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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

Leader of Bafokeng nation delivers a guest lecture at UFS
2011-05-05

 
Kgosi Leruo Molotlegi, leader of the Royal Bafokeng, Proff. Teuns Verschoor, Vice-Rector: Institutional Affairs, Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of our university, and Hendri Kroukamp, Dean of our Faculty Economic and Management Sciences (acting).
Photo: Stephen Collett

Kgosi Leruo Molotlegi, leader of the Royal Bafokeng nation, asked the pertinent questions: Who decides our fate as South Africans? Who owns our future? in the JN Boshoff Memorial Lecture at our university.

He said: “It’s striking that today, with all the additional freedoms and protections available to us, we have lost much of the pioneering spirit of our ancestors. In this era of democracy and capitalist growth (systems based on choice, accountability, and competition), we nevertheless invest government with extraordinary responsibility for our welfare, livelihoods, and even our happiness. We seem to feel that government should not only reconcile and regulate us, but also house us, school us, heal us, employ us, even feed us.

“And what government can’t do, the private sector will. Create more jobs, invest in social development and the environment, bring technical innovations to our society, make us part of the global village. But in forfeiting so much authority over our lives and our society to the public and private sectors, I believe we have given away something essential to our progress as people and a nation: the fundamental responsibility we bear for shaping our future according to aims, objectives, and standards determined by us.”

He shared the turnaround of the education system in the 45 schools in the 23 communities of the Bafokeng nation and the effect of greater community, NGOs, the church and other concerned parties’ engagement in the curricula and activities with the audience. School attendance improved from 80% to 90% in two years and the top learners in the matric maths in Northwest were from the Bafokeng nation. 

Kgosi Leruo Molotlegi stressed the need for people to help to make South Africa a better place: “As a country, we speak often of the need for leadership, the loss of principles, a decline in values. But too few of us are willing to accept the risk, the expense, the liability, and sometimes even the blame, that accompanies attempting to make things better. We are trying to address pressing issues we face as a community, in partnership with government, and with the tools and resources available to us as a traditionally governed community. It goes without saying that we can and should play a role in deciding our fate as members of this great country, and in the Royal Bafokeng Nation, as small as it is, we are determined to own our own future.”

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