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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

Honorary doctorate to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu attracts wide attention
2011-01-27

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu after receiving his honorary doctorate in Theology at the UFS.
- Photo: Hannes Pieterse

 

The University of the Free State (UFS) awarded an honorary doctorate to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu on Thursday, 27 January 2011. The graduation ceremony, which was attended by guests from across the country marks a milestone in the history of the university.

Amongst the guests were the ambassador of the USA to South Africa, Mr Donald Gips; the British High Commissioner to South Africa, Dr Nicola Brewer; members of the local government; Ms Barbara Hogan, former Minister of Public Works and the daughters of Bram Fischer, Ruth Fischer-Rice and Ilse Fischer-Wilson. Friends of Dr Tutu, Dr Ahmed Kathrada, Ms Barbara Hogan and Dr Allan and Ms Elna Boesak also attended the occasion.
 
The UFS also received a message of congratulations from the Deputy President of South Africa, Mr Kgalema Motlanthe. “The choice to honour this exemplar of virtue to which most of the world still look for direction as it buckles under social, political and economic difficulties is laudable in all respects,” he said.
Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the UFS, said: “We honour a great son of South Africa who made a tremendous contribution to peace, reconciliation and justice in South Africa and in the world.
 
“There were times when few of us thought apartheid would end in our lifetime, yet you stood as a rock reassuring us, not about a black future, but about our common future. For this reason, Arch, we would not miss this opportunity to honour you for any reason whatsoever.
 
“You, Sir, are a Jew among Muslims, a Christian among Hindus, a Catholic among Anglicans, a bridge-builder among all of us. That is why we love you; because you look deeper and see further than all of us.”
 
According to Prof. Francois Tolmie, Dean of the UFS’s Faculty of Theology, the university honours Dr Tutu for his contribution as theologian – through his teaching and the books he wrote – as well as for the role he played in bringing about reconciliation in South Africa as well as in the rest of the world. The university also honours Dr Tutu as a moral and spiritual leader who never sacrificed his integrity as a Christian.
 
Apart from being a church leader and a leading world figure, Dr Tutu is the author of several books and also held a number of teaching posts at various tertiary institutions.
 
In 1984, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role as a unifying leader figure in the campaign to abolish apartheid in South Africa. A further highlight in his career was his election as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986. He was the first black African to serve in this position, which placed him at the head of the Anglican Church in South Africa.  
 
Many South Africans also remember the role he played when President Nelson Mandela appointed him in December 1995 to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established to investigate human rights violations during the apartheid era. The Archbishop guided the nation in the process of choosing forgiveness over revenge and in so doing set a historic international precedent.   
 
In 1996, he retired as Archbishop of Cape Town but continues to speak out in favour of human rights, equality and social justice in South Africa and throughout the world.
 
In August 2009, President Barack Obama presented him with the Medal of Freedom, the United States of America’s highest civilian honour. Dr Desmond Tutu is recognised around the world as a moral leader committed to the human rights of all people.
 
Today he is chairman of The Elders, a group of world leaders who, in view of their integrity and leadership, are equipped to deal with some of the world’s most pressing problems.
 
Prof. Tolmie says: “It is often asked how Dr Tutu could have achieved all this in the span of one lifetime. Some people would refer to his warm personality or his humanness, his deep sense of humility or his wonderful sense of humour. Probing a little deeper, however, one is struck by Dr Tutu’s deep relationship with God. He is known as a man of faith, a man of prayer. He lives his life coram Deo, in the presence of God.”
 
Dr Tutu also lead the introduction ceremony of the UFS’s International Institute for Studies in Race, Reconciliation and Social Justice.
 
 
Media Release
27 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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