Africa Needs a Cultural Renaissance

Published on 14th January 2014

Burundian cultural dance
Culture is said to be the way of life, and it covers the arts, politics, dance, laws, customs, language, beliefs, places and manners of worshipping, institutions of the people like the courts and the entire systems that come to define those people.

Issues pertaining to culture are least talked about outside of lecture halls. The concept of culture, especially, African culture generally, is associated with backwardness, whereas Western culture is conceived to be more progressive. We have been taught that cultures are not equal. It is a known fact that some cultures have been more privileged and more equal than the others. Of course, it has to do with power. We have dominant and subjugated cultures.

The last time I seriously engaged on this concept was more than two decades ago when I was studying sociology. Dialogue on culture, should not be confined exclusively for academic gymnastics for the sole purpose of stretching and sharpening our brains. In my view, this debate or dialogue on culture must be part of the national agenda and to enrich social cohesion, nation building discourse and for the betterment of our society.

Furthermore, it is conceded that culture is dynamic, it evolves over time. The product of different communities interacting and living together is acculturation, assimilation and diffusion of different cultures. How do we, therefore, handle this notion of culture in the context of boundary-less global village we live in today, in the communication space dominated by social media?

I often hear people say, we must “preserve” and “maintain” our cultures. Yes, there are good things that must be preserved and maintained, however, we do have harmful cultural practices too that must be abandoned. We continue to have culture change as a permanent feature of all cultures and societies.

Given our history of colonialism and subjugation, indigenous people have been made to feel ashamed of who they are and look down upon their own culture, heritage, language and spirituality. Those who are able to speak English proficiently are perceived to be more educated and sophisticated. As a result of this mindset, very few parents support the idea of using indigenous languages as media of instruction in schools. Countries such as China, Japan and others have progressed and prospered faster than those that use second and third languages as media of instruction. What therefore is the role of the CRL Rights Commission in this discourse? How do you change these mindsets?

South Africa has established a firm foundation by crafting one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world. This Constitution forms the basis for restoration of the dignity, integrity and the self-worth of our people, especially indigenous communities including the khoi and san as well as uniting our diverse cultural communities to be able to realise the ideal of “unity in diversity.”

There is indeed a great task of creating a balance between affirmation of the previously marginalised cultures and to also support the previously dominant cultures and languages such as English and Afrikaans informed by the expression “not throwing the baby with the bath water.” In order to appreciate our cultural heritage, we must bravely and boldly confront the following three basic philosophical questions:

Who we are, where we come from-our roots, What our consciousness is and the purpose of our existence as well as Our environment and the world. We have to reflect on our history, culture and self- identity. Why is it important for us to revisit the issues of identity, culture and our history? It is significant because: Identity, heritage and culture are three important elements that have a bearing on our self-worth and dignity. When national identity is not clearly defined and twisted, we become baseless as a nation.

Hegel, in his Introduction to the Philosophy of History, made this observation about Africans when teaching his university students centuries ago: “for it is the essential principle of slavery that Africans have not yet attained self-consciousness of their freedom, and consequently sink down to a mere thing- an object of no value.” Hegel further denigrated our continent when he said “at this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the world, it has no movement or development to exhibit...what we properly understand by Africa is the unhistorical, underdevelopment spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here as on the childhood of the world’s history. He concluded by saying “the history of the world travels from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of history; Asia the beginning.”

It is indeed clear in this brief historical account that Africa is cast to the margins of world history and the place of the African people placed at the bottom of the European so-called “dominant culture” which sealed the fate of the African society.

I want to share the following interesting vignette to make my point clearer:

Richard Dowden, in his recent publication entitled: “Africa- Altered States, Ordinary Miracles” says that the image of Africa conjures up in most people’s minds outside of the continent, as the Dark Continent, the heart of darkness, a place of horrific savagery: inhumanity. Dowden further affirms that in Europe, Africa has a reputation of poverty, disease and war. But when outsiders do come to Africa, they are often surprised by Africa’s warmth and welcome.

Dowden further makes an important observation about different cultures and world views when he gives African and European perspectives in the following anecdotes:

“I sometimes ask visiting Africans (in London) what strikes them most about the way Londoners live.” Suni Umar, a journalist from Sokoto in Northern Nigeria, gives this perspective:

“People walk so fast, and they do not talk to each other. I came to the Office in London and the people working there did not even greet me or each other. Even first thing in the morning they do not greet each other. I was lost and I walked up to a man and asked the way. He did not reply. He did not even look at me. He just walked away.” Dowden maintains that Africans have in abundance “social skills.” These are not skills that are formally taught or learned. Dowden maintains that “Africans meet, greet and talk, hold hands and embrace and share. All these things are as natural as music in Africa. In value terms, all these attributes can be converted to what one would call “African philosophy,” African way of living or culture.

There are obviously very serious adverse implications of colonialism on the lives of the indigenous people as affirmed by Dowden when he says that “in many parts of Africa, people lack a sense of ethnic or national identity.” He argues that “they are culturally uprooted, unsure of who they are and what they want to become.” The old ways obliterated, many Africans have not yet worked out new ones as shown earlier.

Given this unpleasant historical account and its implications, it always helps to go back to basics. I now want to reflect on the hermeneutic view which goes right back to our genesis as human beings; the beginning of our existence when God created everything. In Genesis 1:26 God said: “Let us make a man and a woman in our image, according to our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

What does it mean to be created in the image and likeness of God? Is it about external looks and the colour of our skin? No, it is much more sophisticated and deeper than that. What does it mean to have dominion over every other thing? Does it mean some races having dominion over others? NO! Does this colonial past reflect the image of God? No! God’s image is characterised by attributes such as compassion, love, peace, respect, trust, humility and neighbourliness.

Coming back to the democratic Republic of South Africa, our Constitution, in the Bill of Rights, grants all of us the right to our languages and cultures (at Section 30), and it further, in section 31, recognises each of us as belonging to various cultural, religious or linguistic communities. The rights in subsection (1) may not be exercised in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights.”

We have indeed come a long way from 1994. Our Constitution propels us towards reconciliation, social cohesion and nation building. It reminds us of who we are and our purpose in life and that working together we can become the best we ought to be as a country when it says:

“We, the people of South Africa
Recognize the injustice of the past
South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in diversity.”

The Constitution was adopted in order to heal the divisions of the past and to establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights. It depends on all of us to make it work. These values are ideals that all South Africans must strive for. It requires fortitude, persistence, positive attitude and hard work.

The Department of Traditional Affairs through the Minister has been designated to take responsibility for supporting CRL Rights Commission in its administration of its mandate focusing on cultural, religious and linguistic communities. We have in this regard, started by identifying our key stakeholders and to define our role in that space. We have identified traditional communities under various traditional leaders; the Khoi and San communities whose traditional leadership structures, cultures and traditions were interfered with, almost to extinction, various faith communities in South Africa organised under the umbrella of National Interfaith Council of South Africa (NICSA); traditional healers fraternity in their varieties and other organised communities pursuing many particular interests aimed at nation-building and social cohesion.

What then is our future path? Traditional leaders and khoi and san leaders are the custodians of indigenous culture and heritage. A lesson can be drawn from Semou Gueye’s wisdom derived from his article titled “African Renaissance as a Historical Challenge.” He makes an important observation when he says that we urgently need to eradicate all historical psycho-cultural entanglements from our consciousness. In other words, we have to decolonise our minds. Gueye makes a clarion call to all of us “to rebuild our identity on the solid rock of our best ancestral values, enriched by achievements of successive generations that have shaped our history. He goes on to assert that “our identity must continuously be revitalised by what we do in our everyday life.”

He further makes a profound statement when he says: “to renew, assert and open and dynamic identity which considers otherness neither as alteration nor as alienation, nor as a threat, we need to restore the balance of our cultural trade and exchange with the rest of the world.” Any community that advocates cultural exclusivity within the global community misses a golden opportunity for reconciliation and nation building.

The notion of “open identity” is not about pigmentation or a question of geographical or ethnic belonging, especially in our context. “Its essence is to be found beyond such purely phenomenal, superficial dimensions.” The issue of “open identity” should be conceived as “a factor of continuous enrichment because it offers scope for the cultural diversity and to ethnic or racial minorities that were brought by history to live with Africans. It provides the opportunity for all of us to assert ourselves and contribute to the “rainbow identity.”

At this point, let me borrow Ben Okri’s exhortation which will spur us to a higher gear when he says: “May the fire of history burn us into a new consciousness. Press forward the human genius. Our future is greater than our past.”

By Prof Mc Nwaila,
Director General of The Department of Traditional Affairs, Republic of South Africa. (Excerpts).

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