We should continue valuing the Heritage Day in our country as one of the most important days in our calendar, for we should never take the celebrations of our South Africanness, our cultural diversity for granted. It was Nelson Mandela who opined, “When our first democratically-elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation”. Two decades after freedom though, as a nation we are still finding the new nation a bridge too far. Definitely, we are a society that still needs to make amends, for our past continues to loom large and is dimming the way ahead.
There are a number of aspects that are making the road to a new nation that Madiba aspired difficult; factors in society that are a hindrance and tend to paralyse the vision of the fervent few. We do not need to go further to find out why we are still struggling to build this one nation. The obstacles in society thwart many efforts to build this new nation in two decades. We continue to experience violence and we cannot build a nation when we destroy at the same time. Heritage is much of what we see around us and when we are destructive we are moving away from the real need to cherish what we have.
Furthermore, violence destroys the unity that we all aspire to as a nation. Violence does not listen to reason, the basis of a sound society that is conscious of its heritage.
The society also continues to strive for social justice, for it is when people experience social justice that they will be able to appreciate their heritage. When people experience a fair level of peace, they will be able to look and appreciate their inheritance. Social justice is about being recognised in society for no one will honour one’s heritage when they do not respect one’s cultural ways and legacy. Social justice realises the need to revere all people equally in society. When colonialism came and swept the colonies, there was no social justice practised for its voice was against the aboriginals of the countries that were colonised. Colonialism was intent on destroying the indigenous ways of thinking, the symbols, ways of life and religions. Thus, heritage was politicised and used as one of the weapons to decimate other cultures and make others subservient to the dominant cultures of the coloniser.
In South Africa there are many debates today where some people maintain that their cultures and heritage are not accommodated and this includes language, symbols and history. There can be no social justice in heritage when sections of society are not recognised.
Heritage is also about equality and a violent society with no social justice cannot experience equality. Furthermore, people who feel the injustices of society may find that violence can bring about quick recourse. As a country redressing past imbalances in society we need to respond to the calls to magnify the importance of all cultures including the indigenous cultures to avert some of these challenges. The South African past glorified only that which was not indigenous and to build a country of a new nation; symbols that were once marginalised and cultures that were disregarded need to be at the centre as well. Our education system should take the lead in the promotion of a new nation and social cohesion. We all know how education can be central to building or destroying any nation. The apartheid system demonstrated why education became its last citadel; it was through education that the nation could be manipulated.
Unfortunately, some of our schools continue to reflect the abhorred racism experienced in the past. In the past few months we have seen serious incidents from nursery schools right to secondary schools where it was apparent that unity is not existent among the teachers and parents. In one nursery school, black children and white children were ferried in different buses when they went on a trip.
In another, children were separated according to language they speak at home; Afrikaans children were in one class and the rest in the other classes.
Surely, this cannot be good in nurturing children who respect one another’s cultures.
Recently, we have seen how some schools ban indigenous languages, teachers even saying that they do not want to accept the unintelligible noises in their school corridors.
The latter is inimical to the building of children with pride in their heritage. These are huge factors happening in our communities and schools, but sometimes one feels that we concentrate on the mundane and lose chance to respond to the critical messages or mandates on such days.
Naming the day a Braai Day for example, is distracting and dissuades people from concentrating on critical issues that could concientise many in various communities.
This only trivialises what the day should be all about. After all it is only people with meat that will braai and what about the rest?
We need to build social cohesion in society and there are events and moments that can help facilitate this ideal. Heritage Day can be among the days that may help build the awareness and move towards social cohesion. Yet as society we can do better in celebrating such days.
We also want to see how the practices and programmes on these days can be extended to other days of the year as well. We still need to strengthen citizens who accept and respect their diversity; people who share symbols and are intent on building a working society. The South African society is very diverse and people will always have diverse cultural practices, and we should never strive for commonalities; it is a country that finds ways of uniting these in their diversity that is crucial in building a strong society. Therefore before we celebrate Heritage Day with boerewors, we need to think of what it should really do for the nation.
The day should be more than a braai day for this merely shifts important factors to the margins; we still struggle with the building of a nation.
What is happening in society does not deserve to be celebrated through braai fires.
We are still a nation that should be asking more questions about our South Africanness. While we portray a visage of peace and reconciliation, others continue to ask questions about street names, of falling statues, of changed anthems and languages that are being destroyed. These are crucial questions.
There are problems in a nation when 13-year-olds have to fight for justice in schools guided by reckless racist principles.
For a few more years we need to hit the nail on the head, build one nation and then at the apex of success we can braai to celebrate. After two decades we have nothing to celebrate because we have failed to highlight the critical nature of our diversity; and even when we try to do this, there is suspicion. Yet we are a rich country in cultures, we need to celebrate our heritage this year and many years to come, with pride.
* Vuyisile Msila is the head at Unisa’s Institute for African Renaissance Studies. He writes in his personal capacity.