The motto “!ke e: /xarra //ke” appears on the South African National Coat of Arms, which is a /Xam expression that translates to “diverse people unite”. For more than a century the diverse variety of peoples – who have congregated over the ages at the southern tip of Africa – has produced unique and complicated issues for academics, historians and political thinkers alike to debate and discuss at length.
A common phrase heard all over the country is: “South Africa is the world in one country”. And it truly is. Few countries in the world boast such a vast variety of languages, cultures, climates and landscapes. In my view, the history of Southern Africa is one of the most enthralling, heart-breaking, but also heart-warming tales to get lost in. It is a story rich in the themes of sacrifice, determination and overcoming adversity; of vasbyt, freedom, faith, community, standing up to empires and much more. Yet, it is not a story told by a single people, but rather a mosaic tapestry of often clashing cultural perspectives. Like the story of mankind, the story of Southern Africa is one primarily characterised by the theme of clashes between civilisations. What can we in the 21st century deduce from this turbulent history?
Every dispensation since the British artificially bunched us together as the Union of South Africa in 1910 has had a grand vision of how to solve the multicultural conflict that arises from this diverse Gordian knot that is Southern Africa. The Union of South Africa was a selective national unity project between Boer and Brit, with strong elements of forced separation that were applied to other cultures. The apartheid regime employed complete state-enforced separation as its solution. The post-1994 “rainbow nation” dispensation introduced forced integration into a single national identity as the new solution. The plan was to herd the different languages and cultures towards integration, through which more unity would be achieved, with cultural, linguistic and religious cleavages increasingly being confined to the past. However, 26 years into this smelting pot project the flaws in this recipe are increasingly evident. The widening cracks in the monumental porcelain façade appear in many forms: increased cultural consciousness, specifically among minority groups; the creation of more private cultural and linguistic institutions; or even talk about an interdependent Western Cape.
As both Lord Somerset and Lord Milner learned the hard way, the more you suppress a culture or language, the more united and determined it becomes – a truly Shakespearean outcome. The current ANC dispensation can attempt, like many before them, to use the mechanisms of state to suppress and diminish cultural and linguistic differences. However, when these governmental tools eventually falter or when the gatekeepers of state-sanctioned unity are not on their guard, the age-old power of culture will gradually regain its temporarily lost ground, like nature reclaims an improperly maintained or abandoned building
Apartheid’s forced separation through state coercion failed abysmally; neither does post-1994 forced integration of the rainbow nation seem to stand the test of time. Maybe a new path should be explored, rather than trying to completely separate or erase cultural, linguistic, and religious identities in the pursuit of utopian unity: A path that celebrates genuine diversity and where tolerance without uniformity is promoted in the traditional sense of this concept. After all, the symbol of the rainbow derives its beauty from the fact that it is a collection of colours, rather than one uniform, grey mass without identity. This new approach would allow all people to be proud of their respective culture and heritage. Nobody deserves to ever feel guilty or ashamed of exhibiting a semblance of pride in these integral aspects of the humanity that define them.
You have every right to be proud of your culture and heritage – as long as you apply the golden rule of treating other cultures as you would like them to treat yours. Let us acknowledge and celebrate the differences between cultures and languages here at the southern tip of Africa, rather than to try – but fail – to erase or suppress them. We should tackle the reality of our clashing perspectives with open dialogue and with mutual respect and recognition, as opposed to forcing one uniform, grand narrative and conformist identity onto everyone.
It is time we see Southern Africa for what it really is, rather than how we so desperately would like it to be. In order to achieve this, we must first examine our past thoroughly, for we are after all what our past has made us. Second, we must acknowledge the differences between cultures, while at the same time temper this effort by identifying what we have in common. Finally, we must be very wary of unwittingly indulging in the same imperialist reasoning as the dispensations that came before us – because although history does not repeat itself exactly, it does tend to rhyme.