National culture: We need to talk about it

What a ride we have been through these past two weeks. The word “spear” will never have the same ring to it again, thanks to all the attention that one work of art received from politicians, the media and other talking heads.

One cannot deny that the artwork and its artist, Brett Murray, have done the very thing that all art seeks to do – get a reaction. Egos may have been bruised, emotions stirred, apologies bandied about but for the most part all seems to be returning to a familiar state of calm and delusion in sunny South Africa.

Amid all the noise pertaining to the work, some rather discomforting things about South Africa have come to light. One particular issue caught my interest – the lack of cultural understanding which still exists in this country of mine.

By cultural understanding I do not mean to infer “culture” as it was used by the ANC or President Jacob Zuma in their attacks on the work.

I am talking here about a cultural understanding which has been informed by historical stereotypes that refuse to take leave of the stage upon which South Africans relate to one another. Without going so far as to make it a rallying cry, I wish to invoke the words of Frantz Fanon when he wrote that “each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it”.


It is arguable that post-apartheid South Africa represents that moment of departure from the “relative obscurity” of cultural understanding that so heavily characterised the past.

The recent shenanigans are ample proof that we are not only a nation that hasn’t adequately dealt with its past but one that is easily polarised. We only speak when fighting words are the weapons of choice, when it is easier to break things down than to build them up.

As far as I can see, the solution, or at least a big part of it, lies in culture and language. These two human constructs have never remained stagnant. They have changed with time and circumstance. In this light, a South Africa where it is the norm for its people, both black and white, to speak more than two official languages without issues would be something to see.

Perhaps, and better yet, a new creole would come into existence, defining and redefining what it means to identify oneself as South African.

I recall the formative years of my tertiary education at university, when I met a young Afrikaner in residence. He was very much a “farmer” by look and his name was Frans. He was fluent in Sesotho and could understand me when I spoke Setswana. I never caught his last name but I doubt he got mine either. Regardless, he would greet me with a “dumela monna”, whenever occasion enabled us a chance encounter. I would in turn throw in a “hoe gaan dit meneer?” reaching into memories of my hoërskool days where learning Afrikaans came as both a shock (I had never learnt Afrikaans in my previous school until grade 9) and a cause for trepidation, since without it you couldn’t pass a grade.

Of course, what struck me about him (and still does) is the way in which he always seemed comfortable, not trying to assimilate or feign interest, but simply being himself.

Through him, I caught a glimpse into the realm of the very possible future of this country.

The idea had long since retreated into the furthest reaches of my mind but I found myself thinking about it in the tail-end of the Spear debate.

The current trend in South Africa is that no interest is shown to languages and cultures. We speak of using art for “nation-building”, yet art does not carry the identity and knowledge system of a people. Some among black people pride themselves in their children speaking only English but are unaware that it is their culture that is fading away.

It goes without saying that South Africa is part of the globalised world, but in the same breath, it is culture that carries a lot of currency globally.

Perhaps if we exchanged culture, rather than political vitriol, we could grow to see the treasure troves of possibility in our country, in each other and in ourselves.

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Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.

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