Perceptions remain that some use this day for narrow political ends, says Busani Ngcaweni.
Johannesburg - In yearly fashion, Heritage Day came and went last Tuesday without registering a blip. As we look forward to another ritual next year, debate will linger as to exactly what the importance of Heritage Day is in the national calendar. This also relates to Heritage Month, also referred to by the government as Tourism Month.
In the main, debate revolves around the definition of this day, September 24, and what activities qualify as appropriate to symbolise its significance for democratic South Africa.
Definition is raised since there is no consensus about how to properly celebrate this day – as King Shaka Day (as still lamented in KwaZulu-Natal), Heritage Day or Braai Day. This is a personal, communal and national question.
A brief history of this national holiday indicates that prior to 1994, September 24 was mainly observed in the former “independent” state of KwaZulu as King Shaka Day.
It was a day of recollection and remembrance by the people of KwaZulu to remember the legendary leader whose genius was to forge the project of nation-state formation using statecraft and modern warfare to achieve his objective of uniting the various social groups into a single nation. It was not for nothing he was fairly compared to military generals like Napoleon Bonaparte of France and statesmen like Otto von Bismarck, who built the federal state of Germany.
However, in the prevailing spirit of reconciliation during the Codesa negotiations, it was decided that this day should be commemorated as Heritage Day – a day during which all South Africans, irrespective of colour or creed, would together celebrate their heritage.
The ultimate goal was to engender unity in diversity that appreciates the opportunity to create a particular national cultural identity. Unlike in the apartheid era when this diversity was encouraged for partisan political ends, in the democratic dispensation this diversity would be seen as a basis of national unity and common destiny.
Perceptions remain about whether some have used this day for narrow social and political ends. A case in point is the month-long celebrations in KwaZulu-Natal that culminate with a major gathering at KwaDukuza, King Shaka’s palace, on a weekend coinciding with the 24th day of September.
The consistent presence of national leadership in this event escalates perceptions that although the name and context might have changed, this remains King Shaka Day. In trivial fashion rooted in colonialism, others have selected to ignore the day’s political symbolism and historical significance of fostering national unity by demoting it to Braai Day.
Looked at from a distance, two seeming extremes have emerged in the discourse on how to “properly” celebrate Heritage Day. On the one hand, there is what I call the tribal default tendency and those I identify as liberal chauvinists. The former refers to Shaka Day enthusiasts, while the latter refers to a cynical section of our population who choose to trivialise national days.
In both sections of the divide, the consequence of their actions is the same, in that they arguably perpetuate a grain of discourse that runs counter to the imperative of reconciliation and national unity.
The liberal chauvinism acts are singled out because they neither contribute to the debate about cultural tourism nor add weight to any effort to build a consciousness of national identity.
Theirs is a premeditated and opportunistic theatrics of depoliticising our history and destiny, while profiteering on the pretext that braaiing is our “national heritage”.
In mitigation, the tribal default enthusiasts argue that their activities are advancing cultural tourism, which has long fascinated both the local and international visitors about the Zulu Kingdom, which turns 299 years old in 2016.
Again, we warn of the real implications of the deeds of Braai Day advocates simply because their work reduces heritage to consumption of grilled meat and beer. Even though it is unlikely to happen, one shudders to think of the possibility of the Holocaust memorial being commodified to this level.
Similarly, other national holidays are notable, like December 16, in its reminder of the heroic anti-colonial resistance movements led by King Dingaan and the Luthuli Detachment – the first regiment of Umkhonto we Sizwe deliberately formed on December 16. For the descendants of the Voortrekkers (they celebrated December 16 as the Day of the Vow), December 16 bears testimony to their struggles for group affirmation and land acquisition by further dispossessing the natives. But in the spirit of fostering nation-building, this national holiday, like September 24, was changed to Reconciliation Day, for observation by all South Africans, irrespective of cultural or political backgrounds.
Being mindful of the lessons imparted to us by founding fathers like Oliver Tambo, I would urge us to be cautious of tendencies that might ultimately cause disunity among South Africans. Otherwise, calling Heritage Day by other names allows the market imperatives to commercialise important days and to remove the political meaning of such days from our collective memory. Remember that the Comrades Committee, out of respect and in the interest of social cohesion, decided to move the Comrades Marathon from June 16 to the first weekend of June.
For the previously marginalised majority of the population, this is an emotive subject precisely because of centuries of systemic cultural dislocation. It is to be recalled that the objective of colonialism and apartheid was to physically and psychologically destroy symbols of black existence from national consciousness, such as happened in the denial of the existence of the pre-colonial Mapungubwe civilisation, among others.
Second, it presented black people as a people without history, agency and heritage, and consequently without a future. Their destiny was thus submerged within European modernity. Where such history existed, it presented peacemakers like Moshoeshoe as cowards and nation-builders like King Shaka as bloodthirsty warmongers who precipitated Mfecane and Difaqane.
The lesson of the 1994 project is a cautionary tale against all forms of ultra-nationalism which germinate the seeds of disunity instead of social cohesion. We should view ultra-nationalistic tendencies as apolitical impressions created by narratives of contest, protest and preponderance. That is, that in South Africa we have three nations: the Zulu nation, the Afrikaner nation and then the South African nation created in 1994.
True that in our history, the geographic space now known as South Africa housed within it different nations that were either far advanced (like in the case of the Zulu kingdom) or were still in the process of nation-state formation. The creation of the first new South Africa (Union of South Africa) in 1910 made the first attempt to create a single nation-state, but colonial intentions destroyed that possibility.
The second new South Africa (declaration of the Republic in 1961) was another important milestone. However, bigotry stood in its way, thus opportunistically sustaining the notion of the existence of various “nations” in Bantustans within a single white-minority ruled country called South Africa.
Because of the confluence of contest, protest and preponderance, to some it seemed as if Codesa was a negotiating platform that pitted the liberation movement against two preponderant “nations”: the Zulu and the Afrikaner. For as long as the interests of these two were not safeguarded, the possibility to create a South African nation seemed impossible. And so, significant compromises were made – all in the interest of nation-building.
Unfortunately, we tend to forget this in our triumphalism or lamentations of marginalisation.
Therefore, sustaining the narrative of national unity that was legitimated in 1994 represents hope and the renewal of possibility to realise the aspirations of cultural liberation. This would be achieved by allowing all citizens space to recall and celebrate that which they treasure from the past and wish to preserve for the future, thus enriching the tapestry from which a common national identity emerges. Fortunately, history informs us that it is possible to struggle to create a society based on constitutional aspirations attaining a non-racial, non-sexist, united and prosperous South Africa.
Suggestions that changing Shaka Day to Heritage Day and now to Braai Day are deliberate liberal attempts to “depoliticise” African experience within the broader scheme of “culturalisation” of politics is a subject many contributors to this newspaper should continue to explore.
* Busani Ngcaweni is a public servant writing in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.