Whose Heritage Are We Celebrating Anyway?

Whose Heritage Are We Celebrating Anyway?

As the 24th of September draws closer, many of us lament the fact that this year, the last holiday in the year, until the December festivities that is, falls on a Saturday, and sadly not a day off work for many of us. Never fear, the annual heritage day bash hosted by government, promises to be the usual eclectic mix of song and dance, with VIP's basking under white canopies proudly displaying cultural attire, while politicians persuade the public of our 'unity in diversity.'

According to the National Department of Arts and Culture, heritage day seeks to recognise the diverse tangible and intangible heritage of the peoples of South Africa as well as aims to use our collective heritage as a mechanism to promote a national identity, foster reconciliation and promote our diversity as a national asset. Rightfully so, as the 'rainbow nation' that is internationally recognised for its miracle transition to democracy, who else can boast 11 official languages, a colourful array of dress, or delectable home-grown temptations ranging from pap and vleis to mapani worms.

While our democracy bursts into a riot of colour and diversity through the showcase of traditions, cultures and customs during these spring celebrations, there is less for us to celebrate when it comes to our tangible heritage as seen through our national monuments and memorialisation projects. In promoting a sense of reconciliation within our previously divided society, memorialisation should become a mechanism that not only reflects the multiple narratives that form the layers of memory in our society, but also a platform that provides a space for all South Africans to come together to remember the past and celebrate an envisioned future. Furthermore, projects undertaken by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation have demonstrated that memorials can fulfil the function of symbolic reparation, in recognising individual victims and communities that experienced human rights violations in the past. By recognising survivors and communities, such initiatives assist in the processes of healing some of the wounds of the past as well as re-building relationships between individuals and communities.

However, our landscape of monuments and historic sites are increasingly becoming a politics of exclusion that not only represent specific identities but one that also discourages civic engagement with the past. Research done by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation has shown that memorialisation processes are politicised both in its representation of memories of the past as well as in consultation processes. South African memorialisation has taken on the character of the great man and hero with focus on specific historical events. Such characteristics, in many ways are reminiscent of pre-democracy memorialisation that used monuments of 'great' men to symbolise the longevity and power of an oppressive regime. Today, however, focus on great men and heroes tend to obscure the contributions of others, while mythologizing our hero. Such forms of memorialisation are further marginalising already vulnerable groups like survivors of human rights violations, excombatants, women, youth and the poor – groups that played a significant role in our struggle for freedom and democracy.

Additionally, heritage, memory and history are becoming commodities that can be exchanged mainly on an international market. While this is desirable, if it benefits the communities within which it is located, it is clear that this is not always the case. Most communities and groups have not been able to realise basic socio-economic rights as a result memorialisation initiatives have had little or no impact on the majority of the community members. So while memorial sites are progressively contributing to the South African tourism industry, catering for an international market, our memorials remain a lost opportunity for real reconciliation and genuine change in the lives of those South Africans that need it the most.

So as we head off to the local Heritage Day celebrations or continue the daily Saturday morning rituals, we need to ask ourselves whose heritage are we celebrating? It is only until we acknowledge that the injustices of the past are a part of our national identity, and ensure that those that experienced those injustices are recognised and are allowed to take full ownership of their memories of the past, that we as a nation, can truly celebrate the 24th of September.

Ereshnee Naidu is a Project Manager in the Transitional Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Originally published in The Star, 22 September 2005.

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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