Don your doek this Heritage Month

2011-09-03 20:53

September is Heritage Month in South Africa and many of us will be anticipating the inevitable commentaries about identity, culture and nationhood that are likely to dominate the newspapers and the depths of cyberspace as Heritage Day approaches.

The racially charged mood created by earlier comments about the “oversupply” of coloured people in some parts of the country and a certain column that subscribed to negative stereotypes attached to coloured women will undoubtedly ensure that debates about coloured people’s heritage, sense of identity and belonging feature more prominently than usual.

To set the tone for the debate about the claims that members of this community can lay to a sense of belonging in South Africa, may I make an appeal to readers to engage in some small act this September to remind themselves of one of the most shameful periods in South Africa’s admittedly dark history: the period of slavery at the Cape between 1654 and 1838?

I propose wearing a “do-rag”, “doek” or some other head-covering this Heritage Day or perhaps every Friday in the run-up to Heritage Day (one that complements the Bok jersey that we are being encouraged to wear, of course), or observing a moment’s silence alone or in groups of friends, family or fellow believers.

Slaves often wore rags about their heads in symbolic defiance of regulations that only slaves of a certain status could wear a hat in public.

Many readers will appreciate the irony of observing a “silence rule” reminiscent of those contained in the infamous Tulbagh Code to commemorate slavery.

“But I am not coloured and none of my ancestors were slave owners”, one might protest.

However valid this argument appears, it is pointed out that the collective memory of a nation is not restricted to simple rules of majority or breadth. Rather, it derives from the perception that this or that event or experience has shaped the nation’s character in a profound way and continues to do so.

In support of this assertion, consider that most Americans are not descendants of the early colonialists who celebrated the First Thanksgiving. Neither do all Israelis claim descent from Holocaust survivors for that matter.

“Why drag up the past again?” one might ask. Acknowledging a people’s history of oppression is also a way of celebrating its resilience. Doing so offers a beacon of hope for all citizens in a society that sorely needs it.

Remembrance also enhances our understanding of current events by placing them in a particular context.

Would not the events that have come to be associated with World Aids Day (December 1) become more poignant for all South Africans if we were informed that this was the date on which slaves were emancipated in 1834?

Would not a deeper appreciation of slaves’ yearning for freedom reverberate among those who today lead the call for “economic freedom”?

Yet perhaps the greatest reason to remember slavery is also the saddest – continued reports of human trafficking and forced labour indicate that slavery is not the historical footnote most believe it to be.

Insofar as recalling our slave past acts as a powerful reminder that the struggle to rid humanity of this scourge is not over, it may provide the necessary exhortation to double our efforts to do so.

In closing, small gestures that recall this tragic episode in South Africa’s history are unlikely to offer insights into the topical debate surrounding coloured people’s sense of national inclusion, let alone the overarching debate about what exactly defines this community.

Nor do they address the question of whether this community has come to terms with this legacy, or question how we as a nation have dealt with slavery and its effects.

What they can do is offer cause for ordinary citizens to pause to reflect in a meaningful way on what slavery has done to the psyche of our nation and on how extreme levels of economic inequality lead to the perpetuation of hierarchies characterised by vastly unequal power relations.

Few would disagree that therein lies important lessons for all South Africans, those of slave descent or not.

If for no other reasons but these, I will don a “doek” this Heritage Month. Will you?

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