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Preparing ourselves for freedom

A discussion paper by Comrade Albie Sachs — PART 2

Albie Sachs is a member of the ANC’s Department of Legal and Constitutional Affairs in Lusaka. This is Part Two of an article which he presented to an ANC conference on culture in a new South Africa. Part One of the article appeared in Learn and Teach No 2, 1990.

In Part One comrade Albie explained the danger of saying that culture is a weapon of struggle. He said that saying this doesn’t mean anything, and, in fact it is wrong and may even be harmful.

In this second part of the article, comrade Albie’s says that the Constitutional Guidelines should not be applied to culture.

What?! you might say, a member of the Department of Legal and Constitutional Affairs saying that the Guidelines should not be applied to culture. Exactly. Comrade Albie argues that it should be the other way round— that culture must make a contribution to the Guidelines.

Comrade Albie talks about the importance of the Constitutional Guidelines for cultural work now and in a future post-apartheid South Africa.

We have changed comrade Albie’s words in some cases to make the article easier to read. We hope that we have kept the spirit of his thoughts alive.


Culture must make a contribution to the Guidelines. ANC members and the people of South Africa as a whole must discuss the Guidelines and come up with constructive and concrete ideas about the kind of government we want in a post-apartheid South Africa.


 (g) It shall be state policy to promote the growth of a single national identity and loyalty binding on all South Africans. At the same time, the state shall recognise the linguistic and cultural diversity of the people and provide facilities for free linguistic and cultural development.


(h) The Constitution shall include a Bill of Rights based on the Freedom Charter. Such a Bill of Rights shall guarantee the fundamental human rights of all citizens, irrespective of race, colour, sex or creed, and shall provide appropriate mechanisms for their protection and  enforcement.
(i) The state and all social institutions shall be under constitutional duty to eradicate race discrimination in all its forms.
(j) The state and all social institutions shall be under a constitutional duty to eradicate speedily, the economic and social inequalities produced by racial
(k) The advocacy or practice of racism, fascism, Nazism or the incitement of ethnic or regional exclusiveness shall be outlawed.
(1) Subject to clauses (i) and (k) above, the democratic state shall guarantee the basic rights and freedoms, such as freedom of association, thought, worship and the press. Furthermore, the state shall have the duty to protect the right to work and guarantee the right to education and social security.
(m) All parties which conform to the provisions (i) and (k) above shall have the legal right to exist and to take part in the political life of the country. 

The Guidelines set out the ideas of the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC). But these ideas are not final. They are not a set of rules which must be learnt off by heart. We must not take what the Guidelines say about culture and follow them like slaves. Instead, we need to ask ourselves what the Guidelines say about culture and then say whether we agree. We must make suggestions for improvement.

The NEC wants free and open discussion about the Guidelines because we want to build a free and open society. Apartheid has closed our society, stifled its voice, prevented the people from speaking, and it is the historic task of our organisation to be the messengers of freedom of conscience, debate and opinion. In my view, there are three aspects of the Guidelines that directly affect culture.


The first aspect is the question of building national unity and encouraging the development of a common patriotism, at the same time fully recognising the many different languages and cultures in the country. Once we have settled the question of political rights in a democratic way, we can then look at the question of languages and cultures in a new way. In other words, language, religion and so-called ways of life will no longer be confused with race and apartheid. Instead they will become part of the positive cultural values of the society.

We must be clear about the difference between unity and uniformity. We are strongly for national unity, for seeing our country as one whole — not just a common area of land but also a common body of people. We want full equal rights for every South African, no matter the race, language, ethnic origin or religious beliefs. We believe in a single South Africa with a single Government and we work towards a common loyalty and a common patriotism.

However, we do not call for everyone to be exactly the same as each other, so that they have no character of their own. South Africa is now said to be a two-language country. We think that it will be a many-language country. It will be a many-faith and a many-culture country as well.

The aim is not to make one single culture that everyone must fit into, but to recognise and take pride in the fact that our people have many varied cultures. In the past, the British colonial rulers tried to force everyone to become English gentlemen.

Apartheid, on the other hand, tried to make us believe that we had nothing in common with anyone else. It insisted that we were kept apart in our different groups. When we reject apartheid, we do not wish to return to the British Imperialist ways of forcing everyone to be the same.


We do not wish to build a culture where everyone must forget the cultural heritage of their own communities. We will have Zulu South Africans, and Afrikaner South Africans and Indian South Africans and Jewish South Africans and Venda South Africans and Cape Moslem South Africans. (It doesn’t matter what we call them — people will decide for themselves what they want to be called.) Each culture will be like the smaller rivers which flow into the big river of South African-ness and increase the strength and beauty of the river.

We all belong in some way to a particular community but this does not mean that we are locked into an ‘own affairs’ ghetto. Instead, the grandchildren of white immigrants can join in the toyi-toyi — even if they are slightly out of step — and they can recite the poems of Wally Serote. And the grandchildren of Dinizulu can read with pride the writings of Olive Schreiner.

The dance, the food, the poetry, the dress, the songs and riddles and folk-tales, belong to each group, but they also belong to all of us. I remember the pride I felt as a South African when some years ago I saw the Zulu Macbeth in the World Theatre Season in London. At that time this was probably one of the most important theatres in the world. The British audience loved it — the powerful wedding and funeral dances of our people, acted by cooks and messengers and chauffeurs — and the experts and critics praised the actors. This was Zulu culture, but it was also our culture, my culture.


Each culture has its strengths, but there is no culture which is worth more than another culture. We cannot say that because there are more Xhosa speakers than Tsonga, their culture is better, or because those who hold power today are Afrikaans-speakers, Afrikaans is better or worse than any other language.

Every culture has its positive — or good — points and its negative — or bad — points.

Sometimes the same cultural history is used in two completely opposite ways. We can see this for example in the way that the history of Shaka and Cetshwayo is used for two different purposes. On the one hand, the story of Shaka and Cetshwayo is told to inspire people to fight selflessly for the total liberation of all our people.

On the other hand, the same story is told to build a tribal identity that excludes other South Africans and is an obstacle to the liberation of our country. What is good in a certain kind of society becomes an obstacle to change when the society itself has become changed.

For example, the way families were organised in pre-colonial days is out of keeping with the demands of modern life. African society, like all societies, develops and has the right to change itself. What we have lacked since colonial days is the right for the people to decide how they want to live.

If we look at Afrikaans culture we can see very clearly how it has sometimes played a very positive role and sometimes a very negative role. At one time it was the popular language of the working people of the Western Cape. The Dutch colonials spoke badly of it, calling it kitchen Dutch, because it was spoken by slaves and indigenous peoples who taught it to their masters and mistresses. Later, Afrikaans was the language of resistance to British Imperialism.

The best MK story to appear in South Africa so far was written (in English) by a Boer, Denys Reitz. The story is called “On Commando”. It is a beautiful story of the three years that Reitz spent as a guerilla fighting Shaka — a story of liberation or of tribal division?

Afrikaans literature grew out of suffering and patriotism. Many of the early Afrikaans writers chose to write about nature and the land because the British had taken away so many of their political rights and freedoms. These books about nature are some of the finest books written anywhere in the world on this subject, showing a deep love of nature and a concern for the land.

Later on, the Afrikaans language was hijacked by racists who wanted white domination. The language came to be seen as the language of the baas. But there is no reason at all why Afrikaans should not once more become the language of liberty, but this time liberty for all, not just for a small minority trying to oppress the majority.


At this point I want to make another statement that might shock people: white is beautiful. In case anyone feels that the bomb has affected my head, I will repeat this statement, surely the first time it has been said at any ANC conference: white is beautiful.

Let me explain what I mean. I first heard these words from a Mozambican poet who had been a guerrilla during the war of liberation. His grandmother was African and his grandfather Portuguese. He was asked to give Frelimo’s point of view on the statement: black is beautiful. He answered: black is beautiful, brown is beautiful, white is beautiful. I think his words are beautiful.

We can add that when white started saying that black was ugly it made itself ugly. If we take away its arrogance – or stubbornness – the culture of the white community can be rich and valuable. This does not mean that we need a White Consciousness Movement in South Africa.

In the light of our colonial history, white consciousness means oppression while black consciousness means resistance to oppression. But it does make clear why whites join in the struggle to end apartheid.

Whites are not in the struggle to help blacks win their rights. Whites are fighting for their own rights, the rights to be free citizens of a free country, and to enjoy and take pride in the culture of the whole country. They are not liberators of others. Nor do they want to end up being a hated and hating minority.

They want to be ordinary citizens of an ordinary country, proud to be part of South Africa, proud to be part of Africa, proud to be part of the world. Only a few religious sects believe that you have to whip yourself in order to become liberated. For the rest of humankind, there is no successful struggle without a sense of pride and a strong belief in your own value.


The second point in the Guidelines which affects culture is the proposal for a Bill of Rights which guarantees freedom of expression and freedom to set up political organisations. South Africa today is weighed down with States of Emergency, banning orders, censorship and lies put out by the State to confuse and misinform us.

The only thing we will restrict in future is racist propaganda and ethnic superiority. Many countries in the world have laws to restrict these things. The people in the future South Africa that the Guidelines aim to create will be free to set up such organisations as they please, to vote for whom they please, and to say what they want.

We should remember that there is a difference between leadership and control. We want ANC leadership. The central position of our organisation in South Africa has been won after a long and hard struggle. The dream of the founders of the organisation is slowly coming true.

Without doubt, the ANC will continue to be the main builder of national unity after apartheid has been destroyed and the foundations of democracy have been laid. But this does not mean that the ANC is the only voice in the anti-apartheid struggle or that it will be the only voice in post-apartheid South Africa.


We want to give leadership to the people, not to control them. This is important for our cultural work, not just in the future, but now. We think we are the best – and we are. That is why we are in the ANC. We work hard to persuade the people of our country that we are the best – and we are succeeding. But this does not mean that we must force our views down the throats of others.

No, true leadership does not dominate. Our leadership tries selflessly to build the widest possible unity of the oppressed people and encourages all forces for change. We show the people that we are fighting — not to impose a view onto them — but to give them the right to choose the kind of society they want and the kind of government they want.

We are not afraid of the ballot box, of free and open discussion, or of opposition. One day we may even have our own Ian Smiths who will protest and complain about every change we make and keep looking back to the “good old days” of apartheid. But we will face these people at elections. In a free society, we have no doubt who will win. And if we ever lose the trust of the people, then we deserve to lose an election.

This has important lessons for our cultural work. We should lead by example, because our policies are the correct ones, not because we are many and our organisation has made a name for itself. We need to have a wide vision, not a narrow one. Our only limits must be: are you for or against apartheid!

In my opinion, we should be big enough to include that the anti- apartheid forces and individuals come in all shapes and sizes — especially if they are artists or cultural workers. This does not mean that artists are special people.

It simply means that artists have certain special ways of doing things, certain particular traditions. It would be foolish of us to set ourselves up as the new censors of art and literature, or to have our own internal states of emergency in areas where we are well organised.

Instead, let us write better poems and make better films and compose better music. Let people join us under our flag freely — not because they are forced to join us. In the words of a war poet from Mozambique: “It is not enough that our cause be pure and just; justice and purity must exist inside ourselves.”


Thirdly, and finally, the Guidelines join the guarantees of individual rights to the need to take action which will remove the great inequalities that years of colonial and racist domination have created. Culture will have a role to play here too. The South Africa in which individuals and groups can operate freely will be a South Africa which will be going through great changes.

The new constitution will demand that the state, local authorities and public and private institutions take active steps to remove the huge inequalities between our people. This is the real meaning of the statement: The doors of learning and culture shall be opened.

We can foresee massive programmes of adult education and literacy, and wide use of the media (TV, radio, books, magazines etc) to give all our people access to the cultural riches of our country and of the world. The challenge to our cultural workers is obvious.

NEW WORDS stifle — if you stifle the voice of someone, you silence their voice uniformity—when everyone looks and thinks the same way exclude— leave out indigenous people— people who are from the country where they are now living, not people who have come from another country


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