Why Does Heritage Matter?


Heritage Day is fast approaching.  Each year we see the braai day specials appearing, and while a good braai is definitely something that is inherently South African, the 24th of September it’s not only National Braai Day but more importantly National Heritage Day. As we said on our recent podcast, how do we keep the fires lit, for those grills we cook on and for those reflecting on our South African Heritage?

South Africa is a pluralistic, multi-cultural society with 12 official languages, many different religions, cultures and tribes. In 1994, we birthed our political democracy, we became the ‘rainbow nation’ but what did this mean in terms of understanding ourselves as South Africans? Does our individual heritage and roots matter for our South African identity? We would argue a resounding yes! Not because we want to hold onto the ways that things were done 50 or 100 years ago, but because we need to create a deeper understanding of what makes us who we are. 

In the adoption space, the lack of understanding of one’s roots is referred to as erasure of history and identity – something that is often discussed when referring to origin or life story work. We recognize that in the adoption space, there is something unspoken and yet overt that happens when people are able to identify to their language and culture of their origin and roots.  It creates and contributes to a sense of who they are.

Language and culture are intertwined – language creates the expression and structure for culture.  Pre- 1994, the majority of people in South Africa’s mother tongue language was not recognized as holding any legal power and by (intentional) default their ethnic culture was not acknowledged – in no way does this mean that it no longer existed or continues.  It does mean that the sense of what helped shape people’s identity was disregarded.  Steve Biko referred to the stripping of people’s identity in the way that their cultural markers, language and way of life were seen as inferior.  So how does this link to the 24th September?

Practically, as South Africans who seek to exist in a multi-cultural country how do we honour our roots and heritage, as a nation as well as individuals? Firstly, we suggest finding a “cultural heritage walking tour” in your area and join it – find out about who, what and how things have evolved in the area. This might trigger some discomfort, or it might make sense of things that didn’t previously make sense.  Things like understanding what the land used for before it became the site of a school, or the CBD of Claremont in Cape Town – who lived there and still identifies as being from there originally?

Secondly, what about our heritage and roots do we own with pride when reflecting historically and what are the things that might be hidden because of historical shame?  For the majority of people their heritage documentation is not accessible, or is not without struggle – our unjust history being the reason why and while much work is being done to restore history, if you are someone whose heritage is known, it’s worth pressing into the empathic space of understanding what it means to not know?

As we lean into these reflections, we also want to propose that beyond just creating a culture of tolerance around the different cultures and roots that make up South Africa, we want to create a culture of mutual respect – something that can only develop out of relationship.  So when it comes time to light your braai, who is braai-ing with you? (Within a Covid-safe manner of course!)

Our heritage doesn’t just speak to the hard, but also to the traditions, values and resilience found in different expressions of song, dance, poetry, food and ritual – how do we respect that – whether it’s the way in which we use language to describe family members or how we celebrate marriages and grieve the loss of loved ones?  Heritage speaks to the rationale beyond renaming of public spaces too – it creates a sense of restoring, of owning and recognizing the people that walked before us – whether it’s a road or a bridge.

So as we prepare to celebrate the long weekend, let’s dig deeper in understanding how our heritage makes us who we are. Let’s recognize the strengths, and the resilience of our past. Let’s lean into understanding those who have different roots, values and traditions and through this we can understand how it plays an important role in our politics, society, business and worldview. As it informs, influences and inspires public debate and policy both directly and indirectly.  This will hopefully unify us through empathy and understanding.

So this 24th of September let’s explore, learn, respect, celebrate, and enjoy!