An amusing definition of hell as "Italian punctuality, German humour and English wine" plays on the one-sidedness of culture. For cultures tend to inscribe only a fraction of the whole of human potential. More seriously: this is as true of the vices of empires, as it is of the virtues of imperialism's victims.
To be sure, we need culture's warp and weft but the tighter its ties are drawn – the more oppressive the social fabric. Culture then far from nurturing the mind becomes a paranoid mob. Self-serving guardians conjure up the menace of the un-African, the un-American or the volks verraaier – to mention a few such phantoms. Artists, homosexuals, foreigners – anyone who challenges the normative – are typically set upon as threats.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the ANC's attempts to govern culture has been that both its communist left and conservative right are seeking the convergence of social mores and state power:
Hegemony is one of left's preferred terms. When used positively (in other words: not referring to the values of the bourgeoisie) it means the construction of a dominant culture by the working class. If that's rather too theoretical, Alvy Singer, one of Woody Allen's characters, sums up the whole gist of cadre deployment along Gramscian-Marxist lines: "I'm a bigot, I know, but for the left."
It's not funny. Recently the SACP's Jeremy Cronin wrote an opinion piece condemning the "fig leaf" of civil society. The "idea of a realm standing outside the 'state'" is, according to the deputy minister of public works, nothing short of a conspiracy of "powerful class forces". He sets up a confrontation between an "anti-majoritarian constitutionalism" and a supposed progressive agenda seeking to "socialise" power. Amongst those he (pardon the pun) red flags: the Mail & Guardian newspaper!
The rise of social conservatism under Jacob Zuma is better understood. Its fulcrum is the proposed Traditional Courts Bill that will corral millions of rural South Africans under the say-so of customary law. They and who ever else happens to enter these resurrected homelands will have neither the right to legal representation, nor the option to rather seek redress in a magistrates court. They will altogether be subjects of "tradition".
ANC MP Patekile Holomisa, an old-fashioned bigot of the right, also weighs into the constitution. Last month the chair of the constitutional review committee (read that again) told Eusbeius McKaiser's radio-show that its values are "Eurocentric" and that it was "drafted in the absence of the custodian of African original law...the traditional leader".
Inkosi Holomisa was quoted in another damned newspaper, the City Press, as saying that the ANC was well aware that the "great majority" of South Africans do not want to protect the rights of homosexuals who – on the authority of our mufti - suffer from a "condition" which occurs "when certain cultural rituals have not been performed".
What these otherwise divergent left and right wings both share are a belief in the myth of a South African nation. Whether it's a Marxist-Leninist republic, or a "truly African state", or for that matter a S.A. Inc. – such combinations of culture and power are necessarily antagonistic. The fallout being that people who don't share those worldviews can't be part of society.
Recently author, Zakes Mda, exasperatedly tweeted: "You hear this a lot in SA: 'In my culture it is wrong for people to...' Really? Why should the world obey the dictates of your culture?"
A democracy only remains democratic if it maintains a critical distance from the identities that exist within it – to this extent as a civic culture it represents progress. It doesn't demand "social cohesion" because provided that our differences don't function oppressively – it supports human subjectivity. As the late philosopher, Johan Degenaar, put it: "the highest political loyalty of the citizen is not owed to the nation but to justice".
If democracy is not a place for artists, homosexuals and foreigners, it's not a democracy. If it doesn't have space for the City Press, the Mail & Guardian and a free media it isn't either. If it can't provide succour to the marginalised, the poor and the silenced it's something else but it isn't democracy. There is, indeed, no normal culture but democracy's genius tolerates contrasting convictions – even "nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm, and orgasm" to cite the heresies of another of Woody Allen's protagonists.
We should be alarmed that such pluralism is under attack - led by a president who believes: "The holy ones belong to the ANC".
On August 1, Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, announced that the Traditional Courts Bill would be reviewed. She criticised the fact that women had not been consulted and pointed out the negative impact it would have on their lives.
But Xingwana is not all-embracing: the former Minister of Arts and Culture once walked out of an exhibition featuring nude photographs of lesbian couples because she found them: "immoral, offensive and...against nation-building."
Follow Chris Rodrigues on twitter: @klaaskatkop