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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 lecturer serves on National Forensic Oversight and Ethics Board
2015-02-13

Dr Karin Ehlers

Dr Karin Ehlers, lecturer in the Department of Genetics at the University of the Free State, was elected by the Minister of Police, Mr Nkosinathi Nhleko, to serve on the National Forensic Oversight and Ethics Board which will, among others, monitor the implementation of the provisions of the DNA Act.

Previously, when DNA evidence was collected at a crime scene, it was analysed only when requested by the prosecutor or investigator when they had found a suspect and needed confirmation. With the new DNA Act, all samples collected from violent crimes must be analysed. The profiles will be compared with a convicted offender database to see if some of the unsolved cases can be linked to these perpetrators. The reason for this is that many of these offenders are repeat offenders, and this process will increase the chances of solving cases successfully.

Serving on the Board, Dr Ehlers will also have the opportunity to contribute to proposals on:
- the improvement of practices regarding the overall operations of the National Forensic DNA Database (NFDD),
- the ethical, legal, and social implications of the use of forensic DNA profiles, and
- the training and the development of criteria for the use of familial searches.

Board members will also receive and assess complaints about alleged violations relating to the abuse of DNA samples and forensic DNA profiles and/or security breaches, and will report to complainants in respect thereof.

In 2014, when all citizens in South Africa were invited to apply for a position on the National Forensic Oversight and Ethics Board, Dr Ehlers submitted her application with a motivation on how she could contribute to the function of the Board. She is one of ten persons who were appointed to serve on the Board. “The reason I was successful was due to my involvement in the development of the UFS Forensic Sciences Programme,” Dr Ehlers said.

The capacity of the country was one of the challenges that had to be overcome for this Act to take effect. ”The UFS was able to address this problem, implementing degrees in Forensic Genetics and Forensic Sciences. With these programmes we made a real difference in the fight against crime. It is a real privilege to form part of this project,” said Dr Ehlers.

Dr Karin Ehlers serves on National Forensic Oversight and Ethics Board (read the full story)

 

For more information or enquiries contact news@ufs.ac.za

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