CoCreating our Identity for the Future

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The “CoCreating our Identity for the Future” webinar sought to reflect on the current state of South Africa and the Netherlands’ identity crises and consider: where to from here?

#cocreateSANL is an initiative of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in South Africa,  which stimulates collaboration between South Africa and the Netherlands based on the belief that if we work together, we can make a difference and co-create solutions for local challenges. In the first webinar, the speakers opened a dialogue to rediscover the voices of the past and provide space for their experiences.

Marlene le Roux

During the second webinar, the speakers were asked to reflect on the events that took place  at the #cocreateIDENTITY Experience in Cape Town from 4 to 6 June 2022, which focused on delving deeper into questions surrounding identity. Questions were asked regarding the transition from diversity to inclusion. How can individuals feel welcome and seen in a space, especially if that space seems hostile to them? What does it take to foster a sense of belonging?  

Moderator Anathi Madubela, a financial journalist for the Mail & Guardian, began the webinar by asking the panellists to introduce themselves. Marlene le Roux, CEO of Artscape and long term partner of the NL Missions, said that most of the time rural people are not part of the conversation, and that being part of #cocreateIDENTITY is an incredible journey. Arthur Kibbelaar, Strategic Advisor for Diversity & Inclusion of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said it was a privilege to participate, and that diversity and inclusion are very important issues today. Quintin Goliath, aka Jitsvinger, Afrikaaps spoken word artist and musician, said he has been dealing with an “unspoken part” of the coloured people’s heritage. 

What is identity, asked Madubela? Goliath said that identity has to do with having a voice, and being able to have an opinion of your own, rather than one that makes you just feel intellectually acceptable. Le Roux said identity for people of colour in South Africa cannot exclude poverty, helplessness and disempowerment. Identity is interlinked with these social issues, but the way we frame the conversations about empowerment is extremely important so that it doesn’t become elitist, and a class issue all over again. 

Kibbelaar said identity is important for the future of your country; people must know who they were and are in order to advance: a healthy collective identity is essential. Wars often originate from denying people their identity. Identity is both personal and collective; and the arts are a good way to help people form and maintain identities.

Arthur Kibbelaar

Art needs to be seen and heard more, and artists definitely perform a service for society, agreed Goliath. If you remove it, people cannot express themselves or reflect, and will be unable to heal themselves; it is THE language of expression. Le Roux said the role that art plays in the community is profound, because it is about the narratives that need to change, and it tells the untold truths. Language is an intricate part of identity; for example, she was told that her Afrikaaps was not the “correct” form of Afrikaans. The books and plays of Adam Small can help to provide role models for the youth to look up to. “The real stories of our ancestors need to be told. Artists have a role to play in telling the youth that they have a voice, that they have an identity,” said Le Roux.

Kibbelaar said we cannot deal with the present or future without addressing the past. He comes from only the second generation of people in the Caribbean who had access to education — why was that? Why were the generations before not brought to the table? We have to discuss all forms of exclusion, such as patriarchy or apartheid, that exclude certain people from being at the table. Why do some people live in certain areas, and have access to certain types of education or not? To facilitate the process of belonging and inclusivity, one has to claim your seat at the table, and that involves acknowledging your past. Slavery, for instance, must be acknowledged because of the role it played in racism. “Paying attention to the past is not an elitist project; it is part of the healing process, and if the healing does not take place, other problems in society will emerge down the line,” said Kibbelaar. 

A safe place for this conversation must be facilitated, where all under-represented groups are brought equally to the table. The rest of Africa, and in fact the whole world, is looking at South Africa and how it lays the demons of the past to rest, said Kibbelaar.

What are some of the opportunities for inclusion, Madubela asked Goliath? He said we cannot have people speaking for others: for instance, a farm owner cannot speak on behalf of his or her workers, and this still happens a lot. We have to acknowledge the narrative of those who are underrepresented. We might think, for instance, why can’t everybody go to Kirstenbosch gardens for some healing, but because of apartheid’s spatial legacy, it is not as accessible for some as it is for others. Language creates cross-pollination opportunities. 

“I call my language Afrikaaps in order to force my narrative and identity into the canon of what is ‘acceptable’ Afrikaans, which is very stagnant, and it left out a whole community that is artistic, and has a whole culture behind it,” said Goliath.

Anathi Madubela

It is essential for us to bring our young people together, to understand each other, to share each other’s identities, said Le Roux, and to move towards a South African identity. My background is the rural areas and the dop system, and I use this in my position at Artscape to foster understanding. Rural people, especially women, must have a place at the table when we discuss identity. We cannot speak for others if we don’t understand them, and we need to own up to our role in the past if we were part of the process of slavery, for instance, if we want to genuinely heal the past. 

Confrontations can sometimes help us to grow and heal, said Kibbelaar; the Dutch nation is still grappling with the issues surrounding Black Pete, for instance. We need to decolonise our minds and our relationships, at every level. Interventions from outside can help; the Dutch can learn from what happened in apartheid South Africa. wWe need to acknowledge that trauma was inflicted upon some generations, otherwise history gets repeated. Economic empowerment is not enough; not being seen and heard can result in things like addiction. “We have to be bold enough to say where we are hurting, so we do not inflict our hurt on others again.” 

Goliath pointed out that there are still prejudices against what language people use in South Africa; if a coloured person goes for an interview and speaks Afrikaans, they may be thought of as being a gangster, for example. 

What is beyond diversity, asked Madubela? This requires education, said Le Roux; schools must be made inclusive at all levels, including indigenous languages, in all practices. Rural schools must be properly equipped with infrastructure and skilled teachers. Beyond diversity is justice, said Kibbelaar. When we have justice for all, we are what I call “belonging”.

“Every day, we must reflect on how to make this a better world — not just the government, or artists, or activists, it is about all of us, how we unpack the narratives that were given to us, at individual and collective levels — and then make bold interventions. We are not going to get there in small steps.”

This is such a good time to be living, said Goliath. I am hearing voices from the past, and then there is all this new technology. Education must be rethought; the youth must use art to express themselves and their aspirations. We need to break the conventions of “high art” and bring all parts of society under one roof. Equal access to resources is required to address how resources were not shared equally under apartheid. — Derek Davey

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