In the last few months we have seen the deaths of ordinary people who helped define our heritage by becoming extraordinary: Andrew Mlangeni, Achmat Dangor and George Bizos. These were people whose lives contained South Africa’s raging currents, epitomised its human beauty and witnessed its cruelty and brutality.
But we have also lost many other South Africans (due to Covid-19 and other causes), less well known perhaps, but whose stories and memories, had they been documented in their lifetime, would have deepened our understanding of our conflicted soul.
This makes Heritage Day 2020 a time for soul searching. The Covid-19 reset has raised questions about our identity and the values and heritage that the official narrative claims we celebrate. Questions abound: As we try to recover from the devastating economic collapse, what values will we advance? Where will we find our spiritual reserves when our financial reserves are depleted?
What is our heritage? What strength do we draw from it? What meanings should we ascribe to it?
According to the Collins Dictionary:
“A country’s heritage is all the qualities, traditions, or features of life there that have continued over many years and have been passed on from one generation to another.”
Because of our history – the many ethnicities and nationalities that got mixed into the South African melting pot – heritage may still mean different things to different people: we have many strands to our identity; there is a Zulu heritage, an Afrikaner heritage, an indigeous heritage, even a colonial heritage, to name but a few.
Diversity is a strength, not a dilution.
But our heritage is also the unbroken thread that runs from 1652 until today… of the public and private struggles of peoples for freedom and dignity and all that they have spawned in our literature, art, music and history.
However, what started with conquest culminated in 1996 in a Constitution that was both a convergence of the many strands of our heritage, but also a document that sought to launch us into a new era that, according to its preamble, would allow “we, the people of South Africa” to “heal the divisions of the past” and “free the potential of each person”.
Paradoxically, one part of our heritage would be the unmaking of another part. This is what campaigns like #RhodesMustFall and #BlackLivesMatter have sought to do: not to obliterate history or heritage, but to reorder it so as to “free the potential of each person”.
Democracy is vital to making heritage meaningful and inclusive.
To this end, the Constitution’s Bill of Rights – democracy’s “cornerstone” – seeks to protect our heritage in part by protecting rights to “language and culture”, but in a manner that is inclusive and expansive rather than exclusive and triumphal.
It also seeks to protect our wonderful natural environment, tied in so many ways to our heritage, from pollution and ecological degradation “for the benefit of present and future generations”.
It may feel far-fetched, even romantic, to think of a Constitution that only became law in 1996 as a vital part and protector of South Africa’s heritage. That is why this week Maverick Citizen is focusing on publicising the launch on Heritage Day of a website of the Constitution – an online exhibition and archive that tells the story of the making of the Constitution and the Constitutional Court.
We have been fortunate to have a peek at it. It is an amazing creation that will bring the past back to life and help us find meaning and power in the present.
It reminds us of the gargantuan efforts of millions of people whose efforts, often unbeknown to them, contributed to building this bridge between the past and the future. It is a map leading back into the recesses of history of the known and unknown.
According to Lwando Xaso, Lauren Segal and Albie Sachs, its ‘bricklayers’, the Our Struggle, Our Freedom, Our Constitution website will be:
- A global resource on the South African Constitution;
- A go-to site for learners and teachers on our constitutional democracy;
- A portal and access point for researchers/scholars to the archival collections related to the Constitution;
- A vehicle for gathering and telling stories with a focus on marginalised communities;
- A home of the WE, THE PEOPLE movement;
- A platform for social media that creates debate and dialogue;
- A funding platform for friends of the Constitution Hill Trust.
But as much as we celebrate our heritage, we must also galvanise ourselves for another fight. Heritage is political. Heritage cannot be taken for granted. Traces of it can be lost, hidden, manipulated or deliberately destroyed.
When that happens, we lose our memory and identity.
This is why people in South Africa and around the world should know and be concerned that museums like Liliesleaf and District Six are threatened with closure due to lack of funds; of the neglect of the Robben Island Museum; of the financial difficulties faced by the historic Lovedale Press, or the possible closure of a 30-year-old non-profit organisation, the South African History Archive (SAHA), due to donor disinterest; and of the disrepair and lack of protection of our national and provincial archives.
It’s a disaster.
For these reasons, ‘We, the people of South Africa’ should be angered by a government and political leaders who co-opt and appropriate our heritage once a year for political reasons; use it to decorate their houses or doeks, but generally deny it to the people.
‘We, the People of South Africa’ should protest that the Ministry of Sports, Arts, and Culture is treated as a backwater where failed or implicated politicians who usually don’t give a shit about arts or culture, are parked out of harm’s way – but then cause harm to an even more vulnerable ecosystem.
‘We, the people of South Africa’ should not accept when our government says it cannot afford to protect or promote our heritage.
Why, we should ask, is it that we can still ‘afford’ blue-light convoys for lousy politicians and spend hundreds of millions on pointless conferences and workshops, perks, plane rides and cars for MPs – but nothing for our heritage.
As we consider economic and psychological recovery from the trauma of Covid-19 and the inequalities it has laid bare, our many museums and heritage sites have the potential to be sources of wealth creation and local economic opportunity. We should demand that they are part of the economic recovery plan, and not be throttled by austerity.
On Heritage Day 2020, memory has never been more important – and forgetting more dangerous. DM/MC