Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Weekly Newsletter to the Nation
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
With one of the definitive twentieth century horror images in mind: the holocaust gas chambers, the Romanian Nobel Peace Laureate, Elie Wiesel coined the well-known phrase "To live without a past is worst than to live without a future". These words sprung again to mind this week when I watched the blanket television coverage of the President of Iran, Mr Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Colombia University in New York on Monday. Mr Ahmadinejad, amongst other things, is, of course, particularly well-known for his notorious holocaust denialism.
Mr Ahmadinjed’s address and President Bollinger’s response highlighted how, in today’s world, the interrelated questions of prejudice, oppression and freedom of expression have taken on a global complexion. We wrestle with the ethical questions of developing countries debt and poverty, ‘Jihadism’ and interfaith relations and the practise of ‘extraordinary rendition’ and the fight against terrorism.
Mr Ahmadinejad’s unusual New York outing happened to coincide the same day South Africa was commemorating Heritage Day. So I am sure Mr Wiesel’s words would have resonated as clearly with many South Africans as they would have with Mr Ahmadinejad’s audience.
For ever since Jan van Riebeeck planted that wild almond fence in the Cape of Good Hope in 1660 to keep the indigenous Khoi out, the lovely land we call South Africa was the canvas upon which various groups painted their dastardly crimes of conquest and repression.
The world-renowned dramatic ochre rock art heritage sites of the Khoi in the Cape provinces and of the San in the Drakensburg Mountains of KwaZulu-Natal – now an UNESCO site – provide vivid testimony to the heritage of South Africa’s earliest peoples who were subjugated by the first European settlers.
In his introduction to his acclaimed scholarly work, ‘The Afrikaners: Biography of a People’, Hermann Giliomee, poses a stark question. "How does the historian know that a concern expressed over the survival of a culture or a people is not in fact a camouflage about a standard of living, a concern about privilege or even sheer racism?"
It is a question that none of us, even in these sunnier times of constitutional democracy and equality under the rule-of-law, dare shy away from. For too often in our history symbols of culture, race and tradition have been perverted to sow discord and division amongst our disparate peoples. In the apartheid era, the superiority of whites was promoted on the basis of previous achievements. The inferiority of blacks was derived from ruthless racial stereotyping. On the subject of prejudice, South Africans could write novels.
By way of example, the early Christian missionaries did much good by bringing the gospel and providing education to many people who were illiterate. Many missionaries also, unfortunately, sought to destroy or at least suppress many of the indigenous African traditions. At this time of year, the Zulu people celebrate the Reed Dance which symbolises, in a very special and unique way, life, beauty, purity and unity. It has become fashionable in some quarters to knock the value of chastity as being unprogressive or even chauvinistic (although men also are required to exhibit honour and integrity), yet, I still believe, that traditions like these can plan a major role in defeating the HIV/Aids pandemic.
The other point that I would like to make is that building a harmonious and conformist nation are not one and the same. Without wishing to impose an insipid uniform identity-kit upon our peoples, Heritage Day serves to remind us that we are all South Africans and all our constituent traditions should be respected.
AI Kajee, one of the most influential Indian politicians in the early twentieth century, eloquently argued before parliament, "We know no other land.we are part and parcel of this land and we are proud that we are South Africans and we ask you to treat us as that." Kajee was not jettisoning his Indian heritage, but was affirming it in the context of being a South African patriot.
In Zulu we have an expression, Simunye meaning ‘we are one’. The Nguni proverb ‘a person is a person through other persons’ also unwraps this sense of unity in diversity and shapes our understanding of the African principle of Ubuntu-Botho.
The IFP and I have always maintained that if a people are to move with the times – be they Afrikaner, English, Indian, Ndebele, Sotho, Xhosa, Zulu – remaining true to their respective traditions will be the best basis upon which to promote change and the building of one nation. However, it is important to bear in mind that our cultural and racial identities are not unchanging or pristine.
Nor need we fear difference and diversity, for they are the qualities which make us interesting as human beings. By virtue of our common endeavours, our relationships, practise of faith, tastes to the clothes we wear, we break through the barriers of cultural and linguistic differences each day of our lives. I worship in a church, I am partial to Indian food, I am passionate about my Zulu heritage and, most often, I wear Western style suits to work.
In the week that we have celebrated Heritage Day, let us not forget that our heritage provides our guiding light with which we traverse the present and the future.
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP