Opinion

Stop looking at Heritage Day through Rainbow-Nation-tinted glasses

What is our heritage as South Africans? We had better hope it's not the bigoted, violent and xenophobic country we see around us today

22 September 2019 - 00:01
'Heritage Day is a façade of pretty colours and happy tunes played next to broken bodies on cold streets.'
'Heritage Day is a façade of pretty colours and happy tunes played next to broken bodies on cold streets.'
Image: Richard Becker

Heritage - a thorny thicket of an issue prickling the national psyche, especially in the month of September and increasingly in the years since we all seemed to have pretended to get along to try to make democratic South Africa work for everyone who lives in it.

What is our heritage as South Africans and where do we find it?

Is it in the thorny hedge that Jan van Riebeeck planted to keep the indigenous peoples of the Cape out of the Dutch settler's enclave? Or in the caves and rocks of the Cradle of Humankind that remind us that we are the birthplace of humankind?

At this time of year we have heritage forced down our throats in Instagram feeds full of proud traditional dress, or by adverts for boerewors to be thrown on the fire in the supposed sign of unity that is people of all colours and creeds enjoying a good tjoppie on the braai.

Maybe fire is a better sign of our heritage - the fire that was used to smelt gold in the hills of the Highveld centuries before the arrival of white settlers, the fire around which we told stories of our past and dreamed of our future.

The fire that also was left in the wake of the many brutal wars fought between people during the period of colonial rule - the fire of the frontier wars and the scorched-earth policy adopted by the British during the Anglo-Boer Wars. Or the fires that burned in "areas of unrest" during the period when oppressed South Africans banded together to bring an end to the brutality of apartheid.

Not to forget the fires that were lit by members of the security forces to burn the bodies of opponents of the regime, and of course the fires that burn the bodies of foreign nationals in xenophobic attacks.

For if heritage is an important reminder of history and includes the way that we memorialise and acknowledge that history, then to be selective about it is to try to erase the less-palatable parts of our history until future generations come along and remind themselves of the terrible things we were doing now - on this 25th Heritage Day.

We like to think that because we have 11 official languages and a multilingual national anthem that we do more than many countries to celebrate cultural diversity, but if we're honest we're not doing enough.

Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote: "Culture consists of connections, not separations: to specialise is to isolate. South Africa increasingly looks like a place where this is truer every day. 

We've used our heritage to retreat from the world rather than celebrate its diversity - clinging to colonially constructed divisions and utilising them as tools to entrench ideas of us vs them

We've used our heritage to retreat from the world rather than celebrate its diversity - clinging to colonially constructed divisions and utilising them as tools to entrench ideas of us vs them and to create dangerous silos of nationalist fervour and racial resentment.

In September 2019 our heritage as South Africans includes not only parades of dancers and singers dressed in traditional costumes on their way to enjoy meat cooked on fires and platitudes delivered by ministers at functions conducted at memorial sites.

Our heritage also includes displaced citizens of countries from around Africa fearing for their lives, women afraid to walk the streets or express themselves for fear of sexual violence and Facebook feeds and WhatsApp groups full of racist vitriol and hatred.

'STAY IN YOUR RAINBOW BAND DAY'

In a city like Johannesburg, founded on the backs of migrant labourers from across the continent and the country, we watch today as the city's "true cultural heritage - the uniquely vibrant child of nearly 150 years of migration - will continue to be trashed, burned and slaughtered", as writer Gwen Ansell recently observed.

Cape Town and Durban are similarly cities built on slave and indentured labour and one need only look at the continuous fights about memorials and the renaming of towns and streets in democratic South Africa to understand how heritage is a hot political issue that plays a deep role in the transfer of power and the recognition of one history and the erasure of others.

Even the establishment of September 24 as the national day on which we celebrate our heritage and our undeniable diversity as a country was only born out of political controversy thanks to the Inkatha Freedom Party's insistence that the Public Holiday Bill include recognition of what was previously known as Shaka Day in tribute to the founding father of the Zulu nation.

We're an old place but also a young democracy and while there are many things to celebrate about who we are and where we have come from, there are also many things that we don't want to acknowledge but should and they're eating away at us and turning us into a terrifying shadow of our best possible selves.

If Heritage Day continues to be enacted in a façade of pretty colours and happy tunes bursting out of flashy cars passing by broken bodies shivering on cold streets then it should be called something else.

Perhaps "Don't give a f**** about anyone except those who are like me Day", or "We're one but don't think for a moment we're the same Day" or "Stay in your band of the rainbow Day".

As a country containing the birthplace of humankind, how can we be so inhumane?

What's certain is that on September 25, after the outfits have been packed away and the flags taken down and the braai ash cleared, we'll still be here in this strange and complicated place.

Those who have suffered - as a result of our inability to look ourselves in the mirror and take proactive steps to change the worst in us - will still be afraid and angry and perplexed at how we could be so cruel and indifferent to their heritage while so gleefully celebrating what we believe to be our own.

As a country containing the birthplace of humankind, how can we be so inhumane? As a country celebrated globally for overcoming seemingly insurmountable differences, how did we become so intolerant of others?

With a rich history of brave and indefatigable women who made such a significant contribution to bringing about change, how can we do to them what we are doing every hour of every day?

Those who come next will want answers to these questions and we need to seriously think about what we will tell them, because if this is part of their heritage then that's nothing to crow about in any language on any day of the year.


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