As we commemorate Heritage Month there is often what seems to be a very narrow understanding of heritage. How our heritage is being celebrated makes it seem as if it just about traditional cultural garb and culinary festivals or just music and dance. These very rich customs and traditions are very much part of who we are. Even though many of us have never been seen in our traditional outfits. it does not mean that we are any less members of our clans or cultural groups. Sometimes this way of celebrating, which sees many people bringing out the kinds of artefacts that they do not normally use, makes it look as if the celebration of Heritage Month is a re-enactment of historical practices. Yet we know that culture and indeed heritage are not history but are alive. There are now so many different influences that have contributed, and are contributing, to this rich melting pot that is now the South African heritage. True heritage is about history, culture, cuisine, fashion, monuments, architecture, literature, governance, music and everything that is human.
Part of the celebration of a people is manifest in two ways; in the lived experience and in the shared history. The lived experience is celebrated in the day-to-day cultural expressions, for example in music, cuisine and even fashion. It is from that cultural experience that designers like Nandipha Madikiza, Sun Goddess and many others found the impetus to look to cultural inspirations and created contemporary culturally inspired clothing which is now very much part of the evolution of the cultural experience. There has been a lot of development in the appropriation and adaptation of historical cultural matter into the contemporary era. Music is also another deep-seated cultural activity in Africa. Part of the work that has to be done, more aggressively, is to record and preserve some of the music that is not necessarily represented in the formal music industry. There are so many brilliant nameless songs (by unknown composers) in almost every language. In addition, the actual activity of music is no longer as entrenched as it used to be. Music is all but gone from many of schools. Perhaps this is why Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has recently supported choral music in schools. Whatever the case, there is a need to preserve this heritage because the story of the South African has always been expressed in many forms, and especially through music.
The heritage agenda needs to be streamlined because in it lies the makings of nation building. Streamlining heritage means understanding that every facet of the human experience needs to be commemorated and celebrated. It is not enough to make monuments around a people’s political history as if the human person has a compartmentalised experience; that our political life has no bearing on other areas of our lives. As gigantic as our political history is, and it is truly imperative that it should not be forgotten, it does not mean that every street and monument should be named after a revered politician. Granted there are still many political activists whose names are all but forgotten who deserve to be commemorated in some way by the country. But communities also need to have a deep sense of localised heritage. There is no reason why well-known community leaders (builders) cannot be honoured by having a street named after them. There is also no good reason why accomplished artists, poets, activists and many others cannot be honoured by their communities and even the country for the contribution they have made in building the nation.
I am led to think of the likes of Gibson Kente, dubbed the ‘Father of Black Theatre’, whose name is becoming more and more forgotten. One will not even find a plaque to show where he lived and worked with so many great musicians and actors in Dube, Soweto. There is nothing to be found in Soweto commemorating Ndaba Mhlongo or even his wife, Mary Twala, both illustrious actors. The list could go on and on of persons who have contributed to the heritage of South Africa and who will be forgotten. Perhaps one can feel jealous of the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’ which has become the US’s way of commemorating its artists, especially those in entertainment.
There has been a lot of development in the construction and architectural sector but there has been an absence of the type of architecture that is quintessentially South African. It can be argued that this is not a fair observation because when we look at African homesteads, and the Ndebele tradition especially, it is evident that there is a rich history of South African architectural forms. However there is a serious need for an architectural language that takes into account traditional architectural forms thus creating something that would be a kind of signature that would be synonymous with this region. Examples of quintessential regional or national architecture are found in the great pyramids of Egypt, the Sahelian architecture of West Africa and the Georgian architecture found in England. If anyone thinks of these styles of architecture their minds are instantly led to a certain people, or even country. South Africa and indeed many other African countries are developing at a rapid pace. The challenge however is that as buildings emerge they seem to be leaning towards ordinary concrete structures, thus lacking that particular signature inspired by South African heritage. Granted there are plenty of interesting buildings like the Soweto Theatre, even our World Cup stadia and many others but many buildings could be thought to be anywhere in the world because they lack that native signature. That native touch embodies something of the people. Heritage is fundamentally of, from and about a people.
Other efforts that could be made to commemorate a people is in the area of labour. There is something that is particular only to South Africa which should be preserved for future generations to see in one way or another. It comes as a surprise to me that with such a strong labour culture and the existence of such strong workers’ unions there is still no commemoration of the worker. The music that is sung in buses and trains will soon be silent. Even the very Putco buses will not exist forever. It would be good to request these companies to donate one bus or train from their old fleet towards some kind of commemoration of the experience of the worker. In those buses and trains some recordings of the music and prayer services held in buses and trains every day could forever be heard.
Heritage is very much an existential condition in that it emerges from life. How people and communities identify themselves and express that identity comes out of the act of living. So talk of heritage is not a move towards aggressive nationalism or tribalism but rather a celebration or (and) an expression of life. From that expression arises the economy of heritage. The economy of heritage covers two areas; the export of skills and tourism. This economy is (should be) linked to a country’s diplomatic mandate. Diplomacy is not just political but has everything to do with introducing a country to the world and opening up the world for South African artists. When people visit a country they are hoping to experience something different from what they are used to. They want to see, hear, and taste everything that is quintessential to that country. That artistic signature, be it in artefacts, music or any other object, becomes that which is sought throughout the world. This economy of heritage needs also to be prioritised because from it many people, in particular those from the rural places, can make a livelihood.
Obviously some of the ideas expressed here represent my dreams that will possibly never see the light of day. However it is important that heritage be given serious and urgent attention. It is only through heritage that any effort of social cohesion and a real patriotic spirit can be strengthened. There are already signs of this, with the arts and culture minister launching a new National Heritage Monument. There is also a need for communities and societies, even at local level, to look at how such initiatives can permeate their communities. Granted it could be said that we live in a cosmopolitan world and it will become increasingly difficult to claim anything as fully South African but that should contribute to the rich cultural tapestry that is being created from the current lived experience. What is going to be key going forward is the acknowledgement that issues of heritage are not just peripheral issues but are about humanity itself and how it has evolved. DM