practices will be greatly enriched by the insights, views and critical perspectives of more African arts journalists from beyond the Limpopo.
What does it mean to be “African” in South Africa at the moment when we are shooting Somalian shopkeepers and raiding their spaza shops? Or throwing Zimbabweans out of moving trains? Or burning Mozambicans?
Does “African” only mean pigmentation? Geography? What about values? Human rights? Dignity?
One speaker at the Artspeak event – someone with much experience in publishing and distributing African literature – bemoaned the role that South Africa plays on the continent, equating it with that of America globally. She labelled South Africa the imperialists of the continent, reminding the audience that much of our country’s wealth – (which makes it possible to provide funding to the NAC?) – comes from our exploitation of African markets where South African companies are the dominant players.
South Africa won the bid to host the FIFA World Cup, partly as this would benefit the rest of the continent. We won the bid to host the World Summit on Arts and Culture, at least in part, for the same reason. Whether that actually happens or not, is moot.
Perhaps then, it is not so much about what the world can learn from the “Rainbow Nation”. Perhaps it is more a case – as with our soccer team – of a humbler South Africa learning from Africa, and from the rest of the world?