What does the word heritage mean to you? People inherently crave to belong and to identify with other human beings. The thought of where one comes from and who we are connected to drives the need to know about our heritage.
On the 24 September 1996, Nelson Mandela started Heritage Day as the day for us South Africans to celebrate our diversity and cultural traditions as a nation. It might sound strange but I do not know my family heritage. There are no photos, almost no stories and no legacy left by my ancestors. However, thanks to my parents, I have found a sense of belonging, I have my heritage.
Growing up my mom and dad spoke proudly about their grandparents being from England, Holland, Java and St Helena, as I’m sure many coloured folks on the Cape Flats can relate to. But that was it. I never knew anything about our great-grandparents or our grandparents. I do not know what they believed, what food they enjoyed, if they were Christians who loved God like I do and if they left any legacy behind.
But it is as though they never existed. Like it’s been erased from the record of human history.
I never wondered about my heritage until a few years back when my brother did genetic testing.
Growing up in a Christian home, our sense of belonging was grounded in being part of the ‘Body of Christ’, the Church. I was always a Christian; my heritage was based on my faith since I am a child of God. I am happy and secure in that because that’s who I am. This secured my sense of belonging and I feel content.
Hearing about the slaves that came to South Africa from Java and St Helena and understanding that the Dutch and English were colonialist, I thought about these ancestors a little more. Who are they and what did they believe, where did they come from and what cultural traditions did they have? Were they prejudiced colonists or were they slaves? How did they meet each other, was it the master and slave who married? This all began to sound so fascinating. My parents never spoke about how an Englishman married a St Helenian and a Javanese women married a Dutch. They were probably not told the full story and I will never get to know too.
Heritage month is a time we set aside to consciously and deliberately honour those people who have shaped us, who left us a legacy in the lives we inhabit. That’s my parents. And my family and I. We think about how to memorialise them, the beliefs they have passed down, the recipes they have given us and most importantly the values we live by. In the Khoi, Muslim, Hindu, Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Ndebele, Greek, Jewish, Afrikaner cultures, all South Africans will celebrate their cultures, through traditions, food, cultural attires, dancing and by living out their values.
In a diverse, cosmopolitan society like South Africa, every family has the right to celebrate their heritage and those people who forged their cultural norms and practices. And if you don’t agree with it then that too is okay, but we have to be comfortable with a level of respect that is not seen everyday. And a healthy dose of consideration that any culture – especially where it is dominant – must not silence others. On all days but especially Heritage Day. Respect doesn’t mean that you have to agree, but simply that you allow others to believe and celebrate their heritage as they choose, provided that it does not infringe on the rights of others, or unintentionally dominates those people who are more defined, because of the past, by erasure.
Let us make an effort this month to get to know and understand the culture of our friends, colleagues and neighbours. And if your friends are only of the same culture as you, make an effort to make a new friend, with a different culture. Respectfully. Humbly. It is in this way that we will get to know and understand fellow South Africans. That we can be inclusive and respectful of our diversity
Happy Heritage Day South Africa!
Lucretia Arendse is the Project Leader for the Education for Reconciliation project at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation