Celebrating heritage and accelerating transformation of our heritage landscape

Picture: Juda Ngwenya/Reuters

Photo credit: Reuters

On the 24th of September, as per the schedule on the nation’s commemorative calendar, the national celebration will be hosted in Kokstad, KwaZulu-Natal. While it is common cause that the national celebrations and commemorations be rotated equitably across the country, the choice of Kokstad is also significant in many ways. Firstly, it is our way of reaffirming our commitment and reassuring the Griqua community and other communities of our appreciation of the contribution they have made in shaping history and socio-political landscape of our country. 

In that regard, it may also be opportune and apt that we pay tribute to Adam Kok, his reigning dynasty and the Griqua community at large for their courage, determination and fortitude in resisting colonial occupation and the prize that many have had to pay – including death. It is quite apparent therefore that by the turn of the 20th century when the native congress burst onto the political scene, they undoubtedly will have been inspired by the fearlessness and intrepidity of their forebears, such as the Griquas of Adam Kok.

It is of course important at this stage to map out some conceptual clarity in terms of culture and heritage. I deliberately make reference to both as I have observed that there is an insatiable temptation in ordinary discourse to employ them interchangeably. I advisedly declare my observation while also conceding the fact that they are not mutually exclusive of each other. While there may be many conceptual formulations in terms of culture, our working definition which stems from the White Paper on arts and culture of 1996 offers a wide ranging conceptual framework which includes the distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a particular society or social group. 

This may include the arts and letters, but also modes of life, fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions, heritage and beliefs developed over time and subject to change. On the other hand, heritage concerns the sum total of wildlife and scenic parks, sites of scientific and historical significance, national monuments, historic buildings, works of art, literature and music, oral traditions and museum collections and their documentation which provides the basis for shared culture and creativity in the arts. As may be self-evident, there are two strands of heritage namely the tangible and the intangible forms of heritage. While there is temptation to apportion more weighting to the tangible forms of heritage e.g. statues, museums, monuments, heritage sites etc, it is important to pay attention to those forms of heritage that are only perceivable, sense and felt, but that which may not be touched or objectified like oral traditions including history and folklore, rituals, and a felt sense of being.

For this year, Heritage month is themed around Nelson Mandela’s centenary. He himself made a cogent case for arts, culture and heritage as critical to the success of the social cohesion and nation building project. The theme for this year is “The year of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela: Advancing transformation of South Africa’s heritage landscape”. A lot has happened in terms of advancing the heritage transformation agenda. The transformation objective here is important, given that the collective symbolism e.g. statues, names of places and spaces artefacts, arts collections, and stories, among others, reflected an era of civil strife and deep societal divisions, often times along the contours of race, class, culture, gender, language etc. 

During the difficult period of RhodesMustFall, we took the initiative and engaged with various institutions of higher learning in terms of their heritage landscape and transformation thereof. For the month of September alone, we will be providing feedback to three institutions of higher learning in terms of the findings of the Ministerial Task Team and the recommendations thereof. The purpose of the feedback is to provide a platform for open dialogue in these institutions in advancing the transformation of the heritage landscape.

In this year of Nelson Mandela’s centenary, it is appropriate to reflect on the value of arts, culture and heritage in advancing social change. Mandela’s views  on the role of the arts, culture and heritage to the social cohesion and nation building on the occasion of the unveiling of the Enoch Sontonga monument, on 23 September 1996 is perhaps the most pointed in this regard. In that regard, he aptly cited as having said that when the new government took over at the dawn of democracy in 1994, it was decided to make Heritage Day one of the national days because the leadership coterie at the time was acutely aware and conscious of the rich and varied cultural heritage of this country and the profound power to promote social cohesion and national unity.

In keeping with the ideals of Madiba, we too look to the national days, like for example, the national Heritage Day, as levers to bring about cohesion and national unity. Heritage and culture have the potential to bridge socio-historic divisions engendered over many decades of racist colonial and apartheid administrations. It is an indisputable fact that colonialism and apartheid employed heritage and culture in more subversive ways. 

That is, colonialism and apartheid accentuated perceivable differences in terms of our culture and heritage as scientifically distinguishable markers that proved that as black people, we were a hodgepodge of nations, totally distinct and unrelated to one another and as such, we shared no common heritage and culture. In this way, the racist colonial and apartheid masters ensured that black people, African people in particular remain divided. To keep the oppressed masses, particularly Africans, perpetually divided and at odds with one another, the colonialism and apartheid machinery had to reify their differences – as though they were a scientific fact. As intimated already, heritage and culture were essential factors in deepening divisions.

Since the dawn of democracy in 1994, government committed to set the country on a different path – standing in contradistinction to what had hitherto been the lived reality under colonialism and apartheid. Ours now is to use our culture and heritage as the glue that holds the various parts of South African society together. The national celebration being planned in Kokstad is meant to among others, assist us in that regard. This is in keeping with the vision of the NDP and the promise of the Constitution that through deliberate effort, South Africa must progressively become a just and equal society, where life chances are not apportioned and predetermined by such extraneous social constructions such as race, class, culture, language, gender and one’s heritage.

Nathi Mthethwa is the Minister of Arts and Culture