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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

Lessons of The Spear
2012-08-14

 Discussing weighty issues at the UFS were from left: Prof. Jonathan Jansen; Vice-Chancellor and Rector; Nic Dawes, Editor-in-Chief, Mail & Guardian; Max du Preez: Investigative journalist and political columnist; Ferial Haffajee: Editor, City Press; and Justice Malala: Political commentator and newspaper columnist.
Photo: Johan Roux
14 August 2012

What were South Africans left with after The Spear? More importantly, what did we learn from The Spear?

These were the issues discussed at a seminar, Beyond the Spear, on the controversial Brett Murray painting at the Bloemfontein Campus of the University of the Free State (UFS) on Monday 13 August 2012.

The university hosted this seminar, Beyond the Spear, in conjunction with acclaimed journalists, to look deeper into the lessons that South Africans learnt from this painting and the reaction from the public and politicians following soon after it went on display at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.

The four panellists, Mr Justice Malala (political analyst, journalist and host of the news show, The Justice Factor), Mr Nic Dawes (editor in chief of Mail & Guardian), Mr Max du Preez (investigative journalist and political columnist) and Ms Ferial Haffajee (editor of City Press), all presented their views and experiences on the public’s perceptions of this artwork.

In his opening remarks, Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector, said the purpose of the seminar was to help us make sense of what happened. Prof. Jansen also chaired this seminar.

“This being South Africa, there will be more ‘Spears’. More public crises will unfold that divide the nation and that will stir the emotions. We need to understand what happened so that we are better prepared to deal with the coming ‘Spears’.”

Issues on leadership, South Africa’s hurtful past and the freedom of expression were some of the topics raised by the panellists.

“This has taught us that South Africans – especially the older generation – still need to vent their anger… White South Africa must be patient and allow black citizens to shout at them,” said Mr Du Preez. He warned that this anger should serve a constructive purpose. In reaction to a question if Brett Murray did not disrespect Pres. Jacob Zuma’s dignity with his controversial painting, he said that this painting was “…rude and disrespectful.”

“It was meant to be. It was not honouring him.” He said that politicians will do anything, including messing with the country’s stability, to further their own interests. “From now on we need to be far more alert, far more cynical about our politicians.”

Mr Dawes shared his experience and said that the debates around The Spear were very painful considering where the nation has come from. He said the painting opened up painful pasts and difficult spaces. “It is up to the media to open up these difficult spaces.” He said the painting also brought up questions of how South Africans deal and live with pain. “South Africa must live with its past. The debate should now be how to preserve space for the country’s ghosts and how its citizens could get the resilience to deal with it.”

Ms Haffajee, who was caught in the crossfire between freedom of expression and human dignity and who refused to remove a picture of the painting from the City Press website, said that the media was viciously played by politicians.

“This had shown that achieving freedom took many lives, but it took very little to kill it.” She said The Spear is art that it is part of a rich cultural heritage of protest art.

Mr Malala said with the debates around The Spear painting, something died in South Africa. “The debate was taken away from us. We let politicians get to us.”

After the panellists delivered their presentations, Prof. Jansen led a discussion session between the audience and the panellists.
 

 

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