Time for African culture to come to the fore

2013-08-30 00:00

THE idea of a cultural environment that represents the demographics of the country is one that has eluded academics, public intellectuals and cultural activists alike.

Of profound concern is the dearth of acknowledgement of African cultural on the part of those still in possession of economic power, and a very slow tempo of cultural reassertion on our part as indigenous Africans in South Africa.

Bear with me before you choke on your green tea. I am not suggesting a coup d’etat of the South African cultural milieu by us as Africans, but something must be done to bridge the cultural gap and to reflect the demographics of this country.

In his interview with J. P. O’Malley in the New African, Dr Nkosana Moyo, founder and executive chairperson of the Mandela Institute for Development Studies, laments a continued imposition of Western culture on Africans, as if they have no distinct characteristics.

He posits strongly that African culture is neither respected nor acknowledged, and although colonisation does not exist today, the attitude of the Western world to Africans can still be very colonial.

Indeed, colonialism represented a grand-scale massacre of African culture. The political tide has turned, and it’s high time we use it to leverage some much-needed cultural emancipation on our part.

Legislators have passed laws that attempt, rightfully, albeit not in vain, to reverse the economic imbalances that are a legacy of the pre-1994 status quo. With such rampant poverty and inequality, it will be some time before economic emancipation and wealth are not viewed as the preserve of the white minority (I am not about to EFF things up and go red beret on you, dear reader).

However, our cultural bankruptcy seems to be on the rise, even though the country has settled politically.

In May, the senate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in a first for an institution of higher education in South Africa, voted in favour of a policy that will compel first-year students to enrol in a course in Zulu from next year, irrespective of which degree they are registered for.

Attempting to dispel the manufactured myth that one cannot be academically conversant in an indigenous language, UKZN said it believes the move will promote social cohesion. The move, however, has elicited a chorus of opposition from some quarters, consisting mainly of those, dare I say it, who are still enjoying the benefits of apartheid. Such opposition has come thick and fast, although I am not saying it has not been embraced in equal measures, if not more, by people other than ourselves as Africans. The major concern, however, is that the opposition comes donning a cloak of reason, theories about the failure of the move, academic-shortfall rhetoric, and bleak forecasts about its success, etc., all the while such a policy and its implementation has not seen the light of day. Some have even likened it to the forceful use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools, while some question its constitutionality. Pure hogwash! The move does not attempt to make Zulu the language of instruction, but rather the university is signalling its commitment to engage in critical issues of diversity (culturally and otherwise) in its environment. In so doing, it is promoting and encouraging a greater understanding of, and tolerance for, different cultures, because culture and language are indistinguishably linked. It is therefore disingenuous of those who see this move as an exclusionary gimmick, instead of seeing it for what it is, a university attempting to promote a dominant, but economically neglected, language. It smacks of cultural imperialism.

This is not an isolated example. Time and again we consume media reports that unjustifiably portray our culture as primitive, backwards and improper.

What’s more disconcerting are the levels of tolerance we have developed for such assaults on our culture. While one can submit that colonialism contaminated our culture, it is worth noting that it was fought and defeated. It is, therefore, high time we decolonise our minds to get out of this cultural logjam.

Nelson Mandela, in his own words, fought against white domination and against black domination. One is therefore not proposing a cultural dominance or cultural isolationism on our part. The least that can happen is that our culture be treated with the acknowledgement it deserves, instead of being relegated to the periphery, in the name of civilisation. We need to get back the ability to strive for cultural progress in our own way.

With the right mix of give and take, one might be able to enter the forecourt of a service station to fuel up and hear maskandi music playing proudly in the background. One may find a copy of a Zulu-title newspaper taking pride of place among the English in a motor-dealership lobby.

That would go a long way towards acknowledging our culture and, therefore, acknowledging us as meaningful contributors and participants in our country and its economy.

• Veli Mlotshwa is based in Pietermaritzburg and is involved in development consultancy.

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