Njabulo Ndebele is a South-African scholar and writer. He is a graduate of the universities of Lesotho, Cambridge and Denver. He was on the board of several South-African universities. Ndebele was a keynote speaker at the IFACCA conference (Johannesburg, 22-25 September 2009).

Njabulo Ndebele: "Celebrating difference might hide realities of inter-cultural contact"

October 2009 -

South African novelist and academic Njabulo Ndebele foresees troubling times ahead in his country. Perhaps the positive connotation of cultural diversity invoked by the idea of a 'rainbow nation' was a natural reaction against the racial divisions and prejudices of the apartheid past.


Njabulo Ndebele during the IFACCA conference

"But we do need to be mindful of the risks that 'celebrating difference' comes with in this transition. The different entities being celebrated for their difference really still remain separate, despite any political intention to suggest otherwise. The risk in this situation is that unity and solidarity are more evoked than experienced."

Cases in point are the recent outbreaks of xenophobic violence against fellow Africans in South Africa's poor neighbourhoods. Also art works have stirred up sentiments of difference, such as a song by Mbongeni Ngema entitled Amandiya (Indians), which was broadcasted in June 2002 on isiZulu Ukhozi FM radio. "The lyrics allege racial and economic prejudice by South African Indians against Africans and the silence of political leaders in addressing the issue which, in KwaZulu-Natal, has a long history. The song was explosive and tantamount to hate speech. It was subsequently banned from the air waves."

For Ndebele, such measures are counter-productive. "In multicultural societies the publication of new books, the holding of new art or photographic exhibitions, the release of new films, requires that arts and culture institutions present an opportunity for the reception of artwork to be a social learning opportunity. It is about situating oneself in the time lag between the absorption of the impact of the artwork and the reaction that may follow from that impact. That is the space of planning, of designing school curricula, of holding festivals, of engaging communities in communal artistic activity designed to enable them to encounter the strangeness in their midst."