Slavery has had a great and enduring effect on the formation of our national character, says Gerard Boyce.
Durban - September is Heritage Month and time to reflect on questions of national identity and what it means to be South African. Arguably, these questions are likely to be more poignant this year, tinged as they are with the growing realisation of Madiba’s mortality and amid speculation on what the loss of his unifying presence and the spirit of forgiveness and racial reconciliation which he embodies might mean for national unity.
It is during uncertain times like these that the desire to commemorate a shared experience to which all citizens can relate becomes more acute. This can be seen in the appeal of inane concepts like “Braai Day” that seem to be more motivated by commercial enterprises than a genuine desire to celebrate our shared heritage, and only serves to highlight just how divided we are.
The search for commonality in superficial displays is unsatisfying and as flimsy as the Chinese-made flags we are exhorted to wave every time one of our national sporting teams is in action.
A far more rewarding enterprise would be if we commemorated an experience which all could agree has charted the course of our development and shaped the heritage which we have been bequeathed.
According our slave past a more prominent place in our national memory may serve this purpose particularly well. Most would agree that slavery has had a great and enduring effect on the formation of our national character.
Not only did it form the basis of the country’s economic development but it continues to provide the blueprint for the nation’s socioeconomic structure 20 years after racial equality was enshrined into our highest laws.
Slavery has also affected us in less obvious but no less profound ways. Take the dispossession and oppression of black people during apartheid. How much justification for these actions can be found in slave-era beliefs that members of certain races were inherently inferior and that it was part of the natural order of things to be subjected to it by members of more supposedly civilised races?
Or consider the high rates of violence in many communities. Surely it is less far-fetched to believe this is a reflection of the internalisation of centuries of oppression which served to systematically strip blacks of their sense of self-worth than it is to subscribe to the simplistic hypothesis that poverty causes violence or members of some communities are predisposed to violence.
How many of the poor and unemployed, members of some of the most marginalised groups in society, would disagree that a person’s worth seems intimately related to their economic output in this age of hyper-capitalism?
Or what about the all-pervasive and often irrational fear that grips members of relatively more affluent groups in society, whites in particular? Does this fear not mimic the dynamics that existed in slave societies wherein slaveholders lived in constant fear of slave insurrection?
Viewed from this perspective, slavery can be thought of as the “original sin” into which modern South Africa was born and with which every generation of South Africans is tainted. Acknowledging and confronting slavery’s legacy is the only way for successive generations to counter the tendency towards mistrust and division.
For this reason, it is proposed that greater focus be placed on the role of slavery in shaping our national heritage this Heritage Month.
In light of the insidiousness of its effects, not to mention reports that the international slave trade is still the lucrative market it was 200 years ago, it is proposed that Heritage Day be abolished and replaced by a national Emancipation Day holiday.
Isn’t this the message of global solidarity, unity of purpose and the belief that together we can overcome even the greatest of evils, which all South Africans would be proud to celebrate as part of their national heritage?
* Boyce is a researcher in the School of Accounting, Finance and Economics at UKZN.
** The views expressed here are nt necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.