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News from the Mission

US Still Winning Friends with Cultural Outreach

The Herald (South Africa) | 2 Oct 2013 | By Ismail Mahomed
The Anthony Stanco Ensemble take the spotlight at the Market Theatre, silhouetted by young South African jazz musicians who were among the guests attending the performance

The Anthony Stanco Ensemble take the spotlight at the Market Theatre, silhouetted by young South African jazz musicians who were among the guests attending the performance

Cultural diplomacy is a vital tool in the way a nation can sustain its positive image abroad. For 27 years, the US Embassy in South Africa has used it with great effect.

TWENTY-seven years is a significant period in South African political history. It marks the number of years Nelson Mandela was detained by the apartheid government.

Interestingly 27 years is also a significant period in South Africa’s international diplomatic relations with the United States.

On September 30 1987 – 27 years ago – Ambassador Edward Perkins arrived in South Africa to present his diplomatic credentials to the Nationalist government’s P W Botha.

Perkins was the first black ambassador deployed to South Africa from outside of the African continent.

Perkins was born in 1928 and grew up in the cotton fields of segregated Louisiana. When he joined the US foreign service in 1972, he was one of the few black career diplomats in what was quite an elite white group.

So he was fairly experienced in the kind of prejudices that he would be expecting in South Africa.

Prior to his arrival in South Africa, Perkins had read Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, only to realise that the celebrated book was a far cry from preparing for the realities of apartheid South Africa. He was determined to meet South Africans of all colours even if this meant getting into confrontation with the Botha administration.

Perkins had articulated that fairly well when he said he was appointed to represent the US people to all the people of South Africa.

When Perkins handed his credentials to Botha he was warned quite firmly by the politician’s notorious wagging finger to stay out of South Africa’s business. This was a warning that Perkins was determined to challenge and which resulted in a fairly estranged relationship between him and the Botha government, but which in turn endeared him to many black South Africans.

Since Perkins’s historic appointment in South Africa there have been other African American appointments to the ambassadorial post. On Monday, current US ambassador Patrick Gaspard, also an African American, stood on the stage of the Market Theatre to address an audience who had come to see the touring US Jazz Ambassadors’ programme.

Cultural luminaries such as John Kani, Smal Ndaba, Phyllis Klotz, Sol Rachilo, Concorde Nkabinde, Fred Khumalo and a host of other South African arts and cultural celebrities were in the audience.

In an address prior to the jazz performance, Gaspard expressed how delighted he was to open an event while standing on a South African stage that had played a historical role in the cultural liberation of South Africa. The Market Theatre is renowned for its long tradition of being the home of South African political theatre.

On this historic day which marked exactly 27 years since Perkins’s arrival in South Africa, there was a magical aura in the auditorium. It was strongly felt by a group of South African artists who were there and who since the early days of Perkins had benefited from several cultural exchange opportunities supported by the US Embassy in South Africa.

Unlike the tension that prevailed when Perkins served his credentials to Botha, there was a warm enthusiasm when Gaspard presented his credentials to South Africa’s arts community on Monday evening.

Despite many reservations that several South African artists may have with America’s foreign policy, its cultural exchange programmes which are used to foster a people-to-people dialogue are highly praised. Over three decades, there have been numerous South African leaders from all sectors of social, political, economic, educational, legal and cultural life who have participated in embassy’s exchange programmes.

From way back in the ’80s, a core of black South African political leadership are known to have cut their teeth in the United States Information Services Library that was located in Johannesburg’s Shakespeare House.

In 1976, when an American library now known as the Rosa Parks Library, was opened in Soweto, it became a hub for township youth to gather and engage each other intellectually and politically.

Given the diplomatic immunity status that the library in Soweto enjoyed, it often became a place of refuge for township youth who were trying to get away from South Africa’s notorious security branch.

It was through the embassy’s support for cultural exchange that the Harlem Dance Theatre graced the opening of the stages of the Johannesburg Civic Theatre when the cultural boycott against South Africa officially ended. Johannesburg’s first HIV & Aids Festival of the Arts was funded through the embassy’s cultural office.

There are an innumerable number of South African cultural events that demonstrate how the arts have been engaged as a platform for strengthening diplomacy between South Africa and America.

The US Embassy’s American Music Abroad program featured jazz ambassadors the Anthony Stanco Ensemble – five talented young American musicians – at the Market Theatre. Their tour through South Africa will see them performing to and engaging with thousands of South African youth. [Also on FaceBook

Drawn from Detroit, these five young men, apart from sharing their music with young audiences, will also be working hard to present a friendlier side of America which in recent years has become quite tainted by its warring profile.

There are lessons that South Africa can learn from this kind of cultural diplomacy. Imagine if South Africa selected five young jazz musicians each year and sent them on an international tour to inspire the world as South Africa’s Jazz Liberators, and to show the world how we as a nation have also won our struggle for liberation through our music, dance, poetry and theatre.

Imagine the possibilities if our own Jazz Liberators could tour the world and win friends for us against the tainted scars that our democracy has endured over recent years under a failing political leadership.

Cultural diplomacy is a vital tool in the way a nation can sustain its positive image abroad. In 27 years, the US Embassy in South Africa has used it with great effect.

The accolades Gaspard received from the South African audience are clearly evident that the long walk towards building cultural ties with relevant cultural stakeholders in South Africa is still hotly celebrated.

Ismail Mahomed is the artistic director of the National Arts Festival. He writes in his personal capacity.