South Africa’s French connection celebrates cultural diversity
French is the second-most learnt foreign language after English and the fifth-most spoken language in the world. Of the 274-million people speaking French, more than 50% live in Africa. This figure is projected to rise to 90% in the next 30 years, making French the fastest-growing language in the world.
"As French gains more weight on the continent, it will be an asset for our partnerships and exchanges. And French will evolve with the influence of local cultures," says France’s ambassador to SA, Christophe Farnaud.
He notes President Emmanuel Macron’s recent speech in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where he emphasised the importance of the French approach to building cultural exchanges in Africa.
Macron said: "Cultural exchange is a growing importance for French cultural policy leading up to their season of African cultures in 2020 in France."
French-speaking populations are represented by the 84-member International Organisation of La Francophonie, founded in 1970.
Francophonie is traditionally celebrated on UN French Language Day, March 20, the day in 2018 on which the start of spring is celebrated in the northern hemisphere. French embassies turned the day into an annual festival in 2006.
An almost three-week-long Francophonie Festival is currently running at the Alliance Française Pretoria, highlighting gastronomy, music, culture, dance and films from Francophone countries.
The 2018 festival opened at Pretoria Boys High School, at an event promoting the language to the youth.
"Francophonie is diversity. It is not only multilingualism, it is also multiculturalism. We open the minds and make sure we have access to other cultures and languages, because the more you know your partner, the more your partner knows you, and the better you will work together," says Farnaud.
Culture and cultural exchanges are key elements of French foreign policy. It includes activities such as education, cultural projects and scientific operations, with a focus on the French language.
The embassy’s cultural section plays a key role in coordinating exchanges among several partner institutions, primarily universities and technikons. There are 30,000 students in SA, attending 260 schools and 17 universities, involved in the Alliance Française network of 13 centres.
French is a compulsory language for South African diplomats. More than 600 Department of International Relations and Co-operation employees have been trained in the language since 2010.
Animation filmmaker Naomi van Niekerk, who was a speaker at the opening of the Francophonie Festival, inspired the Pretoria pupils. She started learning French at the age of 23 at the Alliance Française in Johannesburg. This gave her access to postgraduate studies at an exclusive puppetry school in northern France.
"Reading and understanding French has opened so many doors for me artistically and personally. It is powerful for bringing people together and accessing other worlds by seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Being multilingual opens one’s mind and purifies the way you see and think about things," she says.
Van Niekerk teaches at the French International Class in Morningside, Gauteng.
Reading and understanding French has opened so many doors for me artistically and personally. It is powerful for bringing people together and accessing other worlds by seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Being multilingual opens one’s mind and purifies the way you see and think about thingsNaomi van Niekerk
"It is so refreshing and invigorating," she says. "The students are from such diverse backgrounds — France, west Africa, Angola. It is lovely. Each one has such a different story."
In the interests of multilingualism and multiculturalism, the Alliance Française also offers isiZulu and Portuguese lessons.
"Culture is important to France. Through culture there has been a trend to reach universal values and interests. The French Revolution was for all human beings," says Farnaud.
"The significance of the Enlightenment era was to bring light to the rest of the world. At the turn of the 20th century many foreigners decided to go and live in Paris because they knew it was a capital city where you could find all nationalities mingling, exchanging views and ideas.
"France was open to everyone. Our culture is a culture of openness," he says.
SA is a strategic country for France. Pretoria has the world’s second-highest concentration of embassies, after WashingtonDC. At the Pretoria event, 27 embassies from the Francophone world are displaying diversity in action through their products and attractions.
Cultural exchange is a two-way approach for the French, with an emphasis on building communities with South African artists and investing in local talent. An icon of African art, Gerard Sekoto, lived in France for many years. The Embassy of France in SA sponsors a prestigious annual award in his name.
Farnaud says cultural exchange can have a wide impact. "The impact of globalisation means more inter-culture dialogue. Globalisation is an opportunity, provided cultures know each other better. That is why culture in international relations is even bigger than before, which increases the opportunities for exchanges," he says.
French Language Day coincides with the Good France culinary celebration. Now in its fourth year, the initiative was inspired by Auguste Escoffier, who launched Epicurean Dinners in 1912 with the same menu, on the same day, in several world cities.
With culinary heritage accounting for one-third of France’s 89-million annual tourists and the "gastronomic meal of the French" inscribed on Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Good France shares the quality and creativity of French cuisine. The event attracts more than 3,000 restaurants in 150 countries.
Soweto-born Wandile Mabaso received his training in Paris under legendary chef Alain Ducasse at the two-star Michelin restaurant Le Meurice. Mabaso founded the South African Culinary Club in Sandton, a platform for cooking classes and fine dining. Ducasse has given Mabaso the title of the "unofficial ambassador of French cuisine to SA".
More than 30 South African restaurants are participating in the Good France initiative.