It’s time to embrace the power of cultural democracy, incompleteness and conviviality


As humans living in a deeply polarised world, we often carry stereotypes and assumptions in our heads about people who are different from us and those who do not fit into our preconceived ideas about the way things should be. One plausible reason may be due to a lack of proper knowledge and open-mindedness needed for empathy and understanding when relating with others. Attitudes arising from stereotypes we have in our heads about other races, genders, religions, sexualities, nationalities, ethnicities, and classes are way more damaging than we may want to admit. They have become some of the biggest reasons for the social injustice and oppression experienced in many parts of the world.

It is no longer news that South Africa is a deeply unequal society, with a long and chequered history with racism and apartheid. My first real encounter with racial prejudice was during my first visit to South Africa in 2015. I was a Visiting Student and a keen participant at a two-week Summer School organised by the academic partnership of London School of Economics and Political Science and University of Cape Town.

I arrived at our accommodation at University of Cape Town at the same time as a fellow participant from Malawi. We made our way to the reception where we were welcomed and handed our keys and all else. As we waited in the lobby, I couldn’t help but notice small groups of people huddled together, chattering away like old schoolmates at a reunion.

Then I noticed something else: the blacks, the whites and other people of colour were segregated in groups of the same ethnicity and each group paid little attention to the other. During the days that followed, the groups formed alliances and cliques divided along geographical lines. At breakfast and dinner, Americans, Brits, Australians and other Europeans sat together while Black Africans sat alone. The other people of colour migrated between groups, although it often seemed to be a struggle. On occasions some integration occurred at mealtimes, though this was rarely and mostly superficial. During the classroom sessions there was much more intercultural dialogue taking place, and the organised tours also did little to bring people together. My interest in these behaviours stem from a natural curiosity in how racial attitudes and behaviours play out in everyday contexts among the supposedly educated.

A year later, I would return to South Africa to begin my PhD journey at the University of Cape Town. It was then that it dawned on me, living in a city like Cape Town, prominent for its racial dichotomies and complexities, how deeply race and difference are played out in everyday South Africa. Being a Nigerian, race was not something I was acutely aware of, even when I had visited a few foreign countries before coming to South Africa. In Nigeria, ethnicity and religion were the issues but not racism. Living in South Africa has taught me the nuances of race, racism and identity politics. 

I remember going through a depressing bout of culture shock during my early days trying to find my bearing in a space that is supposed to be familiar yet so different and blatantly complex.  With the xenophobic attacks that erupted in 2016, 2017 and 2019, it appeared that South Africa’s racial tension had taken on a new face, the face of ‘black racism’ by blacks towards fellow blacks. These were difficult and depressive periods for me as an international student studying and working in South Africa. I must add though, that being in the higher education space helped a great deal as I had incredible support from my department and university.

As I concluded my PhD studies and as I got immersed in the beautiful and complex place that is South Africa, it became clear to me that what South Africa needs is a concept I was introduced to by a colleague whom I met at a conference in Dubai. Cultural democracy. Although the concept has far-reaching dimensions, cultural democracy in its basic form and in relation to the point being made here is the promotion of, respect for and protection of cultural diversity; the belief in the possibility of co-existence of different ways of being; and cultural tolerance. It also includes a fair and equitable access to and distribution of resources.

Given her long history with apartheid and the ripple impact of identity (racial) politics and xenophobia within the country, South Africa needs a new and urgent wave of cultural democracy. The ever-present stereotypes about and tensions between blacks and whites, locals and foreigners, citizens and immigrants, outsiders and insiders, must be dismantled along with the sense of entitlement, superiority, inadequacy, discrimination and inequality they project. The apartheid logic which continues to play out in contemporary South Africa must be ditched and a renewed sense of cultural democracy sought after. It is my opinion that this will give way to a national culture which recognises the importance of a shared humanity – a kind of ‘Ubuntu’ – and supports the drive for healthy citizenship, belonging, mobility and co-existence.

The process of embedding this into the fabric of society must begin with higher education institutions and championed by those in the ivory tower – students, HE leaders, scholars and researchers alike – and down to the rest of society. Cultural democracy could play a significant role in creating and promoting more inclusive academic and educational settings and a wholesome society. Thankfully, there are ongoing conversations and critical engagements in light of recent calls for transformation and decolonisation in higher education spaces. This needs to be sustained, intensified and encouraged further.

In further expanding the ideas of a cultural democracy imperative for South Africa, I am reminded of the idea of ‘incompleteness’ which I first came across from the works of a dear friend and senior colleague, Prof Francis Nyamnjoh. He argues that incompleteness is the natural order of things, since no human being or group can claim to be complete and self-sufficient. Nyamnjoh invites us to a world of conviviality in which we can, as Africans, reach out, encounter and explore ways in which we can enhance, extend and complement each other.

In retrospect, for me and many of my Black African brothers and sisters who chose to stick together to the end during the summer school of 2015 at UCT, it now seems somewhat cowardly to have avoided mixing with people of other ethnicities, people from other countries. At the same time, it was also small-minded of the white participants to behave as though they were superior to blacks and other people of colour. As a fundamental condition for social renewal, national healing, and regeneration, the notion of conviviality will allow for the empowerment of people, celebration of difference, rather than the stifling and marginalisation of others. It will also foster togetherness beyond mere tolerance.

It is my opinion that South Africa, one of the leading African economies, like my home country Nigeria facing its own difficulty with ethnic intolerance, urgently needs some sort of cultural democracy and conviviality in equal doses and an acknowledgement of how incomplete she truly is. This will start her off on a much-needed journey towards long-term healing, healthy citizenship and mobility, economic emancipation and becoming her fullest self. Shall we be optimistic that she would get there?

Chikezie Uzuegbunam holds a PhD in Media Studies from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Before his temporary relocation to South Africa, he was a lecturer at Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria. He was named one of 100 Brightest Young Minds in Africa in 2017 and was a 2019 fellow of Oxford Media Policy Institute at Oxford University, United Kingdom.