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23 September 2020 | Story Prof Theodore Petrus | Photo Supplied
Prof Theodore Petrus is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of the Free State.

As we as a South African nation prepare to celebrate Heritage Day on 24 September, and as we reflect on our heritage during Heritage Month, what stands out clearly is that this year’s heritage celebrations will be somewhat … different. It will not be like previous celebrations because as a country, we – along with our fellow continental and global citizens – have experienced what can be described as one of the greatest health, social, and economic challenges that we as a species have ever faced. The repercussions and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for some time to come. And it is this realisation that may cast a little damper on our celebrations during this #Heritage Month.

But what can our shared heritage as South Africans teach us about who we are as a people, and how can this knowledge help us to adapt to and overcome the long-term challenges wrought not only by the pandemic, but also by the many other challenges facing us? 

Heritage Day is a celebration of our cultural heritage and diversity as a nation. It presents us with an opportunity to reflect on our individual and collective heritage. It is also an opportunity for us to take stock of the cultural and other resources that enable and empower us to take ownership of what we want to be as a nation, as a country, as a people. 
So, in view of the questions raised earlier, here are some ideas on what I think our shared heritage can teach us:

1. The heritage of where we come from

Inasmuch as our past is a painful one – a past that still has lingering effects decades after the transition to a democratic dispensation – it still plays a fundamental role in shaping who we are now, and who we want to become.
Colonialism and apartheid sought to suppress our indigenous cultures and traditions, and had a negative impact on our psyche, self-confidence, and dignity as indigenous and African people. But one positive that came from this, is that if it was not for our shared heritage of colonialism and apartheid, we probably would not have become the nation we needed to become to bring it to an end.  

Instead of destroying symbols of that painful past, we need to shift our perspective to re-interpret those symbols in a new way. The power of cultural symbols lies in their meanings. Symbolic anthropologist Victor Turner spoke about the ‘multivocality of symbols’, meaning that we can ascribe whatever meanings to our cultural symbols we choose. Let us reflect on how we can change the current meanings we ascribe to our cultural symbols that reflect an awareness of how the heritage of where we come from does not keep us trapped in negative and painful meanings of these symbols, but instead inspire us to create new positive meanings.

2. The heritage of where we are now

After 1994, we began the process of creating a new contemporary heritage as a nation struggling to free itself of the burden of a painful past. And while it was difficult, we have made significant strides. Yes, we do still face challenges rooted in the past: institutional and structural violence; race and diversity-related issues; intercultural and intergroup conflicts; crime and violence against men, women, and children; corruption at various levels of governance; and others. We are also faced with ‘newer’ challenges as a country that is part of the globalised world. Poverty, inequality, unemployment, slow economic growth, and ailing infrastructure are all contemporary problems, some of them rooted in the past, others the product of the contemporary context. 

What can we learn from our shared heritage of where we are now that can help us to overcome these contemporary challenges? We need to remind ourselves of what we are capable of as a nation. We have ended an oppressive regime, not once but twice. And, with all of the challenges, problems, and obstacles, we are still here.

3. The heritage of where we are going

This might sound strange, because heritage usually refers to the past and present. Rarely do we speak of heritage in a future-oriented context. However, as a nation, given our past and given our present, where we come from and where we are now determines where we are going. 

As South Africans, we need to ask the question: where do we want to go? Are we heading in that direction? If not, how do we change course so that we do go in the right direction? I have no simple answer. But what I can suggest is that it should start with critical self-reflection, both individually and collectively. We also need to ask ourselves what legacy we want to leave for future generations. Do we want them to still be struggling with the same problems and challenges that we are dealing with right now? Or do we want to leave them a legacy of a nation that stood up to its challenges, took ownership of them, and found a way to overcome them?

A globally devastating pandemic. A painful past. A present wrought with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. As a South African, as a child of the soil, I know that as a nation we can overcome, and we can emerge better and stronger. That is our heritage. The heritage of hope.

 

Opinion article by Prof Theodore Petrus, Department of Anthropology, University of the Free State 

News Archive

Department of English changed to empower students
2017-07-05

Description:Department of English  Tags: Department of English

Lecturers from the Department of English at the University of the Free State have been working
hard to create a robust learning environment for students through continuous assessment.
Photo: Sonia Small


A new curriculum, exciting third-year seminars, and a transition to continuous assessment. These are some of the changes made by the Department of English at the University of the Free State (UFS) over the past few years. The department, which also boasts four National Research Foundation (NRF) researchers, did this to tailor the curriculum towards the needs of its students and to foster a better culture of engagement.

According to Prof Helene Strauss, Head of the Department, the advantages of these changes are clear. “Staff have noted a significant improvement in both the basic writing and critical deliberation skills of our students, and in the responsibility they are taking for their own learning.” The new curriculum empowers students to take a position in relation to the knowledge they encounter in the classroom, thereby strengthening their own critical voice.

Taking continuous responsibility

One of the most significant changes for students was the fact that they have to take responsibility all the time. Prof Strauss says continuous assessment changed “last-minute cramming to near-daily, student-centred activities of reading, writing, and critical discovery.”

Because students have to prepare for lectures and reflect on materials, they are in a better position to internalise difficult debates and critical concepts. “Rather than telling students what to think, we help them develop flexible, critical tools to make sense of a changing world.”

Third-year seminars are another way of including forms of instruction that concentrate on the links between education and democracy, but still improve students’ ability to speak and write English accurately. Every semester, students can choose seminars from a range of topics such as ‘Witchcraft’ (Prof Margaret Raftery) and ‘The Art of Dying’ (Dr Mariza Brooks).

Research and associates around the world

Dr Marthinus Conradie, Dr Rodwell Makombe, Prof Irikidzayi Manase, and Prof Strauss are all NRF-rated researchers in the department.

The department also has affiliated research associates from countries including Zimbabwe, the USA, and Canada. Dr Kudzayi Ngara currently holds a competitive NRF grant for a project on Southern African urbanity, and Dr Philip Aghoghovwia recently received the prestigious African Humanities Programme Fellowship.

Under the guidance of Dr Ngara, the department has been able to roll out a new Honours programme on the Qwaqwa Campus. The campus now also offers students the opportunity to pursue MA and PhD studies.

Other highlights:
• Hosted the international Institute of the Association for Cultural Studies in 2015.
• Books published: Dr Susan Brokensha (with Burgert Senekal). Surfers van die Tsunami: Navorsing en Inligtingstegnologie binne die Geesteswetenskappe (SUN MeDIA, 2014); Prof Iri Manase. White Narratives: The depiction of post-2000 land invasions in Zimbabwe (UNISA Press, 2016); as well as co-edited volumes with Cambridge Scholars Publishing (Dr Oliver Nyambi) and Routledge (Prof Helene Strauss).
• Publications include three special journal issues (of ISI journals Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies; Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies; Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies).

 



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