Address by Minister Nathi Mthethwa on the occasion of dialogue towards a front against racism

Arts and Culture Minister Mr Mathi Mthethwa-fAccept my warm greetings on behalf of the South African government and the Department of Arts and Culture in the spirit of Ubuntu.  Let me also add to the words of welcome to this session where we also welcome your anticipated and expected collective wisdom on the greatest challenges and historic mission of our generation.

As we gather here today to reflect on and creatively explore ways of advancing nation-building, social cohesion and reconciliation, we are immediately confronted by truism that we are not where we were during that democratic moment of 1994 and yet we are not where we intended to be.

In simple terms, much has changed and yet so much remains unchanged thus suggesting that there is much work before us. In 1994 South Africa made a giant leap forward from a deeply divided, conflict ridden past and the then regime and sections of our society had become pariahs of the world. In that painful past this country witnessed institutionalized white domination expressed in various forms of violence and dispossession.

Yes indeed, we also witnessed white on white violence that culminated in the Anglo-Boer War which in essence is the South African War that also witnessed the introduction of some of the first cases of concentration camps in the world.

During the Mfecane we witnessed black African kingdoms and chiefdoms turn against each other. Missing in most of these master or grand narratives have been the story of the Khoi and San communities that suffered numerous injustice and violence in the hand of waves of Bantu and later on a relentless onslaught by colonial forces.

It would be hard to imagine the hardships that Asian and African slaves suffered in the Cape.

In the more recent history of the struggle against apartheid Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960 and the student rebellion and massacre of June 1976. All the aforementioned conflicts are an accumulated residue or scars of our collective societal and or group memories. These inform our pain, guilt, hope and fear.

Such a wounded psychology defies any national aspirations contained in our national constitution and underlying laws. The more recent incidents of racism in the social media and some widespread incidents of racism or racial tensions are a reminder of what this cross-section of leadership ought to decisively and creatively deal with. It is a painful reminder of the rivers that we still need to cross, mountains that we need to climb in our relentless quest to realize the promises of our democracy.

Addressing similar situation faced by citizens of the United States of America, the great thinker, Cornel West wrote,

“We simply cannot enter the twenty-first century at each other’s throats, even as we acknowledge the weighty forces of racism, patriarchy, economic inequality, homophobia, and ecological abuse on our necks. We are at a crucial crossroad in the history of this nation–and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately”.

He continues to pose the following question to his fellow compatriots,

Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.”

What we seek to address in this gathering, is deadly, is poisonous and destructive, it feasts to every healthy cell of this country like wildfire unless we take rapid, aggressive steps to exterminate it. What we are dealing with is a cancer.

As we gather here today to prepare for the coming national convention for nation-building, social cohesion and reconciliation I am reminded of profoundly insightful proclamation of Franz Fanon in this book, The Wretched of the Earth, when he declared that “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.” Our long history as a people of South Africa immediately reveals that different and successive cohorts of preceding generations have been able to identify their historic mission, and largely they have been able to fulfil it.

Here I am reminded of the national mobilization of a cross-section of our society that culminated in the 1955 adoption of the Freedom Charter as an alternative platform of the then apartheid system. In 1956 or 60 years ago, we again witnessed women of this country rise against oppression in their march to the union building. In the early 1990s leaders from diverse, sometimes enemies, political formations gathered to engage and craft a political future that ended the apartheid system in its formal legal sense and ushered in the era of democracy in 1994. Again we witnessed in our generation mobilization of South Africans in the crafting of our national constitution that was adopted 20 years ago as a guiding beacon light of our democracy.

As we assemble here today we are retracing the steps of those giants who defined and fulfilled their historic mission in their times. The greatest burden of history that we carry on our shoulders today is to ask what is the historic mission of our time and what are we practically doing to fulfil it? Failure to answer this fundamental question will tacitly imply that we have chosen to betray this mission.

More than two decades of our young democracy we have recently experienced political tensions on the subject of statues and place names, we have also witnessed incidents of racial tensions or conflict in our institutions of higher learning and in the farms. We are now reeling from the recent spate of racist incidents over the social media.

While these incidents are important reminders of the social issues of our times, they should not make us lose focus of the bigger picture hence the need to mobilize a new front or coalition for nation-building, social cohesion and reconciliation not only as an antidote to these recurring incidents but also as a way of fulfilling the promises of our democracy as articulated in our constitution.

The gathering of this nature is a bold statement that government alone cannot resolve some of our age old complex challenges. It is also a clear reminder that we should not always be fixated with asking what is government doing about the social, economic and political challenges of our time but rather ask what can all do together to break the spine of these social ills that are a menace to stability and advancement of our relatively democracy.

I just want to express a cautionary note. South African elite is notorious for its love of conferences, workshops and all kinds of meetings whose resolutions never seem to see the light of the day or real implementation to solve the problems of the masses of our people. A great African struggle icon and public intellectual, Amilcar Cabral, had observed this tendency when he counselled,

“Always bear in mind that people are not fighting for ideas, for things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.”

This is a sharp reminder that no amount of abstract ideas will resolve our problems and we must begin to focus on creative, practical, simple, accessible methods and solutions that will resonate with the masses of our people. We should have grounded practical strategies and impactful solutions informed and inspired by societal mobilization at different epochs of our struggle for justice.

A requisite step is to acknowledge the fact that we may have diverse background and histories but we have a shared country and, therefore, a common destiny and future that we must positively influence and shape. I, therefore, appeal to each one of the sectors and leaders gathered here today to transcend their sectional interests or partisan impulse for a greater and noble objective of nation building and conciliation.  Of course we have to unpack the notion of “reconciliation” as it presupposes an earlier conciliation that has to be revived in a form of reconciliation whereas our history suggest otherwise.

Perhaps it can be argued that the initial undermining of the role of arts, culture and heritage in favour of economic and political project of our democracy and nation-building was a fundamentally flawed strategy as we are now beginning to realize the compelling value of this sector in social cohesion, national identity and conciliation.

Arts, culture and heritage constitute a DNA of any society and once this genetic code of our society is weakened or destroyed it then has profound implications for our political and economic well-being especially when considering our history.

I want to acknowledge some important work and interventions done by different sectors in our society as well as the work that is currently being championed by Social Cohesion Advocates that I met two weeks ago. This meeting is aimed at consolidating all this sometimes disparate and isolated efforts into a single social movement for a positive change and impact towards nation-building, social cohesion and reconciliation.

In this meeting I would like presenters and participants to reflect on the achievements since the advent of our democracy, some gaps and shortcomings that can be identified, and even more important to focus on what needs to be done to advance and deepen our efforts in promoting nation building, social cohesion and reconciliation.

As we are in a consultative and informative session preparing for a National Convention on this subject we shall encourage guidance on the issue of how to develop an effective coalition of forces of positive change as well as a clearly articulated programme and goals for the National Convention.  I urge you to begin to craft the framework of a social compact that the coming convention shall reflect on and adopt as the roadmap and covenant of our society.

The founders of our democracy, in their various articulations, always cautioned us that in tackling the legacy of colonialism and apartheid the road will not be easy and progress must never be assumed as an inevitable natural step, and they also warned that they would be setbacks. What they often amplified was that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance in upholding and striving for the vision and values contained in our world-acclaimed constitution.  On this occasion I appeal to you as the leaders of your various communities and constituencies to spare no effort in working towards the success of the planned national convention and in guiding this meeting through your participation. On our side, the Department of Arts and Culture will do all it can to provide support and creating space for your constructive engagement.

The closing words of our global icon, Nelson Mandela, in his book, Long Walk to Freedom, are instructive as he said

“I have walked a long walk to freedom…but I discovered that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my walk is not yet ended.” 

So as we walk towards our national convention we must be reminded of our responsibilities for positive change.

And even more important, we shall be imposing this burden of history and responsibilities on the young generation and generations yet to be born. Let us all stand up and be counted as those who put their shoulders on the waggon of nation-building, social cohesion and reconciliation.  Together we can do more but divided we will always fall short of assisting this great society realize its true potential.

We are emerging from a difficult divided past but this is the window of opportunity to craft a future of common destiny and single purpose of a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and just society that our founders and struggle icons envisioned. This is the greatest challenge of our era which is calling on all of us, black and white, rich and poor, workers and business sector, media and government, traditional leaders and religious leaders, political parties and youth formations, rural and urban dwellers, young and old, disabled and civil society leaders, to stand together to fulfil our historic mission.  We dare not fail.


I thank you


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