“… people from all over the globe rely on the power of art and culture to preserve, heal, reconcile and peace-build.”
This statement from journalist Amanda Fortier speaks to the heart of why arts and culture are important in society, whether at peace or in war. The arts are about innovation and creativity, and as such, they play an instrumental role in initiatives seeking to bridge unity in conflict situations. Culture can be interpreted in several ways. It can be in reference to the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group, and also the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively. Regardless of the interpretation, culture is dynamic and fluid. Culture overlaps across spaces and is adaptable to situations and times – in other words, constantly evolving.
Culture gives meaning and currency to our lives outside of imposed and arbitrary divisions. Take for example in South Africa where we have seen the power of arts and culture in bridging racial divides. One such example is Juluka, the band formed by Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu. The band combined the masakandi artistic prowess of the two men, one white English-speaking, one black Zulu-speaking. Juluka transcended cultural divides and unified white and black during the apartheid years. They faced harassment and arrest, but the power of music was too strong to break the spirit of these musicians, who continued to perform and create despite the situation they found themselves in.
A cursory glance over human history will show that culture and conflict have been steady partners in the evolution of humanity. Where there has been conflict, it has often been a demonstration of the inability of humans to deal with differences. These differences have been in relation to race, religion, politics, social or economics – typically the sources of fear and misunderstanding. South Africa is a case in point where the clash of cultures resulted in segregation, discrimination and exclusion. While cultural differences can lead to conflict, the other side of the coin demonstrates that those same differences can be used to bring people together. Artistic and cultural practices, through visual art, poetry, music, theatre and dance, can be used to initiate dialogue and interaction among different groups. As demonstrated by Juluka, the love and appreciation for maskanda superseded the racial and religious differences of Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu.
As a government, there has been a long recognition of the role of culture in conflict situations. In 2006, the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) initiated research on the role of cultural diversity in conflict and peacemaking in Africa. The South African government has been involved in peace missions and conflict resolution initiatives in several African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Burundi, Somalia and the Sudan. Although international literature on African civil and communal wars often refers to the role of ethnicity and culture in these conflicts, the matter has received little official attention in peace missions. The project Identity and Democratisation in Africa deals with cultural, political and other identities that influence people’s participation, or non-participation, in democratic processes. Although elections often successfully mobilise the voters, during the periods between elections, there seems to be a decrease in participation in governance issues, and an alienation of the electorate from the elected governments. The project investigated the dynamics of these relationships. The study showed that traditional cultural institutions and arts and culture can contribute significantly to conflict resolution and reconciliation as they are an established part of people’s shared heritage. As some of the country studies show, disadvantaged groups often lack the capacity for equal participation in politics and the economy. Identity and cultural development programmes can contribute to capacity building through human development, for example, critical thinking, creative problem solving and the celebration of identities.
The DAC also pursues national initiatives that bridge divides among peoples from various backgrounds in South Africa. For example, in ensuring participation of vulnerable groups in the country, the DAC has implemented various arts, culture and heritage programmes to address this. Through these programmes, the DAC has succeeded in mainstreaming arts and culture’s role in social development. These have included, on the whole, collaboration with civil society, and more specifically, programmes that empowers women, youth and persons with disabilities. The DAC has partnered, together with its agencies, PANSALB and Deaf TV, in the Zwakala Youth Festival, which caters for youth with disabilities. On another level, there is a positive relationship between arts and culture and the rehabilitation of offenders. One such project is the Arts Access Programme in collaboration with the Department of Correctional Services. In promoting social cohesion and removing barriers to it, various social dialogues were held and further engagements in order to realise the contribution that arts, culture and heritage makes to social development are planned. Programmes that address issues of skills shortage, job creation and nation building are being rolled out and will include and focus on vulnerable persons, so that they equally participate and enjoy the sector. Women, the youth, children and persons with disabilities, as citizens of this country, rightfully also need to be given opportunities to participate in and enjoy the arts, culture and heritage programmes that the DAC runs.
Whether at national or regional levels, evidence shows that arts and culture provide a foundation for diverse communities to engage with one another. Arts and culture have the ability to embrace diversity and remove barriers for the common purpose of appreciating creativity and innovation. Arts and culture gives a platform for dialogue and participation to resolve issues of greater and lesser importance. From the music of Juluka, to conflict resolution initiatives across the African continent, arts and culture has shown that humans can rally around issues of human rights to promote unity and find solutions in conflict situations. As part of his leadership style, Nelson Mandela endorsed arts and culture as an effective means to advance unity among South Africans. It is in this spirit that we are to continue to bridge arbitrary divides among people from different walks of life.