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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 Department of Physics offers unique learning experience with on-campus radio telescope
2015-12-14

Athanasius Ramaila, an Honours student in the Department of Physics, and Dr Brian van Soelen, a lecturer from the same department, in the laboratory where the radio telescope is housed in the new wing of the Physics Building on the Bloemfontein Campus of the UFS. The telescope will be used to expose graduate students to the basic techniques of radio astronomy.
Photo: Charl Devenish

The university this year added a four-storey wing to the existing Physics Building on the Bloemfontein Campus. The new development, which includes four lecture halls and four laboratories, complements other world-class facilities such as the X-ray photoelectron spectroscope and the scanning electron microscope.

A unique asset that distinguishes the UFS Department of Physics from other similar institutions, is the Boyden Observatory situated approximately 27 km northeast of Bloemfontein. The observatory houses a powerful 1.5 m optical telescope, and several smaller, but well equipped telescopes.

According to Pieter Meintjes, Professor in the Department of Physics, the observatory has acquired a new addition - a 0.5 m optical telescope donated by the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) to the UFS Astrophysics Group. This optical telescope is one of two powerful optical telescopes used to introduce students to techniques such as photometry and spectroscopy.

“The telescope at Boyden forms an integral part of the Department of Physic’s student training and research programme. Because the UFS is the only university in South Africa operating such a facility, and one of only a few globally, Astrophysics students at the UFS have the unique privilege of having unrestricted access to these telescopes for their MSc and PhD studies,” says Prof Meintjes. In addition, the department has also built a radio telescope as part of a post-graduate student project. The telescope, housed in the new wing of the Physics Building at the Bloemfontein Campus of the UFS, will be used to expose graduate students to the basic techniques of radio astronomy, especially in light of the fact that the SKA is nascent. Prof Meintjes would like to act proactively by grounding his students in the relevant techniques of radio astronomy. The telescope will be used to introduce students to the manner in which radio flux calibrations are performed in order to determine the energy output of an emitting source.

At undergraduate level, the radio telescope will be used, together with optical telescopes in the Astrophysics laboratory, to place students at a high baseline regarding the level of multi-wavelength astrophysics training received at the UFS.

Third-year and Honours students will also have the opportunity of practical training in a research laboratory with 15 computers. The laboratory is equipped with software used to reduce and analyse multi-wavelength data.

“My goal is for the UFS to become the major centre of multi-wavelength astrophysics in South Africa and a key role player in the international arena. To be able to do this, our training should be world class,” Prof Meintjes said.

Aided by its world-class facilities and research, the Department of Physics is competing with the best in the world. Research-wise, a group from the Department of Physics is intensively involved with the SKA Project (Square Kilometre Array), with 3 000 dishes reaching from Carnavon in the Karoo to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. According to Prof Meintjes, many detailed studies can be conducted with the SKA system of sources, showing major eruptions and mass effluent from the systems. Athanasius Ramaila, a BSc Honours student in Astrophysics at the UFS, has also received a two-year SKA internship, where he will be engaged in the SKA software engineering programme to help with developing software for the telescope.

The UFS Astrophysics Group is focusing on the multi-wavelength study of high-energy astrophysics sources. “This multi-wavelength approach to astrophysics is in line with the recent announcement by government that multi wavelength astrophysics will be the main focus for astrophysics research in South Africa. It is also a very important focus for research in the international arena, as can be seen from the large number of international conferences having a multi-wavelength character,” Prof Meintjes said.


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