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The unacknowledged threat Covid-19 poses to African culture


Rita Zwane is founder of Imbizo Shisanyama and author of ‘The Poverty of the Mind’.

African culture is under threat from the Covid-19 pandemic. In our culture, social isolation is unthinkable. If the community cannot come together for small social gatherings, or to discuss a marriage partnership, or for elders to congregate to settle a family dispute, the strong communal values that underscore African culture face dilution.

The Covid-19 crisis and the corresponding lockdown in South Africa, and many other countries has taught us many lessons. One lesson is that we really are part of a global community and we will all have to face the results of the pandemic and the potentially worse consequences of the lockdown.

Naturally, governments around the world had to make decisions in the interest of the health and wellbeing of their citizens, even if these decisions would have negative consequences later on – such as the dire economic future we face.

Health risks acknowledged, the social and economic impacts are equally damning. While the government seems to have a number of plans in place to deal with the economic fallout, and time will tell how effective these are, it is not addressing the social and cultural problems we will have to face. African culture is also under threat from the pandemic.

In terms of our communal wellbeing, there’s an African saying that if you shoot a zebra in its black stripe, the white stripe also dies, and if you shoot it in its white stripe, the black stripe dies too. The threat to our health and our economies cannot be seen in isolation, our culture has been equally affected by the lockdown.

The lockdown has led to isolation. People are restricted in terms of their movements and social interactions. Places of meeting and socialising are closed, and we are stuck in our houses – those of us fortunate to have houses.

African society, however, is rooted in community, in togetherness, in ubuntu (humanity). In our culture, social isolation is unthinkable, especially in townships and in villages. We, therefore, have to consider this global catastrophe through the lens of our culture. Community and social interaction underpin African culture. If the community cannot come together for whatever reason, from small social gatherings or to discuss a marriage partnership, or elders congregating to settle a family dispute, the strong communal values that underscore African culture face dilution.

If social isolation denies us the practice and expression of cultural values, norms, and practices within our communities, we have to ask what will come next and what price will we pay? Social isolation will continue to erode cultural ties that have already been weakened by urbanisation and globalisation. Instead of submitting to this erosion and further weakening African culture, we must strive through ubuntu to care for each other and ensure that our neighbours do not go to bed hungry.

The youth are our guides

President Cyril Ramaphosa has already spoken of the need for the country to embrace the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) from a broader economic and future sustainability perspective, but the same principles must be adopted on the ground to ensure everyone remains in contact, talking and sharing, even if we are separated by physical distance.

Our young people need to step up and lead us into the future, to creatively overcome the isolation of Covid-19 and beyond. It is important for our young people to embrace becoming the custodians of culture in collaboration with their elders so that the values, heritage and history of the African can transition into the digital age of 4IR while retaining its core values and integrity. Embracing modern technology, especially the mobile technologies everyone seems to have these days, is important to our future. This is only one way in which the youth must lead; they need to raise the banner of our history and heritage, and carry it proudly into the future on all platforms.

Our youth stood up and led the way in 1976 for political freedom and equal education for all. It was not an easy task and many lost their lives, and were faced with extreme challenges, but they prevailed in the hope of a better future. It took nearly two decades for that future to become a reality, but they set the tone and stamped down the path for others to follow. Now again, it’s time for our youth to rise up and lead the way for economic emancipation and transformation.

Times change, situations change and technology changes, but the foundations of who we are can never be allowed to change. Rather, we need to adapt ourselves to the new world, led by our young generation who need to create the path to bring the best of our history. After all, it is only people that will bring the flavour and texture, life and the laughter to the digital age. DM


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