Contact us on: + 27 12 323 7737
Self-knowledge shall set you free

Articles about Africa’s cultural,
philosophical and religious roots

Read our articles published by the Kara Heritage Institute and become informed about Africa’s indigenous cultural heritage

Sustaining identity in diverse society: The implications for national liberation

By Mathole Motshekga

I do not know of any people who really have “developed along their own lines”. My fellow white South Africans, enjoying what is called “Western civilization”, should be the first to agree that this civilization is indebted to previous civilisations from the East, from Greece, Rome and so on. For its heritage, Western civilisation is really indebted to very many sources, both ancient and modern.

Chief Albert Luthuli, “Our Vision is a Democratic Society”

In his 1958 speech to a public meeting organised by the white Congress of Democrats, Luthuli emphasised that apartheid was the antithesis of democracy. He argued that it was designed to reinforce the mirage of “separate but equal” development for Africans. The false slogan of developing “along one’s own lines” masked the real intention, which was development along lines designated by the government through the Native Affairs Department: namely tribalism.

Luthuli was clear about the multi-racial democracy he wished for South Africa, dispelling the mistrustful notion that, if freedom were shared with the black man, the white man’s heritage was at risk. He argued that it is impossible to preserve your heritage by detaching and isolating yourself, or by expecting other to do so. Human values, he claimed, could only be preserved “by propagating them and creating a climate where these values will flourish. Apartheid does not furnish that kind of climate.” (Luthuli, 1958)

He believed that South Africa would set an example for the rest of the world by ridding itself of apartheid, as the country could develop, not on the basis of colour, but of human values:

“It is often suggested, quite rightly, that democracy was developed in homogenous communities – in Europe, possibly in Asia to an extent – in communities that were homogeneous, not as far as race and colour are concerned, nor possibly even in culture. It is suggested that people in homogenous communities can very well speak of democracy being shared, but in a community like ours, diverse in very many respects, you can’t hope to share democracy. But I personally believe that here in South Africa, with all our diversities of colour and race; we will show the world a new pattern for democracy.” (Luthuli, 1985)

Both the African National Congress’s strategy and Nelson Mandela were adamant that as a clearer understanding of Africa emerged, the opportunity to see our own African identity would gain prominence. Mandela told a public meeting at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) that the three great religious of Africa – Christianity, Islam and African religion – could play a role in African renaissance, renewal and development if Christianity and Islam could tolerate one another and both of them could tolerate African religion.

A further influence in Mandela’s idea of racial harmony was Mahatma Gandhi’s belief in satygraha (loosely translated as “insistence on truth”), which freed India in 1947. Since Gandhi also lived and worked in South Africa from 1893 to 1914, his emancipator vision greatly influenced Madiba. In many ways, this served to bring the ANC closer to the Indian population in South Africa and a strong bond was formed. The ANC leadership adopted a multi-cultural and multi-religious approach towards achieving a common goal.


Cultural regeneration in a democratic South Africa must begin with a return to our abandoned roots in order to harness those resources for development in all areas of our life and in our society. For the longest time African communities have combined their knowledge of plant and animal behaviour with their knowledge of astronomy to predict the weather for the coming season. Indigenous African astronomical beliefs and practices must be recognised and explored, as they could prove beneficial in the many challenges we face.

The ancient African people of Meroe, Dendera, Great Zimbabwe and Maphungubwe inscribed their intangible cultural heritage and indigenous knowledge systems in zodiacs upon which the African calendar is based. Similarly to the Hindu and Muslim religious calendars, African festivals are determined by the lunar cycle. The African festivals are as follows:

  • 23 September. African New Year
  • 21 October. Rain-making ceremonies
  • 21-25 December. Birthdays of the Grand Ancestors, symbolised by First Fruits festivals
  • 6 January. Sacrifice of a black bull to mark the beginning of a the harvest season symbolised by the coronation of Faro or Thobela, the harvest god
  • 21 March – 20 April. During Easter, when the Sun enters the zodiacal sign of Aries, special rituals are performed to thank God and gods for the successful harvest.
  • 7 May. This is called Mohale’s Day and all work is prohibited. People brew beer, drink and celebrate the goddess of heaven and earth, known by various names
  • 25 May. The Birthday of the Word or Son of the Goddess and beginning of initiation schools.

It is thus important that we return to teaching and learning how to use the lunar cycle and the calendar.


African culture and religion have always informed the evolution of African political ideology. In recognition of this, the Organisation of African Unity adopted the African Cultural Renaissance and the UN declared 2011 as an International Year of the People of African Descent. These two instruments provide for the renewal and development of the African cultural heritage and indigenous knowledge systems.

This opens the gate for the infusion of ubuntu values into the global moral discourse on the problems of greed, corruption, the widening gap between the rich and poor, racial and religious conflicts caused by lack of self-knowledge and, in particular, oneness or unity-in-diversity as the human family.

UNESCO’s 2001 Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity recognises that unity in diversity (cultural pluralism) leads to social cohesion.

In our increasingly diverse societies, it is essential to ensure harmonious interaction among people and groups with plural, varied and dynamic cultural identities as well as their willingness to live together. Policies for the inclusion and participation of all citizens are guarantees of social cohesion, the vitality of civil society and peace. Thus defined, cultural pluralism gives policy expression to the reality of cultural diversity. Cultural pluralism, which should not be dissociated from a democratic framework, is conducive to cultural exchange and to the flourishing of creative capacities that sustain public life.


The ANC National Policy Conference in June 2012 identified that unemployment, poverty and inequality required a radical shift and focused programmatic interventions to deal decisively with the persistent structural legacy of apartheid, colonialism and patriarchy (ANC, 2012:1). Importantly, the second phase of our transition must ensure that we effect decisive socio-economic transformation and continued democratic transformation.

However, the spiritual malaise Mandela spoke of in 1997 remains with us and the degeneration that has taken hold in our communities threatens to derail our nation. We must acknowledge that a lasting solution requires a strengthening of our moral fibre as a people. The underlying values that bind us together are human compassion and solidarity, which find expression in the maxim: “I am because we are” “I am through others” (umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu/motho ke motho ka batho). This principle ensures that Africans express their humanity communally and shun greed and crass materialism.

Perhaps more importantly, ubuntu inspires care for the whole, governed by justice and fairness. In practical terms, it says: “an injury to one is an injury to all”. Your pain is my pain, my wealth is your wealth, and your salvation or redemption is mine as well. The loss of those values has led to crass materialism and a deepening moral degeneration that manifests in such behaviour as the abuse of women and children, promiscuity, and a widening gap between rich and poor.

Daily media reports bring home to us the injustices perpetrated through a lack of morality. The moral crisis facing us is the direct result of the loss of spiritual humanism (ubuntu/botho) that started in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. The West has lost the moral compass and the capacity to lead the world in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, this degeneration is being transplanted to Africa in the name of modernity and cultural dynamism. The crass materialism of western countries has bloomed here and the youth in particular appear directionless. Blame has been cast on our educators and religious leaders for their lack of guidance to the youth. However, the responsibility of parents and the family unit to instil responsibility and discipline, as well as empowerment and support, in the spiritual development of their children cannot be over-emphasised or shifted elsewhere. As primary custodians of our next generations, parents need to avoid passing the buck to others.


Ubuntu philosophy is adequate to our current challenges because it covers personal, familial and communal ethics. In South Africa, we successfully infused ubuntu values and principles into our body politic to ensure that race, culture, religion and gender do not become the basis for political mobilisation.

The Nation Building and Social Cohesion Summit in July 2012, initiated by President Zuma in response to growing levels of intolerance among the various groups in the country, served as a platform for a national conversation about strengthening social cohesion. While some sceptics poured scorn on the event and dismissed it as yet another talk shop, the encouraging deliberations and outcomes of the summit consolidated a commitment to build a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society. Those who attended committed themselves to:

  • enhance sound family and community values
  • uphold honesty, integrity and loyalty
  • ensure harmony in culture, belief and conscience
  • show respect and concern for all people
  •  strive for justice, fairness and peaceful coexistence and to protect the environment (DAC, 2012)

The ANC supports the summit declaration, which also commits all stakeholders, led by government, to hold provincial and local summits in the coming year, leading to a national summit in 2014 to coincide with South Africa’s 20 years of freedom.

As long as we place ubuntu at the centre of all our endeavours we cannot but succeed in laying a firm foundation for a nation and society based on human solidarity, respect, accountability, appreciation, tolerance and caring for another.


(websites accessed 17.02.2013)

African National Congress (ANC). 2007. Building a National Democratic Society: 52nd National Conference Adopted Strategy and Tactics of the php?id=2535

African National Congress (ANC). 2012. “Report and recommendations on Strategy and Tactics of the ANC”, ANC 4th National Policy Conference, Gallagher Estate. 26-29 June.

Byrnes, Rita M. 1996. South Africa: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress

Department of Arts and Culture (DAC). 2012. Keynote address by Minister Paul Mashatile on the occasion to celebrate the 94th birthday of former President Nelson Mandela, 18 July.

Luthuli, Albert. 1958. “Our vision is a democratic society”, speech given February 1.

Mahabane, ZR.0921. “The Exclusion of the Bantu”, address by the Rev. Z.R. Mahabane, President, Cape Province National Congress.

Mandela, Nelson 2010. Conversations with Myself.London: Macmillan

Shan-Loong, Mark Lim, 2000. The British “Civilising Mission “and its Legacy on India’s Political Culture.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). 2001. Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity.

The author is the former ANC chief whip in parliament and writes on African philosophy, heritage and religion

The article published in New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy


Issue 54

Second Quarter 2014

» View all articles

Contact us here to find out more about our programmes.

Contact us here to find out
more about our recent events
Media enquiries
Tel: 012 323 7737
10 Plus Media | StringLite | © Kara Heritage Institute 2018. All rights reserved
Reigniting the power of Africa’s heritage