on Friday, 31 January 2014. Posted in Heritage, Arts & Culture

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The controversial painting by Brett Murray demonstrated that South Africa remains fraught with underlying tensions that challenge real unity among citizens from different demographic backgrounds. Despite certain moments of unity that the country has experienced such as the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the 1996 AFCON tournaments, and the 20120 Fifa World Cup, these alone are not sufficient to sustain unity among peoples who have been in conflict over 300 years. Following the debacle around The Spear, the Department of arts and Culture (DAC) organised a social cohesion summit held in early July in Soweto. The purpose of the summit was to provide South Africans with a platform to talk to each other about their values, aspirations and visions of a united South Africa. The summit was attended by political parties, representatives of civil society, business leaders and government representatives. The theme of the summit was Creating a caring and proud society. Minister of Arts and Culture, Paul Mashatile said:

“We are confident that the summit will firmly place the promotion of social cohesion, nation-building, and national identity on the national agenda. South Africans have proven themselves to be a nation that thrives and finds solutions to difficult problems through dialogue, discussion and reaching out to one another.”

Recognising the importance of unity in creating a new South Africa, the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) initiated a new campaign that seeks to tell the people of this diverse nation that ultimately, we are all South Africans at heart. The DAC’s message will be carried through the campaign South African @ Heart: Working Together to Build a Caring Nation. The campaign aims to build social cohesion and a sense of national pride among all citizens. By hosting this national dialogue, the department hopes to encourage South Africans to think about how they live out their sense of citizenship. The South African @ Heart campaign forms part of government’s larger goal to build a healthy nation. Government has initiated a plan comprising 12 outcomes that are to be implemented between now and 2014. The 12th outcome entails the following: a) to build an efficient, effective, and development oriented public service, and; b) an empowered, inclusive and fair citizenship. South African @ Heart speaks directly to building an empowered, inclusive and fair citizenship in the country by working towards social cohesion among South Africans.

The DAC maintains that South Africa is still a young democracy. Memories of apartheid brutality have not yet died, and issues of transformation remain pressing. At the same time, there are immense challenges to overcome, including poverty and unemployment. South African @ Heart recognises the immensity of these challenges, but suggests that change begins with the steps each of us makes in our ordinary lives. These changes, however, will have a bigger impact if we make them together. The DAC works on the premise that social cohesion is based on four key pillars, namely: diversity, inclusiveness, access and values. Social cohesion is about celebrating our diversity in an inclusive manner, working with common values, and making sure that we all have equal access to basic services, education, health care, justice, and housing.

Some have questioned the need for this campaign, raising that issues like crime, HIV/Aids, unemployment and education ought to be prioritised over issues like social cohesion. Others pointed out that the ‘triple challenge’ of unemployment, poverty and inequality are the real causes of the lack of social cohesion in the country. By extension, if government is to address these challenges, the nation will be better placed to work towards social cohesion. The DAC’s chief director of Social Cohesion, however, explains:

“Social cohesion is not a soft issue. Social cohesion is about the decisions we make in our daily lives and this in turn has a knock-on effect throughout society. Our response to the various challenges we face are largely defined by the level of social cohesion our country enjoys. If you look at the various government departments, and the role they play in building our society – for example, the Departments of Health, Human Settlements, Justice and Education – without a sense of social cohesion, there is no way that they can fulfil their mandates effectively. It’s important to remember that Social Cohesion is informed by our Constitution, which enshrines the rights of every South African. It was a very deliberate choice to name the campaign – South African @ Heart with the subtitle Working together to build a Caring Nation – because that exemplifies the sense of ‘togetherness’ and ‘we’re all in this together’ that we’re looking to build with this campaign.”

The campaign comprises several phases starting with a series of conversations with all South Africans about what values we hold in common, and whether we can say these are truly national values. These conversations are to be held as community conversations throughout the country, as well as round table discussions with selected stakeholders, in order to hear what South Africans think. Mashatile elaborates on this:

“We will be on the streets, at taxi ranks, at train stations, and in shopping centres. We will be going into communities to host conversations about what makes us South Africans at heart. We want to know what you think.”

The DAC further envisions that the community discussions will culminate in a National Summit on Social Cohesion. Delegates to the summit will report back on the results of conversations in their region and together we will discuss the values which we as a country appear to hold in common. Once there is an agreement on what our national values constitute, the campaign will move into its final phase: living those values in meaningful ways, in our everyday lives. South African @ Heart will continue the conversation in this phase. The DAC is intent on ensuring that it is the citizens who are the drivers of this process rather than enforcing a top down approach that dictates to them what values we want to live by.

South African @ Heart visualises a united country, one where the diversity of each person is respected, and no one faces unfair discrimination; a country where South Africans work together to build the society we all want to live in. Clearly this is not the work of a few months or even a year. But it is a project from which we will reap rewards over the long term.

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