Following on last weeks's piece on culture and transformation in cape Town, this piece looks at race, power and culture in South Africa, and begins an examination of its relationship to cultural policy.
Racism continues to be a challenging feature of global politics: Brexit, Trump, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Syrian refugee crisis are just some of the high level instances in which racism has reared its ugly head. Its mobilisation often results in countries stymieing their generative potential by pandering to reactionary notions arising out of an irrational fears of the other.
South Africa was the last country to have used racism as official policy to structure its society. Since this system was only formally abolished in 1994, the vestiges of race-based thinking and its impacts are still prevalent in society today, with ongoing cases of overt racism regularly being reported in the media. One of the key objectives of South Africa’s mass liberation struggle was the attainment of a non-racial society, clearly articulated in the country's new constitution. How has this been translated into cultural policy? However, before we try to understand that, we must to revisit the historical connections of race, power and culture in South Africa.
Race and Racism
Racism has its roots in the fear that others, who appear different, will seize the viewer’s resources. These resources may be material things, but could also be the viewer’s sense of ownership of economic, social and human reproducibility. Thus racists often couch their language in "loss of ways of life". In order to justify both their beliefs and the violent actions that sometimes flow from this thinking, racists are forced to demonise the other, to use various markers of difference – skin colour, hair texture, facial and other features - as evidence of the other’s inferiority. The colonial project normalized racist ideas by couching it as "scientific knowledge", supporting not just the military in its actions, but also employing a large cohort of academics. This helped to legitimise the exercise of control by Western countries over others in order to extract their human and other resources. Since World War 2 and the Holocaust, however, this thinking has been thoroughly debunked.
Instead, race became recognised as a social construct: there is no scientific basis for the belief that any member of our species is less intelligent or in any way inferior/superior based on colour of skin, shape of faces, amongst others. Each of us is unique in our abilities, irrespective of body. Genetic studies show that as a species we have only existed for 200 000 years, with our collective beginnings in central Africa. A number of groups left Africa from 40 - 100 000 years ago and settled the planet. We are therefore all related. The differences in external appearance that we see today is the result of responses to different environments and natural selection. and we have been variously mixed as different movements of people happened back and forth over the centuries, through trade and conquest. Our innovations and developments are also shared, we have continually built on knowledge we gained from others, but we have also destroyed knowledge systems over centuries through violent conquest. It is through an endless process of sharing/seizing and mixing that we have developed our ever shifting cultures.
Diverse, Shifting, Cultural Differences: One Human Race
Brought into existence in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined the idea that dignity, liberty, equality and "brotherhood" are central to a peaceful and prosperous globe. This was the first major agreement of its kind that recognised that everyone was equal, taking place at a time when the world was still decolonising and changing. Issues of racism were central to debates by non-western countries at the Bandung Conference in 1955. However, it would take years for many of the fundamental principles to impact at scale. The US, for example, would only change its discriminatory laws following the Civil Rights movement of the early 60s. However, by the late 60s the rights of minorities, women and gay people took centre stage as many western countries began to experience a consciousness change in the counter-cultural "Summer of Love". Thus social movements were born as people began to recognise their potential and agency to bring about social change and to foster more open and free societies.
UNESCO describes culture as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, laws, customs, and any other capacities and habits acquired by [a human] as a member of society". While art is often used interchangeably (loosely and incorrectly) with culture, it would be more correct to see art as a symbolic and/or expressive representation of culture. It is, oftentimes, an attempt, as the scientist Harari suggests, to push the boundaries around how we perceive our shared societal fictions (ideas such as nationhood, religion, money) which have enabled us as a species to collaborate and organise at a massive scale. (Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Random House). Art can be used to both reflect or change our understandings of the society we live in. As a reflection it is key to how we build social bonds, but it can also be used to shape new narratives that are detrimental to those we wish to exclude.
Race, Culture and Power in South Africa
White nationalists had been drawing on art and symbolism to develop a fiction of an Afrikaner nation from the turn of the 20th century. The earliest SA film, "Die Voortrekkers" (1916) set the tone, - drawing on inspiration from the racist American classic "Birth of a Nation" (1915). By the time the Nationalist Party came into power in 1948 there had been years of community organising and support for developing the various symbols of Afrikaner culture, by organisations like The Federation of Afrikaner Cultural Organisations (FAK) which was established in 1929 and is still active today. Within a year of election, the Voorktrekker Monument was built, together with annual rituals of commemoration. The Van Riebeeck Festival of 1952 was a massive event taking place all over South Africa. It included a theatrical re-enactment of the 300th year of the arrival of Jan Van Riebeeck, the first colonial commander of the Cape, and a mass pageant, organised by the FAK ". This was positioned as the beginnings of Afrikaner nationhood - the "triumph of civilization over darkness". Much of these fictions would be further entrenched through spectacular ritualised national holidays and through the formal education system. School curricula for all people, white and people of colour, taught this new narrative that the Afrikaners were a people of European descent, superior and uniquely anointed by the Christian god.
By evoking their ancestry as European, the Afrikaners were able to connect themselves to those of Anglo descent, and others of European descent, to develop a complex idea around whiteness. Again, culture and education played a key role. By the early 60s a number of major art centres had been established in each of capital cities of the four provinces. These large and well staffed Performing Arts Councils each supported a full-time orchestra, ballet company, opera company and theatre company. Well presented classical performing arts and support for the development of new work all played a significant role in making a statement about a civilised and advanced white nation. These would be further entrenched with the support to a set of museums in Pretoria and Cape Town, each with collections policies that excluded the heritage of people of colour. All these spaces of culture, as well as key universities, were strictly reserved for whites until the 1980s.
This cultural control of South Africa buttressed the social, spatial and economic aspects of the Apartheid system and worked alongside a range of laws to manage and control the country's residents. Amongst the latter were The Group Areas Act, The Immorality Act and the cornerstone of it all, The Population Registration Act. It’s at the level of this last act that the fallacy of racial division fell apart. Here where the division classification of people into four major distinct population groups - white, black, Indian and coloured would increasingly come undone, as it proved difficult to categorise many people since a large number of people were mixed. Sometimes those who appeared white were brought up in mixed race households with siblings who appeared black, while many people who thought themselves pure Afrikaners were themselves of mixed race without realising it. That was until they produced a child who would not have passed the archaic test of officials who had to categorise people into the different population groups - as it did in one high profile case.
Apartheid Collapses, but Race as a Concept Persists
Over time, however, the system fell into gear and when the country finally reached the point, four decades later, when Apartheid could no longer be sustained, all the population groups firmly believed they were in fact culturally and racially separate. Having had limited or controlled contact with each other over decades, many had begun to believe the fictions created about themselves and of the Others, which had been perpetuated by the system in a myriad ways. Prejudices, fear of the Other and a lack of confidence of self were the various ways this manifested after 1994. This has not been helped by the fact that the categories developed by the Population Registration Act remained - as it does today. South Africa is still, officially, a country of blacks, whites, Indians and coloureds, perpetuated by the legal system.
For a while the country was buoyant with the optimism of newness and freedom. It revelled in being what Bishop Tutu famously called the "rainbow nation". Today there are few people who buy into this rosy vision. South Africa is torn apart by its racial past, and, I would argue, it will remain as suchuntil it can collectively imagine itself differently. This is why the role of culture and cultural workers is so vital in the country today.
Culture and Power
Apartheid was a highly designed system built, implemented and improved on around a clear objective: - separate development for the benefit of white minority rule. It had over 40 years to do this, building on more than 300 years of earlier segregationist policies. A mobilisation of culture and the development of new fictions, systematically implemented, was, as the evidence shows, central to its project. As we have seen, the Afrikaners developed clear fictions and used every means in its tool box to further these fictions. These were done through the educational system, state-controlled media, cultural institutions as well as through legislation that decided where people could live and gather, who they could love and how they could earn a living. This is ultimately a model of domination using culture underpinned by an economic outcome aimed at benefitting a few.
Given the above, we have to ask critically to what extent the new South African state (national, provincial and local) has been able to design and refine a process to achieve a transformed country - a non-racial, democratic, socially-just and prosperous society – the one which its constitution affirms it wishes to bring to being?
We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
Preamble to the SA Constitution 1996
It was in response to this question, and the cracks in the state's process for bringing about this transformation, that BLAC (the Black Arts Collective) as a project emerged. BLAC (1998 - 2003) was in many ways a response to flaws in the development and implementation of the new South African cultural policy. It worked with difficult questions around the issues - producing a range of projects including the Returning the Gaze Public Art project (2000)
The paradox of working with and responding to our racist past with a new narrative, is that race has to be tackled upfront through conversation, restitution and reconciliation. Yet, at the same time, in what may appear to be a double bind situation, it requires racial categorisation to be dismantled. This is a complex task which requires concerted work and innovative processes for the development of a new discourse around non-racialism and interculturalism. This is not just the role of the state through policy statements and support to national events and new museums. This requires long-term partnerships and collaboration among all levels of civil society, academia, media, business and government departments, adequately resourced and facilitated, but not directed, by the state.
Where to? Culture and Symbolic Restitution
Sadly, the South African context has had little structured conversation around these questions and challenges, and it’s highly debatable whether a new shared discourse has been developed. The demand for reconciliation by Nelson Mandela and other elder statesmen, quickly embraced by the white population were, many believe, premature. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and its important work was too quickly put aside when the ANC's own "dirty laundry" was aired. Culture, sadly, was never part of the mandate of the TRC. Many of the issues raised in this piece, the subject of significant scholarship*** have not been discussed much outside of the academia and some independent spaces – yet they are central to working with culture and transformation in South Africa.
Restitution has been only partially, and most would say poorly, dealt with. Affirmative action has been the central ongoing act of restitution and it is primarily economic. Poor service delivery and growing corruption has barely resulted in equality, let alone equity. We will see next week that the current cultural (and media policies) have shaped a new fiction primarily around the narratives surrounding the ruling party. "Symbolic restitution" drawing on artists and other cultural workers, working with broad publics to help foster new and more inclusive sets of fictions, I argue, has been the missing link. These are fictions that should help us reimagine an open, non racial South Africa into being.
In the next piece we will look at the issue of national cultural policy and its relationship to the regional and the local. We will understand how culture is being used to work with the challenges of the past. Thereafter we will be ready to look at the BLAC project and why its work had and still has relevance today.
*** I am indebted in this piece to the scholarship, of a number of public and organic intellectuals. These include, amongst others: Profs Leslie Witz and Ciraj Rassool (History, UWC: ), Profs Ivan Karp and Cory Kratz (Institutions of Public Culture, Emory University), Profs Keyan and Ruth Tomaselli (Centre for Culture and Media Studies UKZN), District Six Museum's Vincent Kolbe and Valmont Layne, and the publications and projects of South Africa History Online.