Growing Pains: The untold personal stories of heritage

2013-09-30 10:00

On Saturday I visited my grandmother’s family home in the Eastern Cape.

Members of her family travelled from far and near for a ceremony in honour of her mother, who had passed on in the ­heyday of her youth, shortly after having brought her youngest into the world.

The story of this young lass and her young husband who also died, long before turning grey, from a lung infection contracted in the mines of Johannesburg is one that I likely would not have known if it wasn’t for two things – one, a dogged determination by my grandparents’ biographer (a.k.a. mum), who for a decade researched and documented their story and, two, a simple question: What can be done to mark Heritage Day?

The question was first posed by a friend and fellow Cheesekid a few years back.

To answer it, we arranged what we called a ­Heritage Tour of Lilliesleaf, Constitutional Hill, the Apartheid Museum, Hector Pieterson Museum and finally ended up with drinks at Sakhumzi’s on the world-famous Vilakazi Street in Orlando West, Soweto.

Most of us were shocked at just how little we knew of our own history. The tour gave us a better sense of our current context, something we’d been taking for granted.

The following year, I embarked on a more personal tour, of the homesteads of my ­paternal grandparents – from the places they grew up to the places their parents grew up in.

I took off much of September to do this and, with the help of relatives, traced back some of my ancestors eight generations up. It was truly enriching – knowing where I come from. I also appreciated life in the rural areas in a way that my being a city slicker would have little opportunity to discover.

I returned more grounded, more self­assured. All thanks to this “Heritage Day”.

Seemingly, if some South Africans have their way, all that my own grandchildren will be inspired to explore on this day are new recipes – as if we don’t have food channels for that.

This week I blogged about my feelings on the erosion of Heritage Day and after yesterday’s visit to Xolobe, with its rolling hills, and melodic Xhosa that rolls off the locals’ tongues, I am more convinced of the folly of us allowing this erosion to continue. Someone go tell Jan Braai to make his (new) name on something else – not the supplanting of our various cultures with chunks of grilled meat.

Speaking of erosion, have you not been struck by the disintegration of labour relations in South Africa of late? I’m not talking about the bun-fight in our biggest union federation, but the fact that South Africa is now, according to the World Economic Forum, leading the world in labour-employer relations from the bottom up! Yup, we rank 148 out of 148 ­countries in this index.

While this is no doubt built on our ­heritage of exploitation, degradation and ­ill-treatment of workers, the mines are the first to place black workers into compounds, chaining them and daily checking their ­buttocks for diamonds.

Meanwhile, many a whipped black farm labourer could recall just a few months prior being an independent sharecropper, able to farm for himself and sell the surplus.

While some of us think the ongoing raft of strike action is normal and acceptable even, it speaks to a deeply entrenched legacy of inequality, mistrust and aggression ­between workers and bosses.

It’s time for the labour ministry to step in and call for a Social Pax –?a labour peace – one in which they can negotiate a rolling five-year inflation-linked salary increase across different sectors. This will give much-needed certainty to both business owners and ­employees.

Only through concrete and well­considered steps can we protect and even reform our heritage where necessary.

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