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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

Linguistic resourcefulness impresses at 15th Student Symposium on the Natural Sciences
2015-11-26


UFS students walk away with more than half the prizes at this year’s Student Symposium on the Natural Sciences.

This year, the fifteenth annual Student Symposium on the Natural Sciences was hosted on the Bloemfontein Campus by the UFS Departments of Chemistry and Physics, together with the South African Academy for Science and Arts (SAAWK).

According to Dr Ernie Langner, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry, this symposium provides postgraduate students from all over South Africa the opportunity to present their research in Afrikaans, to learn from each other, receive feedback on their work through the review process, and to build networks. If their abstracts are selected for publication in the Suid-Afrikaanse Tydskrif vir Natuurwetenskap en Tegnologie, it also provides them with further exposure in the broader academic context.

Besides research of the highest quality, this year's symposium had no shortage of linguistic resourcefulness. “Students, accustomed to writing and expressing their research in English, astonished everybody with their beautiful Afrikaans. Outstanding research from honours, master's, and doctoral students was expressed in scientific terminology of the highest standard,” Dr Langner said.

The Student Symposium is the only event (worldwide) where the development of 'elektrostatiese potensiaalkaarte', 'femtosekonde pomp-proef spektroskopie', or 'endokrien-ontwrigtende chemikalieë' is explained step by step. This is where one hears enthusiastic students talking about how hard they are working on 'geïntegreerde drywende sonkragstelsels', or 'geneste virtuele rekenaars binne die wolkstelsel'. The results of hours of hard work in the lab, cold nights behind a telescope, or long midnight sessions in front of the computer, had to be condensed into 15-minute presentations on the synthesis of metal-organic networks, or metal-carbene complexes, the identification of pulsar rhythms, or the refining of rapid-eye technology.

Of approximately forty participants from five universities, eighteen were awarded prizes for their papers and posters. Students from the UFS walked away with more than half of the awards. Jacques Maritz (Physics) and his wife, Elizabeth, (Mathematics and Applied Mathematics) from the UFS were both awarded first place in their respective sessions.

 

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