What is it that South Africa and people in South Africa celebrate each 24th of September, the day marked on our calendar as Heritage Day? The common denominator so beloved of supermarket chains – the Great South African Braai that brings us all together – is clearly a fantasy that has more to do with marketing, residual rainbow nation aspirations and the bottom line of those food giants.
Or is it? In the 26 years since apartheid ended, have we as a nation, a culture and a civilisation really found nothing better than the social ritual of burning meat over an open fire to acknowledge, embrace, celebrate and call our own? If so, it shows a staggering lack of initiative and imagination and would warrant the severest of rebukes from all our ancestors and from every activist, freedom fighter and ordinary person who opposed the oppression and injustice of “separate development”.
But this might, perhaps, be a bit harsh. South Africa is blessed with many peoples and cultures, 11 official languages and countless others, which come from the lips of those who have sought in our country refuge from persecution in theirs. So to our national languages, freighted richly with their histories and ideas, their practices and rituals, can be added the tongues and the traditions of people from all over the globe. In this rich mix – what we could embrace as a home for migrants and a melting pot of talents – lies part of the answer to the conundrum of Heritage Day.
Whose Heritage Day and whose heritage do we, or should we, celebrate? The answer, simply, is that of everyone who lives within our borders, regardless of nationality, race, religion, language, philosophical and existential belief, sexual orientation, gender identification and physical ability. We are not a homogeneous country speaking in one tongue, observing one set of cultural and religious practices and with one idea of who and what we are in the world, and where, how and why we fit in – or don’t.
Although that heterogeneity ensures that easy definitions of our heritage elude us, it also bestows on us a unique gift: a moment of dazzling opportunity that we have more or less been spurning since 1994. Ours is a new nation, only slowly outgrowing the swaddling clothes in which it was wrapped, with the highest of hopes, on 27 April 1994. As the infant becomes a child and then a youth, will it seize the chance it has been given to discuss, debate and define its identity, its character, its present and its past?
Honesty, past and present
It is from the roots of the past that the strapping sapling of the present and the towering tree of the future grow. But for that to happen, we need to be open and honest about the struggles of the past, and how history has played out since the end of apartheid, so that we can discard what was bad and did not work, and keep and nurture what was good and carries within it the seeds of a new heritage that will exclude none and include all who make their homes in the borders of the state called South Africa.
We need to be open and honest about the present, too, and even more so, for the everyday in South Africa is so very often a song of daily sorrow. Murder, the assault and rape of women and children, violent robbery and burglary, old people and the young neglected or abandoned, hunger and starvation, lack of running water, lack of sanitation, lack of electricity, illness, homelessness, joblessness… the list of woes is daunting.
Such daily battering taxes people to breaking point and beyond. It would, then, seem an extravagance to suggest that these pressing, sometimes mortal, realities be set aside to consider the valued things that have been bequeathed to us by previous generations. And yet, if we do not take time to pause and recollect what the past has given us, we will be unable to consider what that bounty can do for our present and our future.
A necessary reflection
A time for such remembrance and projection is earmarked conveniently on calendars, set down as 24 September, Heritage Day. If we do not take the time to think about what our mutual heritage is – and more significantly, what it can and should be – during the other 364 (or 365) days of the year, let us do so once a year, on that designated day. We should regard that not as an obligation but as an honour, to be allowed to take what is best from our past, appreciate and nurture it in our present, and preserve and enlarge it for our future.
The task is not beyond us because there are scores of countries across the globe that have more races, languages, religions, cultures and competing ideas of how to be in the world than we do. On our continent alone, think of the hundreds of languages and even more dialects and cultural differences that exist in Cameroon. Look at the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, lands where strong languages and cultures vie with one another. East of us, there are the vast cultural, linguistic and religious variations of India and China.
Grappling with what is a shared heritage, acceptable to all and embraced by all, should have been one of the major public debates in South Africa since 1994. It has barely featured among the tumult of politics, business, sport, healthcare, lack of essential services and the evil that has bedevilled all of those: corruption. Neglected though it has been, heritage has one great advantage over all those other worldly concerns in that it has the potential to be incorruptible and enduring, unlike the treacherous and passing nature of politics, corporate shenanigans, sporting deceptions and state disappointments.
Thinking a little more deeply and slightly more often about heritage is enlightened self-interest of the best sort. And the point is not to change the past, but to learn from it and change the future – our future, in which we will be able to share what we value with everyone else who lives and works, sorrows and rejoices and dies in this land that history and fate have entrusted to us.