A bill of rights for South African culture

August 21, 1991

South African artists must consolidate the gains made through the liberation struggle by means of a Bill of Rights, according to African National Congress constitutional lawyer Albie Sachs.

At the recent Grahamstown National Arts Festival, Sachs argued that culture should be "a highway to our common humanity" instead of keeping South Africa's communities apart.

"A Bill of Rights draws its strengths from the fact that it speaks for all South Africans, not just for this or that group. Its central tenet in relation to artistic freedom is that everyone has the right to both be a creator and to enjoy the creations of others. It is essentially universalist in character.

"We want an art that is vivacious and self-confident, that speaks in its own voice, that is prepared to take chances, explore the new while rediscovering the old.

"We do not attempt to constitutionalise any specific policy towards culture but rather seek to create a framework of clear principles within which such policies can be worked out."

Sachs argued that art was the "enemy of definition. It revels in surprise and contradictions. Straight lines are the province of mathematics, not of art, which deals with strange and hidden contours of subjectivity, rather than the smooth symmetries of logic."

Culture, he claimed, was "right at the centre" of the inquiry into the "huge questions" that needed to be faced in South Africa. One of the characteristics of white domination was that it sought to control everything, including the process of its own removal.

"We are told that the only issue now is the question of protecting minority rights, surely a most estimable objective except that the minority in this case wishes to protect its right to own 90% of the country's wealth, control the army, the police force and the civil service, to veto government actions, to dictate what the goals of educational and cultural policy should be, and to organise the spending of funds for the arts."

He had been disappointed, he said, to discover on his return to South Africa how little true cultural rights meant to the majority of whites.

"When reference is made to zones of cultural preference, we know what is really meant: not a genuine language policy that takes

into account regional language use, but privatised and localised apartheid. Instead of culture being the highway to discovering our common humanity, it becomes the means once more of keeping us apart."

The diversity of the ANC approach is obvious in that the organisation recognises 11 languages as bona fide languages of South Africa and refuses to give any language a higher status than the other.

The bill guarantees freedom of worship and tolerance of all religions, but adds that "no official state religion shall be established".

Sachs' proposal reveals the ANC's desire for tolerance and openness: "We want to ban banning orders, censor censorship, protect ourselves from being protected against ourselves".

But the ANC opted for limitations on "the vexed question of pornography" and "materials or utterances that are intended to give offence to deeply held religious convictions".

Therefore "the state may enact legislation to prohibit the circulation or possession of materials which incite racial, ethnic, religious, gender or a linguistic hatred, which provoke violence, or which insult, degrade gender or a linguistic group".
[Abridged from the South African weekly New Nation.]

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