One of the most important aspects recognised in the Constitution of South Africa, is the importance of our collective heritage and the rich cultural, linguistic and historical diversity of our people.
This includes the heritage of all our peoples - from the first nations of South Africa - the KhoiKhoi, Nama and San; our indigenous African peoples - the Zulus, Xhosas, Ndebeles and Swazis; the Tswana, Pedi and South Sotho, Tsonga and Venda; white South Africans descended from the Dutch, English, German and French settlers; our extended coloured community; to the Asians who arrived from the Dutch East Indies in the 17th and 18th centuries, and from India during the 19th century.
The heritage of all South Africans is inextricably linked and any of our component peoples’ heritage therefore belongs to all other South Africans equally. The heritage of one group is also not more important that of another: the Constitution places a special premium on cultural inclusivity and equality in South Africa.
The manner in which a rich and varied cultural heritage such as South Africa’s is managed can be a very strong unifying factor - if done in an inclusive and culturally sensitive manner. Our national anthem is a core example of this and former South African President Nelson Mandela explained it when he said: "When our first democratically-‐elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation".
Unfortunately, the converse is also true, for if a varied and rich cultural heritage like ours is not managed in a sensitive, constitutionally compliant and culturally sensitive manner, the unifying power inherent to it collapses.
The management of a varied cultural heritage and how it is done touches on a central theme raised in the 2013 Revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage: cultural diplomacy. The argument is simple: practice good cultural diplomacy as it is conducive - in a culturally and heritage diverse nation like ours - to nation building. Practice bad cultural diplomacy, and it erodes the uplifting effect of positive nation building.
A case in point is the current process of changing town, city and street names throughout South Africa. To date, the SA Geographical Names Council has changed 849 names of residential areas, suburbs and national geographic places over the past 14 years, and according to the department "this entails decolonising the heritage landscape by replacing colonial names with the names that reflect a post-‐colonial, post-‐apartheid, democratic South Africa".
There is no doubt that this change is necessary, so as to be more inclusive and to accommodate the different cultures and heritage of all South Africans, and to have such reflected in the names of our cities, towns and streets. However, perhaps the way in which the process is effected, ought to be not only more inclusive, but also more culturally diplomatic.
Recently Johnny Mohlala, of the SA Geographical Names Council, told a workshop involving the Mpumalanga Department of Culture, Sport and Recreation and the provincial place names committee that those who use litigation to oppose name changes "will be kept busy until their money runs out". This comment came from Mohlala four weeks before the start of the legal challenge brought by the Kruger Lowveld Business and Tourism Chamber to overturn the decision to change the name of Nelspruit to Mbombela. More than 23 000 residents of the town have signed a petition against the proposed name change, and the national Department of Arts and Culture, as well as the Mpumalanga place name committee, are opposing the application.
Is such a comment (like Mohlala’s) good cultural diplomacy, given the obvious sensitive nature of the process of changing a town’s name? The same pervasive attitude dictates the ongoing legal battle regarding the name of Pretoria/Tshwane, as well as street names in that city. The latest development in that saga is the SCA granting leave to the City of Tshwane to appeal against an earlier order forcing it to put the old street names back on display.
Can good cultural diplomacy - specifically regarding the changing of city, town and street names in South Africa - perhaps not be found in a more tolerant approach such as in countries like Ireland and Wales? In those countries the official languages are Welsh (Wales), Gaelic (Ireland) and English. Road signs everywhere, and most city and town names are reflected in both official languages. Surely a similar approach in South Africa will be more tolerant and inclusive, as it take cognisance of the heritage of all groups concerned?
At a recent workshop in the Western Cape on the White Paper during September 2013, Minister of Arts and Culture, Paul Mashatile, emphasised 'the absolute transformation' of the whole sector (arts, culture and heritage).
What exactly this means, is yet to be determined. The Director-‐General for Arts and Culture also stated that the arts and culture sector must be made to remain relevant for the born-‐ free generation. This is a worthy sentiment, but surely arts, culture and heritage must remain relevant and precious not only to the born-‐free generation, but also other, older and all South Africans?
The White Paper, in setting the context for its provisions, refers to the African National Congress’s Draft National Cultural Policy which states that: "Colonialism and apartheid neglected, distorted and suppressed the culture of the majority of South Africans. The freedom of expression was destroyed and systematic efforts were made at stifling creativity. Communities were denied resources and facilities to develop their own cultural expressions unless they coincided with the aims of the colonial masters."
Without derogating from the serious effect that pre-‐1994 policies and practices had on the majority of South Africans, it is questionable why, at the outset of the 2013 White Paper - in a constitutional dispensation that takes cognisance of the past but enshrines equality of cultural diversity - political dogma from the ruling party must be included in a document which encapsulates and seeks to regulate arts, culture and heritage.
Again, this begs the question of what constitutes good cultural diplomacy?
President Zuma recently reiterated that South Africans had an obligation to consider how they could promote national unity and a new national identity and singled out projects linking the Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park, and the Ncome Museum and the Blood River Monument. In his address to a joint sitting of Parliament on the occasion of marking 2013 Heritage Month in the National Assembly, President Jacob Zuma stated that the important question to ask is how we can promote national unity and a new national identity further?
The answer is simple: by practising better and more sensitive cultural diplomacy with one another.
If we succeed in doing so we will be better able to guard and cherish our heritage, which is our shared inheritance of the new and constitutional South Africa.