“Emancipating the African Voice in the Arts for Social Cohesion Purposes”


The University of the Free State’s Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice is one of the flagship intellectual projects of the University of the Free State.
The institute has been awarded the project focusing on skills development for tertiary visual arts students and young professionals working in the visual arts in Bloemfontein, in partnership with the Eastern Cape’s Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth and Rhodes University’s Department of Fine Arts in Grahamstown.  The project will develop course materials, identify facilitators, and speakers through which capacity-building dialogue sessions can take place at each university as well as transfer values, practical skills, and knowledge to the project participants, resulting in the development of public art interventions which focus on the emancipation of the African voice in issues of social cohesion.

The National Arts Council funds this component of the project.

NAC Project


Aside from the intrinsic value of an artist’s work in providing/documenting and/or projecting an understanding of/ or desire for society, following the global example and since the mid-to-late 1990s in South Africa, artists have also increasingly been incorporated and promoted as significant role players and catalysts in issues of direct societal transformation and development. This has ranged from their meaning and involvement in, among others, spatial transformation and urban renewal projects (public art, design, architecture, community developments), through to their involvement in the cultural industry sectors (museums and heritage projects, exhibitions, education, design, festivals and tourism, for example).

In 2012, the overarching ambit of this involvement and meaning was alluded to in the National Development Plan (NDP) of South Africa when it articulated that the arts, culture and heritage sectors have a role to play in terms of the transformation of our society and the fostering of social cohesion among our citizens.

While National Government and, in particular, the National Department of Arts and Culture, have been structuring and terming a significant deal of their programmes and interventions since 2009 within and as social cohesion initiatives; since 2012 a number of other non-government-led conversations, conferences, symposia, and the like have been held around the concept of social cohesion, with academics, intellectuals, and practitioners adding their voice to the unravelling of the term.

A critical narrative emerging through many of the above discussions is the need to broaden an understanding of what the African voice is and why it needs to be foregrounded and emancipated, particularly when we talk of issues of transformation and social cohesion in the post-conflict society which South Africa is. More recently, this focus has also turned to the role of the arts in social cohesion.

While nationally we still seem to be grappling with concepts attributed to terms such as that of ‘social cohesion’ and the ‘African voice’, and how arts, culture and heritage must work with the NDP – missing in the above dialogues and discussions has been the collaborative unpacking, sharing, and development of these concepts with higher education Arts students and with young, professional practising artists located in and around the universities. With the controversial events linked to issues of perceived racism and the impact of this perception working against transformation and social cohesion emerging through the visual and performing arts works over the past several years in particular, this seeming oversight is one which needs addressing, given the worldwide emphasis on preparing the youth for active citizenship.

With the above in mind, an application was therefore submitted to and successfully accepted by the National Arts Council (NAC) for the University of the Free State’s (UFS) Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice (IRSJ), to assist in facilitating a project in which the above could be piloted, with first-generation project implementation in collaboration with the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) as well as Rhodes University (RU).  

The project is recognised as a flagship project of the NAC and aligns itself directly with the NAC strategic objectives for the period 2014-2018 in terms of social cohesion development, arts development as well as youth development.


The objectives of this project include:

  • Strengthening the role of universities in opening up the space for critical debate and development around what transformation, social cohesion, and the African voice in the arts is, including the concomitant addressing of critically interwoven issues such as race, reconciliation, social justice;


  • Building capacity among university students and young professional artists in the surrounds to engage meaningfully around debates and processes which the National Development Plan (NDP) encourages as a means towards the socio-economic transformation to be reached by the country in 2030.


The current NAC-funded aspect of the project for the period of November 2014 until October 2015 is planned to consist of two components.

The first component will focus on a series of dialogues across all three universities in which the issues of, among others, the African voice, social cohesion, social justice, discrimination, history, prejudice, community/solidarity building and networking, will be given a platform to be raised, discussed, and developed among Visual Arts students as well as young professional artists practicing in the surrounds. These discussions are proposed to include papers being presented by industry/community/other role players, university lecturers and personnel, while students and artists should also present papers as well as works.

These dialogues will take place at the UFS in Bloemfontein, RU in Grahamstown and NMMU in Port Elizabeth over the period of February and March 2015,  and also over the period of August and September 2015.

The second component will focus on the participants from each of these aforementioned geographic areas, internalising the dialogues and developing an artwork/ exhibition/ intervention which works towards the emancipation of the African voice in the visual arts for social cohesion purposes (the choice being left up to the individual universities and professional artists as to what type of work/intervention to produce).

In the time frame of the NAC-funded component, each university will then launch these works in line with the second series of dialogues in August and September. Through this, it is hoped that a deeper consciousness of the issues of social cohesion and the African voice take root and develop over the longer term.

Catalysing Transformation in the Arts

Universities are placed as critical juncture points in terms of catalysing transformation in society. Within this framework, the following objectives are held for the project from a university perspective:

  1. An inter-university forum is established to create synergy and dialogue around the arts and transformation in post-conflict societies using the Human and Social Sciences. The objectives are to create new research areas/frameworks over the longer term as well as human capital development.
  2. The project is used, partnered, and built on as a platform for addressing issues of discrimination, inclusion, and exclusion on campuses and their surrounds.

From the students’ and professional practising artists’ perspective:

  1. A critical consciousness regarding the NDP is developed and this assists these artists over the longer term to understand their role in the transformation of the country
  2. A platform of equality is opened between students and practising artists from surrounding communities for negotiation, meaning sharing, and development
  3. Students and artists gain experience in presenting papers and works in a conference/symposium type environment; are exposed to and learn from critical insight and debate; and add their voice to the broader debates in our post-conflict society.



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