South Africa’s constitutional negotiations of the early 90’s attached great importance to the accommodation of the multicultural and multilingual nature of our country.     

The constitution that emerged from the negotiations recognizes the importance of our collective heritage and the rich cultural, linguistic and historical landscape that colours the canvas of our diversity.  It proclaims in its preamble that South Africa belongs to all who live in it – united in their diversity. It makes provision for the protection of this diversity by recognising eleven official languages that must be treated with parity of esteem; by declaring that everyone has the right to use the language and participate in the cultural life of their choice; by assuring everyone’s right to education in the language of their choice in public educational institutions; and by recognising everyone’s right to form, join and maintain cultural, religious and linguistic associations.    

It is this cultural and linguistic diversity that South Africans are supposed to celebrate on Heritage Day. 

This year the government is calling “on all South Africans to use Heritage Month to foster greater social cohesion, nation building and a shared national identity. The celebration of Heritage Month has created a conducive environment for all people to embrace and celebrate what was inherited or bequeathed to us by our forebears”. 

Mr Nathi Mthethwa, the Minister of Sport, Art and Culture has emphasised “the importance of celebrating diversity as a way to safeguard heritage treasures” and “bolster the collective sense of self as one united nation in diversity”.

However, what is the current state of our cultural and linguistic diversity? 

Unfortunately, virtually every one of the constitutional provisions relating to language and culture has been ignored or diluted:

Sadly, it appears that Minister Mthethwa does not include the heritage of all our communities among the “treasures” that he would like us to celebrate on Heritage Day.  Last year he announced that the government plans to move “apartheid and colonial era statues, symbols and monuments” to “cultural nation-building parks”.  He said that it was important that “the statues of supporters of apartheid and colonialism should not stand in our prominent public spaces.” “They should rather go to the proposed nation-building parks, because we do not believe, as other people say, that they belong in the dustbin of history.”  

This followed the Constitutional Court’s deeply disturbing 2016 judgement in City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality v AfriForum, which dealt with the renaming of streets in Pretoria.

However, the judgment went much further than the renaming of streets:  it appeared to question the right of white South Africans to culture. As Judges Cameron and Froneman observed in their dissenting judgment, “the implication that may be drawn from the first judgment is that any reliance by white South Africans, particularly white Afrikaner people, on a cultural tradition founded in history, finds no recognition in the Constitution, because that history is inevitably rooted in oppression”.

The court declared that “the effects of the system of racial, ethnic and tribal stratification of the past must thus be destroyed and buried permanently”.  It added that this “would be achieved partly by removing from our cities, towns, ‘dorpies’, streets, parks, game reserves and institutions, names that exalt elements of our past that cause grief to other racial groups or reopen their supposedly healing wounds.” “Even some innocuous names that give recognition only to the history, language, culture or people of one race” should be removed “so as to make way for the heritage and deserving heroes and heroines of the previously excluded.”

Judges Froneman and Cameron asked what the majority judgment meant in practical terms? “Does it entail that, as a general proposition, white Afrikaner people and white South Africans have no cultural rights that pre-date 1994, unless they can be shown not to be rooted in oppression?” Referring to the “many cultural, religious or associational organisations that have roots in our divided and oppressive past” Froneman and Cameron asked whether they are “all now constitutional outcasts, merely because of a history tainted by bloodshed or racism?”

The judgment had other very disturbing implications. Did it mean that the history of white South Africans was nothing but a one-dimensional litany of oppression? Was there nothing since 1652 that was worthy of commemoration and celebration? What about the second Anglo-Boer War – the greatest anti-colonial struggle ever fought by an African people? What of figures like Jan van Riebeeck, Wolraad Woltemade, Piet Retief, Jan Smuts and Louis Botha – were they to be viewed only through an oppression/liberation prism? Should their statues all be consigned to Minister Mthethwa’s ‘Boerassic Parks’?

More seriously, what did the judgment mean for the foundational right of white South Africans to human dignity – with which their cultural and historical identities were inextricably linked?  How could they be regarded as having a right to equality if their history condemned them to moral inferiority?

These are questions that that all South Africans should consider very carefully on Heritage Day.

FW de Klerk Foundation

24 September 2021