In 1994, when the South African liberation movement emerged victorious from the struggle for a new Rainbow Nation, the South African Ministry of Culture's Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology and the Smithsonian initiated discussions and planning for a long-term collaboration on a broad range of cultural heritage projects, including a Festival program. Beginning in 1996, in the framework of the South Africa- Smithsonian Culture and Community-Building Reciprocal Learning Program, Smithsonian and South African colleagues participated in educational and capacity-building activities designed to enhance professional development through collegial exchange.
The 1999 Festival program featured nearly a hundred South African grassroots community artisans and cultural officials. Their presence on the National Mall of the U.S. capital was linked in direct ways to the country's recent past. South Africa's monumental achievement came through often bloody battles and life-defining sacrifices, especially among rural and urban grassroots communities, who used their cultural traditions to resist oppression and to affirm their identities. This fact was not lost on the country's future leaders, many of whom participated themselves in cultural acts of resistance and affirmation. However, the significance of their presence at the Festival was also bound up with the newly democratized nation's use of its cultural heritage to craft its immediate future. The South Africa Festival program addressed the role of handicraft and statecraft in the formulation of a new South African national identity, economy, and political democracy.
As South African communities discover and rediscover the value of their heritage, they proclaim their numerous, varied, and distinctive cultural traditions: languages, religions, healing practices, modes of democratic representation and participation, musical styles, recreational games, regional cuisines, and uses of available natural resources. The artisans, cultural communities, and public servants who came together at the Festival to present, discuss, and debate concepts of cultural identity, cultural enterprise, and cultural democracy were indeed consciously engaged in fashioning a collective national story.
The Festival program intended to serve as a window into the past and future of South Africa's traditional crafters and their crafts and to provide a forum for tradition bearers themselves to communicate their aesthetic and humanistic traditions, their religious perspectives, and their social values to a wider public through song, dance, cooking, architecture, games, and stories as well as through their visual art. The focus was on the people and their way of life - communities crafting a new South African identity through participation in national economic life and democratic development. Communities were the focal point for understanding how skills are passed on from one generation to the next, how geography and natural resources influence craft development, and how people can work together to achieve a common purpose.
Ruphus Matibe and James Early were Curators, and Corney Wright and Ivy Young were Program Coordinators. A Curatorial Committee included: Anthea Martin, African Art Center; Philemon Ngomane, Skukuza Alliance; Cloe Rolves, Buy Afrika; and Evelyn Senna.
The program was produced with the collaboration and support of the South African Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology and the National Arts Council. Other contributors included the Department of Trade and Industry, Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Sport and Recreation, Buy-Afrika, African Art Centre, and Skukuza Alliance. Special appreciation went to Metro Travel and corporate sponsors, KWV and the Royal Hotel, Durban.