On Thursday, SA celebrates Heritage Day. This is an annual day set aside to celebrate our cultural diversity. The 2020 event comes at a time when the debate over colonial statues and name changes has been reignited. How are these processes supposed to unfold? How do we pass our heritage to the next generation? We need honest debates on this and other issues on what constitutes our heritage.
Subdued Heritage Day presents opportunity for introspection
On Thursday, SA celebrates Heritage Day which falls in the Heritage Month of September. This is a time set aside for South Africans to reflect and celebrate their culture and the diversity of their beliefs and traditions. It is an opportunity to foster greater social cohesion, nation building and a shared national identity as citizens are reminded that the nation belongs to all who live in it.
The 2020 Heritage Month theme is “Celebrating SA’s living human treasures”. But, unlike in previous years, the celebrations will be subdued due to Covid-19 and l lockdown regulations.
The ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity of SA is not only unique but also provides insight into the rich heritage it holds. SA is a nation which has battled through uncharted territories for a long time. When one voyages within SA, he/she will easily notice the drastic differences in cultural as well as traditional practices in every corner of the country. SA is considered to be the ninth most diverse country in the world globally.
An anatomy of the contemporary SA culture certainly reveals how the various population groupings contributed to the heritage we celebrate now.
Both well-known to remotely known traditions and practices add colour to our remarkable culture. The traditional Xhosa outfit, ornaments and the immaculate beadwork depict the several stages in life of Xhosa community including art forms like traditional dances.
The Zulu culture has bequeathed the country and the world with the spirit of ubuntu, which means “I am because, you are”. Today we are proud of the saying umntu ngumntu ngabantu, which epitomises selflessness.
Cape people were instrumental in popularising the folk music which features in traditional ballads and moppies. The culture of living on sea material such as shell, stones and fishing is associated with Khoekhoe and San communities. One would further make an in-depth analysis that a plethora of distinctive SA traditions and customs can be easily found.
The Basotho grind sorghum, millet and maize together to make a polenta-like porridge that has strong influence in different ethnic groups across SA with diverse names like Nqodi. The Indian spices, classical music and dance are inseparably bonded with SA heritage to a greater extent. The Afrikaner culture, partly originating from northwestern European, has contributed three unique terms to the SA cuisine vocabulary, namely boerewors, potjiekos and braaivleis.
The boisterous feelings aroused through music, dance and food are testimony to the melodious adoration of SA heritage, a product of the aforementioned traditions and cultural offerings.
Distinctive heritage comprises of buildings of historic eminence, monuments and artefacts among others. Statutes are also the cultural essences and mirrors of a humankind where the past and present are bordered towards the future.
The preservation of primordial monuments in SA can be traced from the enactment of the legislative bills which have encapsulated the guidelines to lead the protection of historically momentous sites in the country. Historic significance, integrity and context are key in dealing with heritage sites and its resources including statutes.
The current discuss TheName changes and the removal of icons of oppression are nothing new. This regularly happens in various parts of the world to overcome the toponymical strategies used as an exercise of power and sociopolitical dominance over space by the colonial powers in the past.
The deletion and re-engraving of new names often aided to renounce the colonial regime and its ideology, and to consolidate the emerging nationalism, the restoration of justice and symbols of ethnic unity in diversity.
The stiff resistance to change the name of Victoria terminus, one of the historical landmarks in India, forced a popular uprising, compelling the authorities to change the colonial name to Chathrapathi Shivaji terminus.
Likewise, if the statues in our country are not in resonance with the spirit of building a “new nation”, but rather to create bitterness and animosity, we need to act decisively to respect the genuine feelings of the citizens and thereby avoiding unnecessary civil unrest and disruption.
But great caution needs to be applied in the delicate process related to the identification and removal of statues. These actions should not be used to score cheap political gains, but instead, to be instrumental for a divided society with a violent history to work through that past and move forward together towards social integration at all levels.
The National Heritage Resources Act of 1999 reminds us how the rich and precious cultural heritage can act as a catalyst to heal the wounds of the past.
Our heritage is never a matter of emotional beliefs, but always represented facts and inspirational thoughts based on scientific and social significance. Heritage Month is about creating an opportunity for communities to come together to protect, conserve and celebrate our rich cultural heritage.
Protecting SA’s immense basket of living and diverse cultural traditions needs organised support and encouragement to address areas critical for the existence and propagation of all forms of cultural heritage. The platforms consistently provided by Heritage Month must be effectively used to engage in activities and projects for strengthening, guarding, preserving and encouraging the outstanding cultural legacy of our nation.
We need to cover all domains of our cultural heritage inclusive of oral traditions and expressions. Meaningful usage of vernacular language as a vehicle of the performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events can bring improved communication, and achieve unexpected heights of social integration among communities.
There are several natural and human-induced factors which lead to the decline of heritage sites. To participate in awareness programmes and drives to the structural conservation and preservation of heritage monuments becomes a primary responsibility of every citizen in the country.
If we are able to influence our youth to protect and share the values of heritage, the distance to reach an ethical and developmental state will be substantially lowered.
While we expect the youth of our nation to shoulder the responsibility of preserving our rich heritage, we need to evaluate their current environment and circumstances, including the learning space where they spent the bulk of their time. This discussion naturally provokes many burning questions.
Does the curriculum they interact reflects the correct perspective on our rich history? Do they spend enough time in understanding their traditions, customs and values? Does the indigenous knowledge system they inherited getting the recognition it deserves?
Despite remarkable strides made this far, the answer is still a partial yes or a no. Since the dawn of democracy, the country has undergone multiple curriculum changes, yet we do not have a curriculum inclusive of what our nation really possesses.
The history curriculum does not cover enough the rich legacy of the country. The department of education is taking longer to make history a compulsory subject and there by denying the SA youth to be well-versed with the historical significance of various wars the country fought as well as its incredible heritage. Our pupils are studying empires and dynasties across the globe, but not even a single one from SA.
When the department introduced Life Orientation as a subject, the aim was not only to educate pupils about ethical and moral principles, but to act as a vehicle carrying the rich heritage of our nation. Reports from the schooling sector show that objective is poorly achieved.
We need a radical change in our thoughts and subsequent practical actions to accommodate our rich inheritance in the academic space.
Heritage Month is about creating an opportunity for communities to come together to protect, conserve and celebrate our rich cultural heritage
Information dissemination is another key stumbling block prevents the majority of the population, including the youth, to celebrate the country’s countless traditions and culture. One of the major reasons for this unfortunate situation is the non-availability of information in their own language. A concerted effort to collect and publish indigenous literary work, as well as information regarding our cultural inheritance in the language of choice, can go a long way in familiarising the people to the heritage.
The effective use of museums in postapartheid SA is minimal, and we need to make a shift from the traditional understandings of museums to a new role that can help the youth towards a critical and theoretical understanding of cultural, political and social progressions.
The preservation of heritage will remain in the papers unless substantial funding is provided to conservation projects. In addition to the government machinery, there are organisations that work to raise awareness and gather information to support cultural heritage protection in the country, and they need monetary resources to efficiently perform their tasks.
The country’s art forms have a great potential for revitalising the tourist sector which has been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The incredible successes achieved by the soul-stirring concerts of the Ndlovu Youth Choir in US; sublime international performances by Grammy Award-winning Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the current storm of Jerusalema challenge across the world demonstrate the in-depth talent the country possesses.
Intelligent marketing of “heritage site tours” can also positively contribute to the rebuilding of a sector greatly affected by the pandemic.
Anilkumar Kesava Pillai is an ANC MPL in the Bhisho legislature and a PEC member of the SACP in the Eastern Cape.
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