by Evans Manyonga

We are Africans

Propelled by servant leadership


“I am, through and through, an African and there is no question about that. As South Africans, we need to be conscious of the fact that we are not only South Africans, but Africans.”

Born on 23 January 1967 in KwaMthethwa, rural KwaZulu-Natal, the same area that the fierce and brave King Shaka Zulu was born and raised, Nathi Mthethwa has a strong lineage.

“Shaka was groomed in my great grandfather’s backyard, my great grandfather is the one who mentored Tshaka and raised him to grow up and become the person he was,” he explains.

Mthethwa’s background was enhanced by being exposed to different worlds—the city and the rural setting. “I grew up in both worlds, in the urban and rural world, as it were, which is why, when we go to conferences, my brand region will be claiming me and my other branch, King Dingiswayo, will also be claiming me. I always say to them, ‘No, I belong to both’. That completes who I am but my exposure to political activity was mainly as a result of the urban part of my life, which actually exposed me to the situation on the ground,” Mthethwa explains.

His rise in politics came during the Apartheid struggle period. As a youth, his political ear was tuned through the trade union movement. His young adult life was filled with political activity and this shaped his future in politics.

He became the Regional Secretary of the Southern Natal African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) from 1990 to 1992, he was elected to the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANCYL and served as the Secretary on its National Working Committee (NWC) from 1994 to 2001. Later in that year, he was deployed to the ANC National Organising team during the period 2001 to 2002.

Mthethwa served as a Chairperson of the Minerals and Energy Portfolio Committee from 2004 to 2008 and as Chief Whip of the ANC in 2008. He also served on the 2010 FIFA World Cup Local Organisation Committee’s Board of Directors.

Additionally, he served as the Minister for Safety and Security from 2008 to 2014 and as the Chief Whip for the ANC in the National Assembly. He also previously served in Parliament as a Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Public Service and Administration and Chairperson of the ANC caucus. He is currently serving as the Minister of Arts and Culture.

“A lot of political experiences and learnings aided me as I moved forward because I had a clear understanding of what we needed to do to improve our society. All those experiences, the combination of those experiences, gave one an advantage point as we moved forward because, at an early age, we had a broader view of our society. Understanding our society and what needed to be done, from the inception, we have always been guided by this perspective, this strategic perspective of the liberation movement to do away with Apartheid, specifically to dismantle Apartheid.

“And on its ashes, we have built a united non-racial non-sexist democratic and prosperous society that has guided us in our work,” he adds.

Mthethwa stepped down from the ANCYL in 2001 and was deployed as a member of Parliament in 2002. “In 2002, at the age of 35, I became a member of Parliament and my core aim at that young age was to understand what it is that we can do, in whatever position we are in, to better the lives of the people.

When the governing party gave me the responsibility of Chairperson of Minerals and Energy, we embarked on various projects and one of the highlights was the universal national electrification project throughout the country, especially in the rural areas. People who had never had access to electricity were exposed to it and were empowered,” he explains.

Mthethwa was also instrumental in the mining sector as he was at the forefront of drafting the policy related to mineral beneficiation. “We went about making our own contribution to the transformation of the mining industry. We tried to ensure the wealth would be in the hands of the people through the wide-scale creation of jobs, lobbying the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and ensuring the country wouldn’t just be exporting raw diamonds but, rather, exporting the end product. Beneficiating became key. I am glad that now that is still on the agenda, the beneficiation of our minerals,” he says.

When he assumed the position of the Chief Whip, his main responsibility was marshalling the forces of ANC members in Parliament. Thereafter, he was given the responsibility to lead the safety and security space as Minister. The safety and security of citizens was the key driver, as it still is, he explains.

A key challenge after assuming office was realising that there were various allegations against members of the police force.

“One of the things that continuously worried us was that people were saying the police were in cahoots with the criminals. That couldn’t go unnoticed, so I effected audits against the entire police force. This was effective, as we discovered various issues in the force and certain instances where we had police force members who had criminal cases opened against them while still on duty. We managed to clean the system and this is an ongoing undertaking with the current leadership of the force. Without a reliable police service we would be in trouble as a country, however, I am glad the majority of the members of SAPS are very reliable people who are doing their work diligently, working for society and their families,” Mthethwa says.


Another immense challenge he experienced during his tenure was the Marikana Massacre, which Mthethwa refers to as a sour point and a difficult period.

“In 2014, we were given this responsibility of leading the Department of Arts and Culture, a key department in any society. This is a department that drives the identity and soul of the nation.

“It is central to the project we agreed to embark upon in 1994, which is reconciling society after a dark period for the nation. It is a project focused on social cohesion and nation-building. It has not been easy, as there have been various challenges. However, we are on a fruitful path and pushing forward as we continue to build the society we all dream of,” he says.

Issues around racism have been a key challenge for the department, as some elements of society have not identified with the efforts of the department.

“What guides us is that we have an agenda to build a non-racial society. Unfortunately, on our path towards that, we encounter obstacles, obstacles in the form of racists in our midst, and we deal with those obstacles, not as endpoints, but as we move, because they are not our agenda, our agenda is a non-racial society,” Mthethwa explains.

A three-pronged approach has been adopted by the department to tackle the difficult obstacles. “We employ an approach focused on three different areas. The first one is education, in particular, more education about the issue and how to deal with it. The second aspect is mobilising society to be vigilant at all times and show intolerance towards racism. The third aspect is that of legislation. We know that you cannot regulate somebody’s attitude but you can certainly regulate their behaviour,” he explains.

Gender-based violence

Another major challenge is gender-based abuse, which is rising unabated. The department has made community outreach projects a key priority as they aim to tackle this sensitive problem.

“Gender-based violence has no place in our society as women and children are key to the nation and, as the Department of Arts and Culture, our engagement with communities (as we have community meetings as part of this broader social cohesion programme) has been crucial.

“We engage with communities and explain the importance of all of us coming together and defending our women and children. I spent 2016 with one of the entities we work with; the Moral Regeneration Movement. We hosted a national summit in Soweto to deliberate and converse as a society on mechanisms we can employ to fight this scourge. As recently as two weeks ago, we also made our contribution to highlighting the fight against this scourge with the abuse case involving the musician, Babes Wodumo, because we believe if we are really going to build a non-racial and non-sexist society, we have to be taking the lead,” Mthethwa notes.

He believes communities should all come together to fight against the abuse of women and children as it is a national problem that cuts across all segments of society.

“The responsibility of leading the fight against racism, sexism and gender-based abuse is the responsibility of all of us in society. We are in partnership with the Department of Social Development, for instance, in fighting the scourge of harassing and hurting people living with albinism. Our highlight was last year on 13 June when we went to Mpumalanga, mobilising the society, because there are regions where this is a major issue and Mpumalanga is one of them.

“We have also had such activities in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape because we believe discriminating against people because of the pigment of their skin is not going to help anybody. These projects continue under our watch because we believe we need to continuously engage society,” he says.

The Social Cohesion Ambassadors Programme

The department has established a Social Cohesion Ambassadors Programme, led by Judge Mukoro, who is the Chairperson. The team has been tasked with going all over the country and engaging with communities to promote social cohesion and peacebuilding.

“The social cohesion programme cannot be complete without moral regeneration. Part of the problem is that we are still thinking the same old way when we refer to families. Your traditional family would have a father, mother and child/children—that is not the case today in South Africa, unfortunately. You have children-headed families, these families have an absence of structure and it then becomes the responsibility of society to ensure the right upbringing of these children as that almost always has a major bearing on their future.

“So, if their upbringing is in their hands, it means that, as a society, we need to rethink how we look at this very important unit of our social cohesion and social construct. A child is raised by a village, absolutely. However, sometimes we abdicate that because we become so consumed by a colonised way of looking at society, a colonised way of actually being ourselves privately and forgetting that we have a broader societal responsibility. That is why I feel that if we are going to build this social cohesion, we need to go to schools—basic education—and show that we instil the positive values from the moral regeneration,” he explains.

Mthethwa believes the values of the passport of patriotism in the country should be instilled in children from a young age. It’s important for children to understand why they should do well for society, what guides them, the principles in the constitution and what the preamble says. Reciting this preamble is a very deep thing; they should be educated on what it really means. It is not about forgetting where they come from but, rather, to ensure they heal the wounds of the past so they are able to move forward.

Schools are working very closely with the Department of Basic Education to produce workbooks. They have the signs and symbols, which underpin the values of the society they are building. Be it the national anthem or our national symbol, the South Africa flag, a sense of belonging must be created and these are the things that ultimately aid and guide us. Meaning should be attached and this should be learnt from a young age.


Mthethwa believes these are core aspects in raising future citizens, citizens with a strong sense of patriotism towards the new South Africa that is being built, 25 years after attaining democracy.

“If we don’t pay attention to these aspects, we are going to have people who are lawless and do not respect the rule of law, and that is not the kind of society we want the future generations to find,” he notes.

In previous years, South Africa has made the wrong headlines across the country for xenophobic-fuelled attacks against black African nationals from other countries who have settled in the country. Mthethwa points to this as an example of the behaviour change the department is trying to effect.

“The programme of social cohesion goes beyond the national borders because part of what we say is anti-foreigner sentiment has to come to an end.

“Sometimes, we know people are scrambling for resources but there is nothing which says that people should actually fight along those xenophobic lines. It’s all those discriminatory intolerances which we have in our society. We are saying that if we don’t deal with them now, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to be a socially functional nation,” he explains.

Africa Month

The department has been trying to build the Spirit of Ubuntu and African-hood through various programmes. The month of May has special significance as Africa day is on the 25th of that month.

“Our programmes in May are meant to deepen the spirit of African togetherness and 25 May is Africa Day. We decided that we have a duty to deepen the consciousness of all in our society by highlighting that day. We have dubbed May as Africa Month.

“From the first day of May to the 31st, there is an activity in South Africa, which is aimed at highlighting who we are and, as we say most importantly, we are Africans. We are trying to help South African’s change their mindset so that when they talk about another country on the continent, they don’t refer to another country as Africa as though we are in Europe.

“I believe it’s a mindset thing, because South Africa, for a very long time, was a pariah state and has been made through colonialism to look down upon other African countries and states.

“Essentially, Africa Month gets all of us together—people across our national borders come here, my counterparts, ministers from other countries across the continent religiously come here—and we use our gatherings for all aspects of arts and culture to exchange ideas and viewpoints. In other ways, this is more of a reintegration of South Africa into the continent from all points,” he explains.

The department has used the events around Africa Day and the month of May as a festival of ideas in terms of fashion, cuisine, poetry, arts and other aspects.

High-profile guests have included Ngugi wa Thiong’o (the award-winning, world-renowned Kenyan Writer and academic) and South African Political Analyst and Physicist, Professor Sipho Seepe.

“It is important to expose these public intellectuals to South Africa and expose South Africa to them in order for them to engage. We do this to ensure that we build a South Africa, which is sensitive to the pan-African perspective that if you are here on the continent or in the diaspora, you are my brother and you are my sister. What it is that we can do to prosper and build Africa, as it were,” he notes.

Cultural diplomacy

Another area of importance is the emphasis on cultural diplomacy. The Cultural Seasons Programme was created as a way to cement and deepen the people to people relations between and amongst African countries and people in general.

“Within this programme, we take an artist from South Africa to a particular country, where experiences and ideas are explored. This is not only in Africa but also across the world as we have included BRICS member nations as part of the programme.

Previously, the department had extensively covered Europen countries, however, we included the BRICS nations and other nations on the continent, which include Gabon, Ghana and Kenya among others.

“Our cultural diplomacy programmes have exposed us to other people’s cultures and vice versa, but we also have a programme of cultural development and promotion, which look at unlocking the economic potential of the sector itself. It is a huge sector because we have seen that, among other things, the arts and crafts of South Africa are in great demand outside the country. We have seen the capacity of South Africa to grow in the industry. This is an opportunity for building our arts and crafts sector while fostering unity amongst our people,” Mthethwa explains.

Debut fund

The plight of artists in South Africa is also high on the agenda. The department has prioritised assisting new, budding artists and older legends in their careers.

“We have looked at ways of assisting our artists. In many other countries, artists are left to fend for themselves and the governments don’t help. But from our side, we have what we call the Mzansi Golden Economy, which is a funding facility that was initially created to fund key strategic programmes like the Jazz Festival in Cape Town, the Macufe Festival in the Northern Cape and the Ekhaya Festival in the Eastern Cape.

“The success of these initiatives has encouraged the department to come up with other local projects, an example being the Debut Fund. The Debut Fund is for the beginners, those publishing their first book or embarking on their first projects. It mainly targets the youth of our nation.

“There are other people who are not so youthful but who are doing some of their work for the first time and this fund also aids them. This is a space where you also want to build black industrialists, entrepreneurs and so on. In some instances, we lend them the money they need to move forward and they pay back the money at lower interests rates than they would get anywhere else. All these initiatives are aimed at assisting artists as well as looking at the reason why we are here—we are here so that we pass laws, laws which will make things easier and better for the larger populous,” he explains.

To protect artists, the department has pushed for the amendment of the Copyright Amendment Bill to include the Performers Protection Amendment Bill. This was pushed through by the National Assembly in 2018 to protect artists from unscrupulous producers and distributors.

“We have a situation where most performing artists die as paupers because the regulation of the environment is not in their favour. You have a young guy who will come from Durban or somewhere in the Eastern Cape. He then goes to Johannesburg with a talent and a dream. When he gets to Johannesburg he is locked into a contract and before he realises it, he starts working for those people.

“There is going to be the tribunal of judges who will be looking into the situation of the artists. They will be permanently seated there, not a commission that deals with the matter then closes. Their job is to look at the plight of performers and artists and issues around copyright. Some of these individuals would be millionaires today but someone else forced ownership of their work and they no longer own their work. This has to be addressed,” Mthethwa notes.

The Living Legends Legacy Programme

The department has also looked at the situation of music veterans—the legends, people who have served the country through their arts and craft—and created The Living Legends Legacy Programme.

“The programme is the department’s way of saying to artists: ‘We do not want you to die paupers, we want to give you the tools in order for you to do what you do best. Your destiny is in your hands and you are able to move forward.’ The programme is also there to give dignity to our legends. We do not want to see them going around cap in hand, asking for donations. They are our treasures and we want them to be successful. That is the philosophy behind the legacy programme,” he says.

As much as this is a great initiative, the bigger question would be how the right legends are identified and what the criteria is behind that.

“Legends are legends because of their advanced years. These are individuals who have done so much for the country. The main challenge is always funding.

“Arts and culture gets an allocated funding of R4 billion annually. Eighty per cent of this R4 billion goes to the provinces and the department has to work with the remaining 20%. As a result, we had to come up with a criteria. One aspect of that criteria is one has to be 70 years old and above to be part of this, which is basically a platinum club.

“As a result, we don’t have to hear about prominent artists who worked around the world being buried under difficult financial circumstances. We believe the able-bodied should be sustained by their work. We believe these concerns can be solved through legislation as well. We want our artists to be on an equal footing with the rest globally,” he explains.

National archives and records

Another important area the department is focusing on is the revamping of the national archives and records.

“Any nation that doesn’t have archives is a doomed nation because those who come after you will not know what happened before they came, so we are working on that. We just finished a partnership with a French institute on the Rivonia Trial.

“Most people have heard the short audio of Mandela speaking, however, that is limited. Now, we have audio, 268 hours of the Rivonia Trial, from the beginning until the end, from the number one accused, who was Mandela, to the rest. This is because we believe we need to preserve our archives and ensure that we digitise what is there in line with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Everything is captured digitally in line with technology and the tools we now have at our disposal,” he explains.

A subject of contention the department has been involved in is the controversy surrounding the Rhodes Must Fall movement.

“As you would know, in 2015, there was a movement that was started and dubbed the Rhodes Must Fall movement and after that, connotations were made that everything must fall, fees and so on. However, the main importance of that period is that you saw a nearly full-blown cultural revolution where students were saying, ‘Why do we have certain symbols and signs occupying public spaces? Are they fit to be there?’ This helped us because, since 1994, we have been changing the heritage landscape, whether you are talking about airports, streets, buildings, sites and so on, but the students were saying it’s not enough, we have Rhodes and Rhodes must fall. I then commissioned a heritage landscape task team to look at our heritage landscape throughout the country and they came up with a report that has actually guided us on what could occupy public spaces.

“Anything which is about exclusion, discrimination and racism should not occupy our land. If we are on the path of reconciliation, it should be reconciliation and not something else. If you say the most brutal human being who ever lived on earth, like Kennel John Brown, must have anything named after them then we are not doing this the right way.

“We cannot celebrate that, so we are changing and we will continue to change the heritage landscape, engaging in what the United Nations gave as a task to African countries in 2005 when it said we must write about the road to independence: ‘What happened in South Africa, how did you reach 1994?’ Other countries should also bring to light how they reached their independence.

“The story of the African struggle for liberation, if you talk about Mandela, for instance, you have to find a way of linking him to the entire continent, whether it’s Botswana, Algeria, militarily or where he got his first gun from, which was from Haile Selassie in Ethiopia. You write that story with symbols.

“That is part of what we are doing now, we are looking at the modalities of the specific programmes, which we have started implementing. Each province has identified its own project as it is part of heightening this importance of the intangible values of what surrounds us,” he says.

National Monument and heroes acre

A sore point for Mthethwa has been the inability to complete a national heritage monument and a heroes acre for fallen heroes—heroes from the past and future heroes.

“We don’t have a national heroes acre where somebody coming from anywhere else in the world can pay their respects and pay homage to South African heroes who fought in the pre-colonial era and the colonial era against Apartheid. If you look at other countries, there is a space for that. This place was supposed to be a symbol to identify the place. What we had envisaged was to have about 400 live statues starting from the pre-colonial era. People talk more about Jan Van Reebeck, but they don’t talk about people who resisted him like the Steelman Brothers, Gratoa, Doman. all those Khoi San individuals who resisted and fought him. It is going to show warrior kings, queens, chiefs and, the new era of the ANC and then going up the hill to the heroes acre. We have about 60 of those statues now, in Groenkloof in Pretoria, and the statues are being moved up the hill, opposite the Voortrekker Monument. Our plan was to come up with more imposing structures representing our democracy and freedom. This is still in process,” he says.

Career highlights

Quizzed on his career highlights so far, Mthethwa argues that the appreciation of the government’s work every day from ordinary citizens is a continuous highlight.

“The highlight cuts across areas I have been. It’s a continuous highlight where we see people and they say thank you for what we are doing for them. Of course, we are not going to reach all the people, but our aim is to ensure that our society is a prosperous one. So, when we see people happy, it highlights the call for office. We joined the struggle because of the call, the call thrust us there at the time. We knew we could die, be arrested or disappear but we persisted. So, for us, it is very important to remember that people are key. Seeing people restless is the downside, seeing people happy is the highlight,” he notes.

Mthethwa argues that, to this point, the story of his life should give encouragement to anyone experiencing hardships or challenges. “What it all says is very simple—if you believe in something, go out and pursue what you believe in. At that time, some people may not see the point of your endeavours but if you believe in something, go out and pursue it. Despite your background and history, set sights on your goal and you will achieve it,” he concludes.

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Issue 83


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