Thousands of demonstrators readied to march through central Joburg to protest against a spate of xenophobic attacks. Photo: IOLMojo

Artists must be at the forefront in redefining our vision of a unified Africa, writes Nathi Mthethwa.

Johannesburg - Not long ago, we launched Africa Month to begin using arts, culture and heritage to open up new ways of contributing to understanding among South Africans and their fellows from other parts of the continent.

What we have observed is that South Africa’s relationship with its colonial past and history has created a deep crisis of identity among citizens.

Over the past two decades of democracy, conditions and relations in African communities have been unstable and have threatened to explode into violence.

The inaugural We Are Africa cultural festival and programme, to be launched at the beginning of next month, is aimed at spreading a new African consciousness.

It is intended to create a platform and opportunities for African artists from around the world to redefine African identity and relations among all the people of this country and the continent.

Above all, it is part of a deliberate agenda to mainstream the role of artists in nation-building and social cohesion. This does not imply that artists must censor themselves. They remain the conscience of the nation.

The rising tensions in communities confirm our conviction that it is only through arts and culture that a society can heal itself and uplift its people.

It may appear as if the government has been taken by surprise by the violent explosions.

It is the mandate of the Department of Arts and Culture to highlight the sector’s role and contribution to cultural development, progressive thinking and economic transformation.

The massive success and growth in popular culture – including movies, fashion, music and visual arts, for instance – confirm the central role and effectiveness of the sector to transform society.

The first We Are Africa cultural festival promises to take us on an uncharted road towards African self-determination. There is no doubt that it promises to be long and hard, but artists have always been visionaries and leaders in their communities.

At least 31 countries are to participate. We are confident that the staging of this historic month-long cultural festival will ultimately result in the destruction of all colonial and apartheid-created barriers that have prevented the population from identifying with the continent.

Above all, we are looking to contribute to a spontaneous cultural redefinition that will enhance social relations among all the people who live in this country.

We pride ourselves that almost 1 000 guests and artists were gathered at Freedom Park to launch the Africa Month Cultural Festival Programme.

We were delighted that this important gathering was, at the beginning, imbued with the spirit of a great African composer, Enoch Sontonga, who, in 1897, composed the anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.

This is a special song and prayer that has spread African consciousness.

This lyrical anthem and poem becomes relevant as the country, especially the youth on our campuses, grapple with the issue of colonial symbols that are part of our history.

We continue to be confronted by the challenges of prejudice and stereotypes, including racism, Afrophobia and sexism.

Our creative intellectuals must lead the regeneration of the continent. Someone like Sontonga was a pioneering African cultural renaissance man.

The Africa Month Cultural Programme means that ANC president Pixley ka Isaka Seme’s dream of African regeneration is being fulfilled.

We can paraphrase his words to say, “a new and unique civilisation has been added to the world”.

The time has come for Africa’s renewal to be taken to a higher level by the continent’s highly gifted creatives: poets, writers, intellectuals, musicians, chefs and artists.

In South Africa we can think of some of the foremost and leading exponents of pan-Africanist thought: poets such as Mazisi Kunene and Pitika Ntuli, writers like Wally Mongane Serote, Mandla Langa and Es’kia Mphahlele. All have espoused the spirit of a new Africa.

The launch of this programme contributes to increase our self-knowledge and understanding.

Drawing from the strength of existing pan-African festivals, it will be a celebratory and educational platform that will also create markets for African cultural products.

The adopted theme is: “We are Africa – Opening the doors of learning and culture from Cape to Cairo”.

After all, we are Africa. Our artists must and will share a home-made but global platform to assert our identity and contribution to society.

The platform will display the creativity and originality of African artists. It will promote the unity of all our people, from Cape to Cairo, united in our diversity.

Above all, the platform will highlight African cultural products and initiate a programme of trade interaction and cultural exchange.

Among our special guests will be world-renowned poets, novelists, intellectuals, dancers, singers, musicians, designers.

In what is the African century, arts, culture and heritage must be elevated to a central leadership role.

Artists must be at the forefront in developing our self-knowledge, redefining our vision and promoting ubuntu and unity among all African countries.

As the poet June Jordan said: “We are the ones we have been waiting for!”

A wind of change and self-determination is blowing across the African continent. It carries each and every one of us with it for we have been selected by history to be the agents of what we want to see.

It is in this context that South Africa ratified the Charter for African Cultural Renaissance in October.

This festival is an artistic and creative expression of the African Agenda 2063. It will be a platform to promote the AU programme towards the attainment of its vision: building an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa.

As we prepare for Freedom Day, we dare not forget the important role that was played by the AU and African states in the Struggle.

We invite everyone who has an exciting idea to join us in being part of the cultural festival. We invite business, the media and civil society organisations to play their part.

This is about Africa and all her people.

* Mthethwa is the minister of arts and culture.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent