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Our past should help us make effective, forward-thinking choices. We must resist stereotypes telling us that African history is devoid of innovation, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana.
Johannesburg - Heritage Day catapulted Mdantsane to national headlines yet again. This East London township, the second biggest after Joburg’s Soweto, was the centre of this year’s celebration.
East London hadn’t really been pampered with such national attention since 2008. Even then, the attraction was heritage. And just like in 2008, unseemly scenes marked this year’s heritage activity. The township seems determined to live up to its reputation. In Mdantsane, the saying goes: “Inkawu ityiw’ ilila, imfene isinda ngo-goloza” – shit happens, only the toughest survive.
Though both events were marred by controversy, they differed in meaning.
The 2008 controversy stemmed from disagreement over representation, while this year’s suggests contestation over ownership.
Residents rejected a memorial that was erected in honour of the victims of the 1985 massacre. They were killed on their return from Victoria Mxenge’s funeral; a human rights lawyer who had died at the merciless hands of the Bantustan police.
Throwing stones at the statue, residents protested that the memorial did not resemble anything they remember about the 1985 massacre. It was modelled as a Shaka-like figure, wearing skins and carrying a spear and a shield. Officialdom figured that was an apt depiction of bravery.
Residents didn’t contest the intended message, but disputed the symbolism. Why did the sculptor have to dig back into pre-colonial symbolism of bravery? Wasn’t there sufficient iconic imagery of bravery in modern history, they asked? Because the Struggle was fought on urban streets, they suggested that the memorial should have depicted a protester throwing a stone, petrol-bomb or a carrying umratata – AK-47, the guerillas’ weapon of choice.
Umratata is the nickname derived from the sound of AK-47 gunfire, which had become a lullaby in township in the 1980s, as they turned into a war-zones at night.
In other words, residents insisted on symbolism that resonated with their own experiences. They objected to anthropological notions, which suggest that only pre-colonial imagery is the authentic African representation. Residents were insisting on determining their own representation, rather than have someone else decide how their memories should be depicted.
This time around, the controversy was over ownership of heritage among the formerly oppressed. It was about who, among the former freedom fighters, had the right to speak over heritage, especially liberation heritage. The deciding point appears to have been present-day political affiliation. Based on the reaction of the crowd gathered on Tuesday, only members of the ruling party can speak about South African heritage. Cope and United Democratic Movement leaders, for instance, were booed.
The crowd would not have these leaders address them about heritage from an official podium. It did not matter that some of them, especially Smuts Ngonyama, were among those who created the memories that were recalled on that Heritage Day. As a United Democratic Front activist in that border region, Smuts contributed to the history that the crowd so fondly recalled.
This is where something sacred turns profane. Imagine, for instance, if Martinus Van Schalkwyk, the Minister of Tourism and former National Party leader, was among the speakers. Would they have allowed him to speak? My guess is that they would have. It wouldn’t have mattered that Van Schalkwyk was part of the party that created home-land killing machines. They would snub a former freedom fighter, but listen to an accomplice in apartheid brutality. What would have earned Van Schalkwyk the right to speak is his present membership in the ruling party.
What this means is that party membership dispossesses others of their own history, while earning some absolution. This is truly the absurd part of our heritage celebrations. It is as bizarre as what we hold up as heritage worth celebrating.
You may recall the brief ads on heritage aired by the public broadcaster as a build-up towards Heritage Day. The ads included a number of scenes including huts, a tractor tilling soil and a traditionally dressed woman sewing with beads. Put together, all these scenes denote traditional lifestyle.
In other words, traditionalism is the heritage of African people. This portends ominous implications. If heritage is about our past, then what this tells us is that ours is an unchanged past. This presents African heritage as devoid of any innovation or progress. Ironically, this is typical of Western, stereotypical representations of Africa.
Not long ago, it was not unusual of the New York Times’ images of Africa, for example, to depict an unkempt, bare-foot woman surrounded by huts. Looking at such pictures you would think that Africa had no cities. No wonder ignorant Americans continue to be surprised that Africans wear Levi jeans and lions are not roaming the streets. What we hold up as heritage, therefore, not only distorts, but also conceals other aspects of our heritage. Where do we locate, for instance, the Mapungubwe civilisation in this representation of African heritage as a stagnant past?
Mapungubwe tells a fascinating story of African ingenuity many moons ago, in the 12th and 13th centuries. They did things that the stereotypical depictions of Africa suggest were impossible for an African imagination. Mapungubwe had a booming smelting industry, for instance, and smelted all manner of natural resources from gold and copper to bronze. From these products, they designed and made numerous adornments including bangles, and necklaces.
Mapungubwe, an intrinsic part of African history, was sophisticated and technologically advanced. The society was innovative and open to learning. This enabled their mastery of technology to progress from one level to another leading to improvements on the quality and range of products they produced for trade and their own use.
The images peddled around as African heritage do not allow for the possibility that a Mapungubwe even existed in African history. Paradoxically, this was exactly the message of colonialism, as it sought to justify itself. Colonialists maintained that colonialism was in the interests of civilising Africa. They maintained that without a colonial agency, Africa would not develop, for Africans lacked ingenuity.
This is obviously not progressive, especially for a people who are supposedly free. It doesn’t make sense to continue peddling stereotypes about ourselves. This would require a paradigm shift on tradition. Because tradition comes from the past, this doesn’t mean that it has remained unchanged. Tradition is not hostile to change. What is considered tradition today was not the same years ago. Tradition includes change. Innovation is part of our tradition.
We should recall our heritage not to take us back into the past, but to determine how we harness that past to live in the present and into the future. Living is about progress. This is progressive use of heritage – to help us move forward, not to entrench our captivity in our past.
Forward-looking use of heritage will not only unlock our collective, creative genius, but will also be all-embracing. Just as the protestors could not see themselves in the pre-colonial statue, most township folks don’t quite identify with the huts that the public broadcaster so proudly displayed.
Even rural folks are now modernising huts. This is progress. Modern housing has better amenities, whereas most huts lack any such comforts.
Progress is the essence of our tradition.
* Mcebisi Ndletyana is head of Political Economy at Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.