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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

Science is diversifying the uses of traditional medicines
2017-07-17

Description: Dr Motlalepula Matsabisa  Tags: traditional medicines, Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Dr Motlalepula Matsabisa, Malaria, priority disease  

Dr Motlalepula Matsabisa.
Photo: Anja Aucamp

According to the World Health Organisation, a large majority of the African population are making use of traditional medicines for health, socio-cultural, and economic purposes. In Africa, up to 80% of the population uses traditional medicines for primary healthcare.

The Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) was identified as a lead programme under the directorship of Dr Motlalepula Matsabisa. Research undertaken by the IKS Lead Programme focuses on some key priority diseases of the country and region – including malaria, HIV, cancer, and diabetes.
 
Not just a plant or tree

Malaria is a priority disease and is prevalent in rural and poor areas, resulting in many traditional health practitioners claiming to treat and cure the disease. There may well be substance to these claims, since as much as 30% of the most effective current prescription medicines are derived from plants.  For instance, chloroquine, artemisinin for malaria, Metformin for diabetes, Vincristine and Vinblastine for cancer, are plant-derived drugs.  

Dr Matsabisa’s current research is investigating a South African medicinal plant that has been shown to have in vitro antiplasmodial activity, with subsequent isolation and characterisation of novel non-symmetrical sesquiterpene lactone compounds offering antimalarial activity. These novel compounds are now patented in South Africa and worldwide. This research is part of the UFS and South Africa’s strive to contribute to the regional and continental malaria problem. The UFS are thus far the only university that has been granted a permit by the Medicines Control Council to undertake research on cannabis and its potential health benefits.

“All of these projects are aimed
at adding value through the scientific
research of medicinal plants, which
can be used for treating illnesses,
diseases, and ailments.”

Recognition well deservedThrough Dr Matsabisa’s research input and contributions to the development of the pharmacology of traditional medicines, he recently became the first recipient of the International Prof Tuhinadrin Sen Award from the International Society of Ethnopharmacology (ISE) and the Society of Ethnopharmacology in India. ISE recognises outstanding contributions by researchers, scientists, and technologists in the area of medicinal plant research and ethnopharmacology internationally.

More recently, Dr Matsabisa undertook research projects funded by the National Research Foundation, as well as the Department of Science and Technology, on cancer, gangrene, and diabetes. He is also involved in a community project to develop indigenous teas with the community. He says, “All of these projects are aimed at adding value through the scientific research of medicinal plants, which can be used for treating illnesses, diseases, and ailments”.

Dr Matsabisa has worked with many local and international scientists on a number of research endeavours. He is grateful to his colleagues from the Department of Pharmacology in the Faculty of Health Sciences, who are dedicated to science research and the research of traditional medicines. The IKS unit also received immense support from the Directorate of Research Development.

 

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