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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 awards honorary doctorate to global peace ambassador Dr Lakhdar Brahimi
2015-07-07

Professor Heidi Hudson, Director of the Centre for Africa Studies at the UFS and Dr Lakhdar Brahimi.
Photo: Mike Rose from Mike Rose Photography

The Faculty of the Humanities and Centre for Africa Studies rewarded the contributions of Dr Lakhdar Brahimi, a prominent global peace leader, with an honorary doctorate on Thursday 2 July 2015.

The conferment formed one of the highlights of the 2015 Winter Graduations. Dr Brahimi’s work as a United Nations’ (UN) envoy, and African peace leader of note, was deeply respected by the university. Professor Heidi Hudson, Director of the Centre for Africa Studies at the UFS, accepted the PhD on his behalf.

In his acceptance speech, read by Prof Hudson at the Chancellor’s Dinner the same evening, Dr Brahimi expressed his gratitude to the university. “I deeply appreciate your generous recognition, and even now, in the twilight years of my life, I shall try to be worthy of your confidence in everything I say or do.”

“My generation did its share: its successes and its failures are things of the past. We must accept to be judged by you, the graduates. You, the young graduates here at the University of the Free State, and your fellow members of the African intellectual elite, have an exciting opportunity to take on the challenges and fulfil the dreams you have. We must accept to be judged by you.”

Algerian-born Dr Brahimi was first involved with the UN in 1992 as rapporteur to the Earth Summit. Distinctively, he is the most-frequently appointed special envoy of the UN. Amongst many other countries, he has worked as a mediator for South Africa, Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Burundi, Angola, Liberia, Nigeria, Sudan, and Côte d’Ivoire on behalf of the UN.

Significant peacekeeping efforts in South Africa (1993- 1994)

The ambassador– in his capacity as special representative to South Africa from December 1993 to June 1994 –played a direct role in South Africa’s democratic transition.

Prof Hudson expressed appreciation for the ambassador’s role in facilitating a peaceful transition from South Africa’s Nationalist government into the current democratic dispensation.

“One of the reasons we selected him as recipient of the honorary doctorate, is because of what he did for the African continent,” she said.

In addition, she commented Dr Brahimi for being a living testament of Ubuntu. “He has displayed an ethic of humanism in everything that he has done, in the way that he has mediated in certain conflicts - his main contribution is as a mediator.

According to Hudson, his humility, modesty, and generosity are the epitome of Ubuntu which states that “I am because we are.”

Dr Brahimi as a global peace practitioner

Dr Brahimi served as Undersecretary-General of the Arab League, Arab League Special Envoy for Lebanon, and Foreign Minister of Algeria.

The UN Peace-building Commission was established as a result of recommendations in his2000 Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (Brahimi Report).

Since 2007, Dr Brahimi has been a member in The Elders - an alliance chaired by Kofi Annan -of peace and human rights advocates including Desmond Tutu, Graça Machel, Mary Robinson, and Jimmy Carter. His passion for justice led to his membership in the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor.

In 2010, he was Laureate of the Special Jury Prize for Conflict Prevention, awarded by the Chirac Foundation (France), which promotes international peace and security.

Dr Brahimi’s influence in Peace Education

The Brahimi Report has had an indelible impact on scholars specialising in the broad field of peace operations. Dr Brahimi’s writings have also contributed to knowledge on post-conflict reconstruction and development (PCRD), a signification part of the African Union’s narrative.

He is a distinguished senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics. He has taught a postgraduate course on Conflict Resolution at Sciences Po, Paris (2011); is Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University; and is affiliated to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, where he was a visiting professor from 2006 to 2008.

In addition, Dr Brahimi is a founding member of the French-language Journal of Palestine Studies, and a board member of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.


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