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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

FF Plus court case against UFS withdrawn
2007-10-23

The University of the Free State (UFS) is pleased to announce that a Supreme Court application to have the racial integration of its student residences set aside has been withdrawn unconditionally by the Freedom Front Plus (FF+). The political party has offered to pay the assessed costs of the UFS.

The Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the UFS, Prof. Frederick Fourie, welcomed this decision by the FF+, saying all energy should now be focused on making a success of this very important nation-building initiative in the student residences. “We have been convinced all the time that we had followed a fair and inclusive consultation process which led to a thorough and well-considered decision by the Council,” he said.

The decision to integrate student residences as from January 2008 was approved by the UFS Council on 8 June 2007. This last decision was confirmed by the Council – which is the highest decision making body at the UFS -  on 14 September 2007 with an overwhelming majority, with only one vote against.

“There is now no legal obstacle to student participation in the work being done to implement Council’s decision. In fact I want to urge all students in our residences to play an active role in implementing Council’s decision,” he said.

According to Prof. Fourie much work has been done in preparation for the intake of first-years into the residences in January 2008.

Since the initial decision of 8 June 2007, the Vice-Rector: Student Affairs, Dr Ezekiel Moraka, has been leading a team of staff members and student representatives who are doing work in various sub-task teams.

“One of the main reasons for working in this way through sub-task teams, is to ensure the widest possible participation of the affected students in the implementation of the Council’s decision,” said Prof. Fourie.

These sub-task teams are working on aspects of residence life in order to make the racial integration of residences as successful as possible. These aspects of residence life include, among others:
 

  • governance structures
  • traditions and character of residences
  • diversity education and training
  • security
  • placement and recruitment

“This list is not exhaustive, but merely to illustrate the kinds of areas being looked into. I would like to encourage all students in residences to make an input into the work of these sub-task teams through the primes, the Student Representative Council (SRC) or through the offices of the Dean or the Deputy Dean of Student Affairs.

“We have already begun to implement an interpreting service at the house meetings of three ladies residences, namely Emily Hobhouse, Roosmaryn and Vergeet-my-nie. From next year this service will be extended to other residences on the Main Campus,” said Prof. Fourie.  

“In the light of withdrawal of the court case, I am appealing to all students in our residences, to join hands with fellow students and with management in creating a campus of respect and appreciation for all languages, cultures and backgrounds,” he said.

“We want our students to assist the UFS in successfully managing the rich diversity on this campus, particularly in its student residences, and in so doing become an example to South Africa of a truly non-racial, multi-cultural and multi-lingual campus, where students are appropriately educated for the workplace,” Prof. Fourie said.


Media release issued by:        
Lacea Loader
Assistant Director: Media Liaison  
Tel:  051 401 2584
Cell:  083 645 2454
E-mail:  loaderl.stg@ufs.ac.za

23 October 2007

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