'We can be united, but we are different': discourse of difference in postcolonial Namibia

13 Jun 2013

Social scientists who have written about the dynamics of festival rituals have analysed such practices variously as celebrations of commonality, as the enhancement of social cohesion, or as expressions of nostalgia. Festivals have also been studied as spaces, where information is disseminated to the public. This paper demonstrates that in postcolonial Namibia, cultural festivals have become avenues where discourses of difference and belonging are emphasised and contested by local people, festival participants and state officials through a range of ethnic-cultural presentations. The paper is primarily concerned with the ‘making’ of Kavango identity as distinctively different from that of other ethnic groups in postcolonial Namibia. This process takes place in a particular political space, that of the culture festivals, which the state has organised and staged since the mid-1990s. Every year during the Annual National Culture Festivals representatives of Namibia’s various ethnic groups gather to ‘showcase’ and express their diversity. Representatives of the state have time and again emphasised, couched in a discourse of ‘unity in diversity’, the importance of bringing together the country’s previously segregated population groups. The paper shows that while the performers act out diversity through dance and other forms of cultural exhibition, the importance of belonging to the nation and a larger constituency is simultaneously highlighted.