“Your pens, voices, painting brushes, instruments, dance and films told the story of our dreams, the dream of a free, united, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa,” he said.
Zuma was speaking at a gala dinner in honour of the contribution of arts and culture to the struggle for liberation and the building of a new society.
He said many artists mobilised and galvanised South Africans and the international community to be on the side of the struggle.
“In the process, many artists were subjected to the brutal violence of an inhumane apartheid regime.”
He saluted Miriam Makeba, who addressed the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1963.
“With passion and conviction, she told the story of the plight of her people under apartheid. She spoke of the South Africa we wanted,” Zuma said.
As a result, the UN immediately moved to declare apartheid as a crime against humanity, he said.
He saluted veterans Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Letta Mbulu, Caiphus Semenya, Julian Bahula, members of the Amandla Cultural Ensemble and others.
“All of them spoke out strongly and with conviction against apartheid.”
He listed celebrated South African writers including Es’kia Mphahlele, Peter Abrahams, Miriam Tlali, Ellen Khuzwayo, Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer and Lewis Nkosi.
He said they were instrumental in creating awareness about the oppressive nature of apartheid.
“It was the poetry of Don Mattera, James Matthews, Ben Dikobe Martins, Wally Serote, Christine Doubts, Mafika Gwala and many other poets who inspired young people to surge forward and keep the flame of the anti-apartheid struggle burning.”
Artists were the custodians of the nation’s soul and were better able to articulate and celebrate South Africa’s cultural diversity, Zuma said.
“As we mark 20 years of freedom we look at ourselves and where we come from. We like what we see. We fought a good fight. We fought a noble struggle. And we won.”
He quoted Mphahlele who said: “We have to see ourselves no longer as victims but as builders, planners, and creators.”
He urged the industry to use its talents and skills for “radical consciousness towards economic transformation”.
“We must also bear in mind that arts and culture is not just entertainment. Arts and culture is a serious money-making business.”
He said research indicated that music, craft, visual arts, books and film contributed an estimated excess of R15 billion to the economy and the country’s GDP.
Zuma touched on the issue of piracy and the need for artists to own their own work.
“As government we are determined to assist as much as possible to fight piracy, using all our instruments, from the police to the SA Revenue Service and the criminal justice system chain as a whole.
“At the same time, we need to use education and awareness as law enforcement alone will not solve the problem,” he said.