What is the heritage we should be celebrating? It is an oft-stated fact that South Africa is a complex society. Its complexity is reflected in the tools that have been employed at various times in resolving the key questions facing this country.
If we were to use 1912 as the marker of the maturity date of the response to the political conditions in South Africa, a key was the call made that regional responses to the oppression by the colonial authorities were ineffective and therefore it was important that Africans should unite under one leadership in order to effectively confront the emerging rule of the Union of South Africa, an alliance between the Boer republics and the British colonial rulers.
A key song to underpin that call was MZulu, Msuthu, mXhosa hlanganani – a call for unity among the African ethnic communities at that time.
It was a call to all to subsume ethnic pride into the collective. That call has endured literally for the past 105 years. Yes, that is how old it is.
In just about every liberation movement or any form of organisation, calls to uphold ethnicity are frowned upon and the promotion of this in any guise shortens political careers – or so they used to.
It is for this reason we probably need to examine whether celebrating Heritage Day should be about emphasising different ethnicities, even if by seemingly innocent ways of dressing in our various ethnic fineries.
I want to submit that we should make distinction between cultural days of celebration and Heritage Days.
Another seminal moment in the history of South Africa is what was called the Doctors’ Pact in the 1940s which sought to harness together the coloured and South Africans of Indian origin. This was to ensure that all those affected by discriminatory laws, worked together against the oppressive system.
A very important characteristic of this was that although in reality discriminatory laws affected all these nationalities, the degrees of harshness of oppression varied.
Everyone knew and recognised that black Africans were the most oppressed, but as a strategy to create a different South Africa that would be non-racial, defining all those that were oppressed as one persisted.
Later the Congress of Democrats emerged, which included those who were called “white democrats”.
These were those who shared a common vision for a future South Africa working together.
This strategy had its detractors, manifested through what was called a recognition of nations. Thus it was called the Four Nations Theory and therefore not anti-racist, and if anything it was a confirmation of the oppressors’ view of South Africa.
Interestingly, the issue of forging a nation beyond the obvious biological differences is more than 70 years old and is still elusive and continues to require our genius and leadership.
Contrary to any of the manufactured differences in the various leading philosophies that drove the liberation movement, none envisaged an end state where race would be the order of the day.
The Pan Africanist Congress, for example, defined everyone regardless of race who embraced the continent and worked for its prosperity, as an African.
The Black Consciousness Movement envisaged a South Africa where the race of a person would not determine their position in society.
And of course, the Congress Movement stated its view of society in the Freedom Charter.
Taking into consideration the entire body of the trajectory of modern South Africa from 1912 and looking at its antecedent in the form of various interactions – both benign and belligerent strains of those encounters – we can identify the elements of our common heritage.
The same can be said about how we arrived at the moment of our freedom.
There are unique elements that should go into defining our heritage.
Take into consideration 350 years of colonial rule, the 100 years of wars between the amaXhosa kings and the British colonial forces, apartheid and its vicious application, no one would have thought that finally to resolve that issue, South Africans themselves would negotiate themselves into a democratic state.
That is unique and no matter what the detractors of that form of solution may argue, the fact is that solutions learnt from other countries, such as Angola, Mozambique and Cuba, could not be emulated in South Africa.
In fact, that entire process starting from 1991 to 1996, is part of our heritage.
What needs to be done now?
Without taking away the feel-good impact that others are presently celebrating, it must be argued that the Heritage Month should be guided better with more insightful leadership to assist South Africans in finding a common heritage that should and will speak to their sense of nationhood.
It should assist South Africans to find common values among themselves as a people.
One hopes that in 2018, we can begin the task of “thematising” each year so that we can extract from our history the building blocks of our common heritage.
We must be brave to tackle the issue of what it means to:
lUnderstand, appreciate and live our constitutional values. Our constitution is a product of the lessons derived from our history and the lack of knowledge about that document detracts from our capacity to value its objectives and thus build a heritage for the future generations;
lTo understand the national anthem and why it is a hybrid. This must not be avoided because it bedevils the “national question” which is so important in building the nation and the heritage of the nation;
lTo understand and appreciate racial and cultural diversity so that we work to finally bury the demon wrought by years of separate existence;
lTo practically and with our genius intentionally find the common threads in our diversity so that we can answer the question, “What makes a good South African?”
These tasks were left on the table by the founders of democratic South Africa for us to embark on a journey of self-discovery and ownership for an asset such as South Africa.
We owe it to ourselves. Like those who met together to fashion our democratic dispensation, we should meet without assistance from elsewhere to complete the democratic project.
The alternative is that South Africa will be a museum piece in the Hall of Failed Nations.
Monde Tabata is an East London resident