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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

UFS receives research grant focusing on enablement of non-profit organisations
2011-01-20

 
Prof. Mabel Erasmus

The University of the Free State (UFS) has received a research grant to the value of R1,1 million from the National Research Foundation (NRF) to conduct research on community engagement, with the emphasis on knowledge as enablement – a Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) focus.

This was the first time the NRF had requested applications for research with a focus on community engagement (CE). With the grant, the UFS has become one of the first recipients of a research grant that focuses on community engagement.

The overarching research question that will be dealt with is how Higher Education Institutions (HEI) and the NPO sector can establish long-term, research-based collaborative engagements that will be mutually empowering and enabling through joint, reciprocal knowledge-based activities and capacity building.

The contention that this proposal is based on, is that HEIs have limited knowledge of the NPO sector and thus are unable to be fully responsive to the challenges that NPOs face. What is more, it is very likely that staff and students from HEIs do not have an adequate grasp of the experiential understanding, contextual community knowledge and practical know-how that NPO practitioners have, and hence do not appreciate the crucial contributions that they can make with regard to meaning-making processes aimed at improving some of the harsh South African realities.

According to Prof. Mabel Erasmus, Associate Professor and Head of the university’s Division: Service Learning, which submitted the research proposal to the NRF and is the grant-holder, the university would like the information generated by the research to be beneficial to both HEIs and the NPOs. “Knowledge regarding NPOs, specifically their challenges and information about what they are doing, will be invaluable to HEIs. At the same time, the research must benefit the NPOs with knowledge to improve their practice and strengthen their functioning.

“The research will take place in close collaboration with the NPOs, as their inputs are crucial. The research will thus not be ‘about’ them but ‘with’ them.”

“We do not want to send our students for community-based education or as volunteers to NPOs year after year and it does not mean as much to them as these organisations would hope for. With the research process we would like to strengthen NPOs, to build their capacity and give them our whole-hearted cooperation,” she said.

Funding received from the grant will be applied over a period of three years. Except for the study grants for five Ph.D. students and four master’s students, the grant will further make provision for a number of workshops, a local conference, a publication and presentations at international conferences on this matter. The research team of 22 persons includes academics from other HEIs such as the Central University of Technology, University of Zululand, University of Johannesburg and Monash SA. Several staff members of NPOs also form part of the team, including REACH (Bfn), Childline (FS) and others.

Prof. Erasmus said that the UFS was one of a few institutions that were currently conducting research to this extent on the link between the NPO sector and HEIs within the field of community engagement.
 

Media Release
18 January 2011
Issued by: Lacea Loader
Director: Strategic Communication (actg)
Tel: 051 401 2584
Cell: 083 645 2454
E-mail: news@ufs.ac.za

 

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