By Reneva Fourie
Every year, since 1995, South Africa has celebrated Heritage Day on September 24. The many forces that have distorted identity over centuries have however made the legitimacy of what constitutes “heritage” questionable.
Perceptions of what constitutes heritage differs within and across communities, with the content and meaning changing through time and across space.
The movement and intermingling of peoples and societies date back to prehistoric days, having resulted in the expansion of ideas, the exchange of cultural practises, a fusion of languages and the sharing of artefacts. Furthermore, in Africa, the migration and settlement patterns of humankind have been disrupted by slavery and colonialism.
The slave trade entrenched the notion of intra-species subservience and caused in the global displacement of large sections of societies. Colonialism led to the imposition of boundaries both on nomads and on those communities that had settled in distinguishable territories, thereby dividing people that had shared common languages, cultural practises and even family relations.
Today, the transnational character of globalisation has further deconstructed and dispersed production, thereby enforcing the portability of labour and the increased displacement of workers and the poor as migration and the consequential synthesis of past and contemporary values become the norm.
Covid-19 has caused a brief questioning of the correctness of world-wide interconnectedness. The reality, though, is that the affirmation of an ethnic or even national identity appears to be increasingly irrelevant in a functionally borderless world.
Why then are South Africans so obsessed with identity that the de-Africanisation of now indigenised communities has become a necessary agenda item; and that we need a special day to celebrate our heritage?
Verwoerd’s 1948 apartheid or separate development plan has succeeded in keeping South Africans divided, long after the fall of that ideology in 1994. The establishment of ethnic-based homelands and ‘race’-based demarcations of geographic, social, and institutional development during the apartheid era has entrenched an artificially generated mindset of differences in stature and capability, which has been ingrained in our views of identity, despite a reality of us being one humanity.
This lingering clutching to a subjective construct of the notion of identity demonstrates the power of politics in shaping the formal and informal determinants of heritage.
The celebration of heritage is not so much an expression of valuing past artefacts, mythologies, memories and traditions, as it is a reflection of the interests of those who have determined which tangible and intangible elements should be elevated to represent historical significance.
The democratic government’s efforts to construct a South African “nation” have been less than successful despite the legislated removal of separateness and the forced interventions to integrate society through boundary re-demarcation.
A department of arts, culture and sports exists to champion the arts, shape and preserve a more collective history and promote sports as key instruments of building social cohesion but still the dominant interpretation of heritage seeks to promote group pride or identity at the exclusion of others.
The failure to sustain a South African identity is, among others, due to persisting arguments that justify the sub-conscious support of the ideology of apartheid.
The more obvious motivation for the continued preservation of apartheid classifications is material, namely that retaining the concept of “race” is the only way of measuring whether the past inequities have been redressed.
While redress is important, this narrow view of restoring economic and social justice undermines the class character of oppression. Economic exploitation and poverty are becoming increasingly less discriminatory against degrees of skin pigmentation.
The second, more complex issue, is a resurgence of the 1970s era of black consciousness (BC) as a modern feigned rejection of acculturation. The BC movement of the 1970s was important because we were living under conditions of severe institutionalised subjugation. In these conditions, it was perhaps necessary for us to affirm the acceptance of the superficialities of appearance for it was the very superficialities that underpinned our oppression.
The abuse of pigmentation and hair texture to justify economic exploitation resulted in a sense of inferiority and an erosion of self-confidence, thus the need to affirm our blackness as a form of resistance.
But once a mind is liberated, and a physical appearance is accepted and respected for what it is; once we have reasserted that our values and upbringings are as important as that of everyone else; is it then still necessary to use identities as instruments of division or of meaningfulness?
The intent behind changing the name of the September 24 public holiday from “Shaka Day” to “Heritage Day” was precisely to unite.
Given South Africa’s divided history, the day is meant to affirm the importance of us as individuals, accepting who we are, for what we are, while collectively drawing on the best of generationally transferred traditions and practises to enrich our country. It encompasses a desire to create a national pride in our accumulated cultural and artistic productivity, eclectic cuisine, as well as in our natural environment.
We have so many sites that are worthy of celebration due to their outstanding universal value, which is defined by UNESCO (2005) as follows, “Outstanding universal value means cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity. As such, the permanent protection of this heritage is of the highest importance to the international community as a whole.”
This includes the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains, the Cradle of Humankind, the Vredefort dome, the Richtersveld cultural and botanical landscape, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Robben Island, and Table Mountain, among others. Despite these being worldly acclaimed heritage sites, most South Africans have never visited them.
This year’s Heritage Day theme was “Celebrating South Africa’s living human treasures”, implying that every community has living human treasures who possess a high degree of knowledge, skills and history pertaining to different aspects of diverse living heritage.
The day was not meant to reinforce ethnic or racial divisions, but rather to reclaim, restore and celebrate the positive aspects of living heritage, and to draw on them to address the challenges that communities are facing today.
It calls for an acceptance for cultural pluralism and fluidity within the context of broad nationhood, noting that the term “nation” is boundary-based purely for the sake of resource-management and therefore should not undermine our deeper sense of humaneness.
September 24 provides an opportunity to reconstruct how we perceive heritage. Given apartheid’s divisive legacy, the day should serve to remind us that we should never use ethnicity to segregate us in the way that it did in the past.
* Reneva Fourie is an analyst specialising in governance, development and security and currently lives in Damascus, Syria.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.