My discernment from President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech on Heritage Day

South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa. File photo.

We need to acknowledge that inherent in opening up spaces that were previously reserved for exclusive inhabitation and use is problematic in the contestation for place and symbolic public representation. Broadening the heritage landscape allows us an opportunity to bridge the existing gaps in the heritage space, in particular, askew representation through monuments and declared sites.

The country’s 2030 Developmental Plan requires South Africa to continuously reflect on progress made since the dawn of democracy in 1994. The scope is big; my focus here is on the heritage landscape. I do not want to create an impression that this matter exists in isolation, the intersectional engagement is imminent. The conversation on heritage is vast. My summary of all I have read and heard is that at stake in South Africa, with the historical legacy of segregation policies, is the competing notion of space, conflicting and the often-competing ideological notion of commemoration or memorialisation, and the lack of shared collective memory and meaning of public representation. Effectively we don’t know what to do with our historical text and footprints.

“A community is divided when their perception of the same thing is divided” …Steve Biko

Three questions

This is a challenge for the notion of inclusion (aka social cohesion) and a threat to preservation and conservation of the country’s heritage resources material. It is equally important that I bring to your attention related conversations with a position that asserts that forfeiting the past for the sake of the future is perhaps an overly simplistic way of conceptualising and describing how society moves beyond conflict or pain. The argument for imagining inclusive spaces necessitates a paradigm shift in our thinking. The literature argues for a move from multiculturalism to interculturalism because of cross-cultural overlaps, interaction, and negotiation. The interculturalism approach goes beyond opportunities and respect for existing cultural differences, to the pluralist transformation of public space, civic culture, and institutions. In line with this view, reconfiguration of public spaces towards inclusive ends would have to emphasise the politics of recognition and negotiation of difference. So where does this leave us? There are no easy answers. As the country embarks on the process of auditing and spatial identity transformation I put forward the following three questions:

  • Whose conception of the past should prevail in the public realm?
  • Whose conception of the present should prevail in the current realm for the future?
  • How do we balance the old and the new so that we do not dump history?

Sustainable change will require consultation and participation

Advancing change affords interested and affected communities to develop an awareness of layered complexities of our history and intersectional voices (some louder than others), and promotes the practices of collaboration and capacity-building with community members to advance sustainable change. Sustainable change will require, in line with the democratic principles, that the review process acknowledges consultation and participation. Ideally, the audit and review process should be designed to encourage conversation, reflection, and social analysis.

The transformation of spatial social milieu should assume collective ownership and management of space founded on the permanent and temporary participation of the ‘interested and affected parties’, with their multiple, varied, and even contradictory political interests. In the review of the current symbolic landscape for inclusion, the spatial identity transformation must be negotiated. It must be developed from a focal point that understands the interrelationship between space and spatial inscription through the form of street names, symbols, and public art.

I can’t pre-empt the end of the process, the process should inform the outcome. Should it be that some of the statues are to be “repositioned and relocated”, as also stated in the president’s speech, this should not be equated to dumping history/historical dumping. Reposition and relocation are plausible alternative arguments in the spatial reconfiguration discourse. If it is done well it should contribute to the educational programme of the country. It should also be kept in mind that memorabilia are protected by the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) No 25 1999.

Subsequently, the audit and review will require a nuanced approach guided by the NHRA (including relevant legislation) and leaning towards a process-oriented, person-based approach to allow for agency/agility and new possibilities (cf. SONA pronouncement of imagining the New City). Imminent is a guiding or reference document that draws lessons from review processes demonstrated by, among others, the University of Free State’s review and ultimately relocation of the president MT Steyn statue to the War Museum. I believe the South African Heritage Resources Authority and its Provincial Heritage Resources Authority should guide the process.

Heritage serves a social and economic function

Just as a footnote, it is prudent that we remind ourselves that heritage, in addition to many things, serves a social and economic function. Although I acknowledge the views that some of the symbols in the public spaces trigger painful memories of the past, losing those will rob the country of its rich narrative that, in line with NHRA, is to be bequeathed to the next generation, but also that can boost the country’s economy through heritage cultural tourism footprints.

Ultimately, “Our heritage is unique and precious and it cannot be renewed. It helps us to define our cultural identity and therefore lies at the heart of our spiritual well-being and has the power to build our nation. It has the potential to affirm our diverse cultures and in so doing, shape our national character” …NHRA, No. 25 1999.

Opinion article by Motsaathebe Serekoane, Lecturer: Anthropology, University of the Free State.