We must celebrate our heritage in its entirety, even those aspects that make us uncomfortable, writes BUYILE SANGOLEKHAYA-MATIWANE
As we mark the end of Heritage month, we once again reflect and ask what exactly we are celebrating. Some have turned the public holiday into a braai day, but one really only does a braai when one is celebrating. So even if we are braaing, what is the occasion?
Very few people know that 24 September was first called King Shaka day. That day recalled one of the greatest African statesmen and warriors. In fact, commentator Fred Kumalo once wrote that even though people were materially poor, King Shaka and Cetshawyo, after him, were able to leave people with a strong sense of history, a strong sense of dignity.
King Shaka certainly epitomises our heritage as does King Phalo, and his son Rharhabe, Moshoeshoe, King Ndebele and Chief Molope, and so many other brave men who fought battles. Yet dare we downplay the role of women, such as Nongqawuse who ensured that Chief Sarili kaHintsa fulfilled the prophecy of the cattle-killing.
Our children should know of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe which existed in around the year 1075 and lasted only eight decades ultimately leading to the great Kingdom of Zimbabwe. “Hill of the Jackals”, as it was known, lay south to Great Zimbabwe. For the first time in the history of humankind, a stone wall was used in Mapungubwe in order to delineate significant areas. These areas included sites for initiation ceremonies, household activities, and other social activities.
We are also fortunate enough to host in our country, correctly as our heritage and the heritage of our species, the ‘Cradle of Humankind”. Here, Mrs. Ples was discovered, a 2.3-million-year-old fossil. This discovery followed that of the Taung child. Nearby cave sites also confirm the discovery of skeletons of homo Naledi, the species before homo sapiens, commonly today known as human beings.
We have a history that could be traced back to the year 1000 when Bantu expansions were taking place so that by the time the first European settlers landed at the Cape in the late 1400’s the Khoi and the San people’s hand already been incorporated into the Bantu speaking groups.
As our researchers, and our students, in particular, continue to investigate our heritage pre-1652, when everything went wrong, we have to recognise, as a country and as a people, that we can never eliminate the influence and the role played by our colonial masters in shaping our destiny hitherto.
Colonialism and later apartheid brought with it utter destruction and devastation. In its wake, civilisations were destroyed and as Western hegemony sought to influence the world, so too were native cultures downplayed and obliterated. This undermining of culture either happened overtly or subtly. The worse overt operation was the genocide perpetrated against the Khoi and San people in the Cape as well as the degradation done to eastern cultures through the slave trade.
One of the tenets of apartheid was that it was the responsibility of the White man to be the custodian or interpreter of African culture. A kind of continuation of the practice of the colonial masters appointing African chiefs, the apartheid leaders believed that it was they who determined what was truly Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele etc. African culture was, therefore, frowned upon and seen as subservient to that of Western culture. Little wonder why some see the positives of colonialism today.
Recently, three movies hit the circuit which, one may suggest, speak to our heritage as a nation. Krotoa depicts the story of that young Khoi woman who tried to mediate between the new Dutch settlers and her people, the Khoi. A learned woman of her age, Krotoa was able to play the role as interpreter. Eventually, she proved to all of us, including colonialism and apartheid, that love knows no boundaries. As a result, she had to balance between love of her people and the love she developed.
Kalushi tells the story of a brave young man, Kalushi Solomon Mahlangu. A freedom fighter and soldier of the people’s army, Umkhonto we Sizwe. Mahlangu was the son of a domestic worker and had become active after the Soweto uprisings. He had received training in Angola and eventually came back to South Africa on a mission in 1977. After a shoot-out and the deaths of two people, Mahlangu was convicted and hanged. His dying words are part of our heritage today: Tell my people that I love them and that they must continue the fight, my blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom, Aluta Continua.
The third movie was a bit more controversial. Inxeba The Wound goes into the very heart of cultural practices. While some cultural leaders condemned the movie here at home, the New York Times described the movie as ‘unsettling’ and ‘austere’ for different reasons. The paper went on to note that the initiation school is viewed as a prison while emphasis is placed on the ‘explosive feelings’ that emerge in all of the characters. What is important to highlight, no matter which side of the debate one is on is the sacredness of both areas of sexuality and culture.
For many South Africans identity comes either through history, ethnicity, race, culture or even sexuality. This is our heritage as a nation. What our liberal democracy enjoins us to do is to question taboos, on the one hand, but also respectfully acknowledge the sacredness of people’s identity. Some may dismiss this as identity politics but fundamentally all of us want to be able to identify ourselves and the many aspects that shape that identity.
Sadly, the legacy of colonialism and apartheid continues to linger and often incidences of racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination rare their ugly heads. We must recognise that as much as Mrs. Ples or the Cradle of Humankind or even the beautiful landscape of our country is part of our heritage, so too is our diversity as a people, a strength and part of our heritage.
The challenge is to ensure that we braai not only with the people who are like us or whom we feel comfortable with, our friends and family, but that we cross barriers and start braaing with people who are different to us. Once we have achieved that ability to move out of our echo chambers, then only can we appreciate our heritage as a country.
Sangolekhaya-Matiwane is Provincial Chairperson of SASCO in the Western Cape. This article first appeared in the RealPolitik.