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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

South Africa praised for dealing with its history
2012-07-12

“I listened to an incredible conversation on how South Africans can talk about the past. We failed to do that in the US. We cannot move on because we failed to name the ghosts in our past. I am honouring what South Africa is doing.”

These are the words of a staff delegate from a university in the USA in a case study at the Global Leadership Summit led by Prof. André Keet, Director of the International Institute for Studies in Race, Reconciliation and Social Justice at the University of the Free State (UFS).

Students and academics from universities in the USA, Belgium, the Netherlands and Japan are attending a Global Leadership Summit with the theme “Transcending Boundaries in Global Change Leadership” at the UFS.

In the case study, symbols on the Bloemfontein Campus such as the MT Steyn Statue, Justitia symbol of justice at the building of the Faculty of Law, the artwork Van hier tot daar, and the Women’s Memorial were presented to the audience and the question was asked if they had to be removed or if they had to remain.

Students overwhelmingly felt that symbols of the past had to remain. Here are some of the comments:

  • “Without our past we would not be here today. Without the past, we would not know why we are here or where we are going.”
  • “It is important for students that it remains on campus, as a reminder that history must not repeat itself.”
  • “There is room for new symbols. We must look back but must also look at the future.”
  • “We must resolve the problems of the past and move on.”
  • “We must remember that we cannot go back there again. We must not take away part of other people’s history.”
  • “Symbols must be contextualised.”
  •  “Don’t look in the rear mirror, but through the windscreen where you are going. The windscreen is far bigger.”

One student said the statute of MT Steyn filled him with anger.

Prof. Keet said the act of running away from the ghosts of the past was a way to keep those ghosts alive. The past cannot be dealt with, only visited. The ghosts connect people with the past and allow the past to be present in the now.
 

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