As we approach Heritage Day, people are dusting off their beaded headgear and wax-print shirts, and ads for boerewors and briquette combos call us to unite around a fire. Debates about whether to braai or not to braai pop up every year around this time, reminding us that even the most seemingly straightforward ideas around heritage are contested. These aren’t just arguments about braaiing: they are about how our diverse cultures and complicated histories should be celebrated and conserved in the present, cutting to the core of questions around identity, belonging, restitution and justice.
Heritage is often understood in overly simplistic terms, reduced to the clothes we wear and food we bring to work on Heritage Day. But heritage is not reducible to one thing in our lives or the places we live in. It is not only our identity: it is also our politics, our complex histories and our memories. Heritage shapes the way we live, eat, pray, raise our children and interact with each other. Cultural heritage can bring people together, but it can also be used to keep people apart — as the rise of the right-wing all over the world is worryingly demonstrating.
Heritage, art and culture are often expected to carry an impossible burden in this context, expected to preserve, restore and recognise various pasts while developing a collective future. Art, culture and heritage must be “harnessed” to create jobs, rescue economies, educate children, attract tourists, entertain us, make us think, and give us something to discuss around those endless braai fires.
Tourism is possibly our biggest heritage-related money-spinner. Unfortunately, heritage that is purely oriented towards a tourist audience often results in hugely oversimplified ideas about history and culture: in particular, an image of heritage as only something that happened in the past, waiting to be found, fixed and fixated upon. Thanks in large part to tourism, the argument for the economic benefits of heritage have been won.
Researchers from UCT’s African Centre for Cities project titled “Whose Heritage Matters” have been conducting interviews with creative and museum practitioners, city officials, cultural heritage activists and critical heritage studies scholars. As one of the interviewees from this project stated:
“They just want the end product. They just want the koe’sister; they don’t want the kneading of the dough and the making of that community.”
Or, as another phrased it:
“Tourism creates stereotypes and economists will build on this and develop this nice value chain analysis and the value is the stereotype.”
Heritage-as-stereotype as a commodity is unfortunate and potentially damaging even when it is economically successful. The sector may have created jobs, but destructive patterns of precarious work that happen elsewhere also appear in cultural heritage industries.
As one of the “Whose Heritage” participants frames it, heritage-based tourism runs the risk of producing “the same master/servant relationships again: black people will be sweeping the floors and pouring the tea, white people will be running the tour companies and there will be an overseas tour company that has the wherewithal as to whether they bring or don’t bring people in”. Building an economy based on simplified versions of artefacts and activities from the past, and relying on precarious labour, is not sustainable, resilient or just.
Technical built environment legislation is one of the heritage management tools available to us. But this form of “management” often neglects the intangible and everyday lived realities in the present, shaping decisions about what is kept, conserved and cast away. The custodians of urban heritage are still predominantly white architectural professionals, while powerful lobby groups have been successful in keeping colonial and apartheid architecture and monuments and preserving the interests of ratepayers’ associations.
Heritage, however, cannot be understood without taking land, labour and justice into account. Confrontations around heritage have recently erupted in multiple places. We saw Rhodes falling in 2015; 2020 has seen toppled monuments rippling throughout the world. Monuments and architectures are not just things — they are an everyday reminder of ongoing forms of oppression. Media images such as those of Bo-Kaap residents stepping in front of bulldozers have become powerful symbols of battles being fought on multiple fronts over gentrification, urban development and displacement.
Heritage is not just a koe’sister and it is not only about bricks, mortar and plinths: it is about land. Land is an inheritance — something that can be passed down. In contexts with deep scars from forced removals, it is also what has been taken away. Townships are not as readily seen as “heritage” as Victorian townhouses. In the lanes, childhood memories exist, on the stoeps, food is shared, and at the corner shops, neighbours meet to chat; on the open space seemingly empty, rites of passage are made.
These ties continue to be severed by unjust land laws of the past and the gentrification of historic neighbourhoods. This process creates unwelcome bodies — often in the neighbourhoods of peoples’ ancestors. Because of this, we must ask: whose heritage and what version of heritage matter? There needs to be a reckoning of our past in this present moment in order to harness heritage for a future vision of justice, and it must urgently include a restitutive mindset in our built environment and heritage practices.
Despite all of this, the everyday heritage and continuation of practices over generations continue. Ultimately, the idea that heritage is only about the past is simply not true. Heritage might represent the past, or draw on practices, values, places and objects with particular histories that make them significant, valuable, rare or important. But in the same way that passing an inheritance on to one’s children is really about making their lives easier, heritage is about the decisions we make in the present that shape our future.
Heritage is the baggage we carry with us as we travel towards the kinds of cities, communities, collective values and identities that we want to build. This is why we cannot talk about heritage without talking about justice and belonging, and without reckoning with the really hard questions around whose heritage, whose voices, and what we really want to carry with us into the future. DM
Naomi Roux is a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics. Rike Sitas is a researcher at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. Maurietta Stewart is a UCT student (Mphil: Conservation of the Built Environment) and heritage practitioner in Cape Town. They are part of Heritage and Justice Alliance, an emerging network of heritage activists, practitioners and scholars.
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