How does celebrating our heritage help when South Africa is facing such turbulence?


South Africa is in the midst of dealing with some grave and consequential challenges. We are coming out of a recession, we are trying to undo state capture, and we continue to battle with rising unemployment. It might feel like there is not much to celebrate, but there are compelling reasons why focusing on art, culture and festivals could be good for us this Heritage Month.  

Given the depth of the troubles in this country, Heritage Day and Heritage Month hardly seem like priorities. When testimony at the inquiry into state capture, several crises in governance across our private and public sectors as well as significant resource insecurities is keeping us glued to our news feeds; listening to poetry or visiting historical sites hardly seem, at first glance, like the most compelling use of our time.

South Africa is, however, a unique country. We are a nation of such a variety of identities, languages, oral histories and traditions that there isn’t a crisis we haven’t faced or a lesson we haven’t already learnt before. In a sense, there is no more apt time to be celebrating our heritage than in the midst of crises. It reminds us that we already have the means to understand and overcome whatever we may be facing.

Throughout our history stories, music and art have always been ways of mobilising people and bringing them together. Creative and cultural industries, and festivals in particular have played a meaningful role in not only boosting social cohesion, stimulating regional economies, but have also provided platforms for resistance when needed.

At South African Cultural Observatory (SACO)’s annual conference, in March 2018, Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa said of the cultural and creative industries: “As government we recognise the potential of the cultural and creative industries as a socially transformative sector that provides jobs, drives innovation and allows many young people to make a living from their talent. This is what makes these sectors and industries golden.”

Notably, in 2015, cultural occupations made up 2.5% of all employment in SA. This makes the sector the third largest source of employment. When non-cultural support occupations that contribute generally to the cultural and creative industries are included, over one million, or 6,72% of all South African jobs, are housed in the broader ‘Cultural Economy’. This is according to findings by research from SACO.

Celebrating our heritage allows us the opportunity to re-organise our identity and reignite our collective desire to create the future we want. While challenges from water scarcity to weak governance threaten our social fabric, culture and art may be the most effective platforms to develop fresh new solutions through celebration and the sharing of ideas.

Community festivals are one such place where this can happen, as they offer a surprisingly effective means of social change. Our experience in activating and organising such events over the last six years has shown that there are, amongst others, four distinct ways in which they can promote urban social renewal.

There is a lot of organising that goes into putting a festival together, including the logistics, operations and programming. This is however a competency that is declining in urban communities.

At the moment, means of mobilising and organising often oscillates between far too ineffective public participation processes on the one hand and protest on the other. Festivals, however, present a very different kind of opportunity. They are an apolitical way to bring people together around a community issue that is productive, celebratory and joyous, rather than destructive and antagonistic.

These meetings also illustrate the potential for festivals to bring people together from diverse backgrounds for a common purpose. In a city like Cape Town where it often seems like different sections of the community have competing needs, festivals create a point of common identity.

Most community-based organisations feel the stress of scarcity. There aren’t enough resources or time to do all the things that they feel they need to do. Festivals are however great examples of how we can uncover new energy and resources for civic responsibility. It’s difficult to motivate around problems. It’s much easier to motivate around something enjoyable.

They are also an opportunity to bring more young people into civic organisations, where they are currently under-represented. Festivals can motivate young people to be more involved by targeting what they enjoy.

In many carnival traditions, festivals were a place where even absolute power could be challenged without consequence. Whether through theatre, comedy, satire or song, the truth could be told. This continues to be true today, as resistance can be less combative and more constructive in places where people are celebrating. Big problems are often best solved by appealing to the hearts and minds of everyday South Africans rather than looking for technical answers, and the arts allow us to do that.

Particularly as a society at odds with itself in so many ways, we tend to pay attention to those things that get a lot of media attention – corruption, political mismanagement, and governance failures in both the public and private sectors. This September, let’s pay more attention to the arts.

Genuinely listen to different stories, go to a music concert of genre that you might not usually listen to. Go out of your comfort zone to places where people are creating and telling stories. Listen to someone else’s description of what it means to be South African. We don’t do this often enough. When we do, we will find that we already know the answers to all of our ills. We just have to pay attention to the platforms and people, the answers may be coming from.


Fergus Turner is a Bertha Scholar at the UCT Graduate School of Business completing his MPhil specialising in inclusive innovation. He is the organiser of the Muizenberg Festival an annual event that takes place in October; and is also a Director at The Hive.