Rhodes is part of our history but not heritage to be celebrated

2015-03-30 06:00

» 20 years of freedom

As we grapple with the issue of the Cecil John Rhodes statue and its fate, we should not forget that this is all happening during Human Rights Month.

The major highlights of the celebrations of Human Rights Day included the reburial of two struggle stalwarts Moses Kotane and John Beaver Marks, who were the architects of the society we now live in.

Both were freedom fighters and internationalists who were, in principle and deed, committed to fighting inequality and injustice throughout the world. Above all, they were determined to eradicating colonialism and its legacy in our society.

Their reburial on African soil marks a turning point in our history and heritage and begins to offer us pointers about where we come from and where we want to go as a society.

The example of their lives, work and struggle are perhaps one of the reasons why we have chosen the theme to be “Celebrating the Freedom Charter, Enjoying Human Rights for All”.

In its own way, the theme speaks to us moving the country forward by building a society based on constitutional rights.

Thus we strongly encourage all South Africans to take the opportunity to reflect, at an individual and community level, on the significant life-changing transformation that the country has been experiencing since the dawn of this new era.

It is also indeed true that various individuals, organisations, communities and sectors of our society have a positive story to tell about the progress made since 1994 in promoting and preserving the heritage of this country. This is a different country to what it was before the dawn of democracy.

» The contestation

The transformation of the colonial heritage landscape is one of the biggest challenges we face today. Redefining the soul of this nation, defining a new identity, renaming geographic features and building new monuments and heritage sites to honour our legitimate historical figures should rally us together.

Yet as fellow South Africans we should, presumably, understand who we are, where we come from and where we are going. It is time we make it clear what we mean by heritage in this beautiful land that far too many cannot yet enjoy because of the legacy of colonialism and apartheid.

At the centre of the debate about heritage is the contestation between two cultural forces that have shaped the character and identity of the South Africa that we live in today: the colonial cultural landscape and the struggle of a New South African heritage landscape in the making.

The colonial and apartheid cultural landscapes have tried but failed to wipe off the African heritage that existed before 1652. Our languages and indigenous African knowledge systems, customs and traditions, among others, continue to exist.

As Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o has aptly captured it: “Africa uncritically imbibed values that were alien and had no immediate relevance to her people. The richness of Africa’s cultural heritage degraded, and her people labelled as primitive and savage.”

A figure like Rhodes exemplifies this.

The advent of Western imperialism and cultural domination has, over three centuries, certainly coopted and created opportunities for Africans who were willing to turn their backs on their African identity, culture and heritage.

» Heritage

But we should define our heritage as the dreams of our visionaries, leaders and intellectuals like Kotane and Marks, for example, to move us forward.

In fact, we who live today stand at the vast pyramid of African self-determination and struggle, slowly but surely accumulated through the many long struggles against colonialism and apartheid. We are the living link, the African heritage that they have ever dreamt, thought of, fought and died for.

Today when we face what is probably the greatest challenge humankind has ever known – to give the world a human face or ubuntu – it is very important to draw a distinction between history and heritage. The two terms are misunderstood, confused and sometimes used interchangeably.

» History

History is the remembrance, recording or account of everything that has happened in the past.

The colonial prism has overdetermined how we look at the imperialist role of Cecil John Rhodes, for example, where he is considered a product of his times when his actions led to the murder, exploitation and land dispossession of African people. It would seem his outrageous actions are now blindspotted out of history deliberately.

But not all history, especially distortion, is heritage. Heritage is the principles, ideals, personalities and institutions that we consciously select to transmit from the past because they help move us forward.

We cannot consider the history of violent oppression, dispossession, land loss, prejudice and exclusion of fellow human beings as part of our heritage to be celebrated.

The advent of Rhodes or the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, for example, is history but it can never be part of our heritage.

Thus we choose to define our heritage as visionary pronouncements that have helped us move forward as exemplified by those great sons of the soil such as Kotane, Marks, Robert Sobukwe, Bram Fischer, Beyers Naudé, Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela.

In fact, the vision of these architects of the struggle was elaborated in forward-looking documents such as the African Bill of Rights of 1923, African Claims of 1943, in the declarative principles of the Freedom Charter of 1955 … in the Constitutional Guidelines of 1989 … in the 1989 Harare Declaration … and culminated in the pledges of the world renowned Constitution of the Republic of South Africa in 1996.

» Human rights for all

As the theme for this year says, the stories of legendary figures like iconic stalwarts Kotane and Marks, to name a few, should be used to galvanise all our people to promote our new values and constitutional principles.

These stories should be used to examine ideological issues and to situate their personal choices and sacrifices within the ongoing struggle for a truly just and equal society opposed to everything that colonialism stood for.

We can only understand ourselves when we know who we are and where we come from. Above all, we must know who our real heroes are.

The narratives of these outstanding individuals have laid the foundation not only for our heritage but also to inspire all of us, especially the youth, to do and say what will move South Africa forward.

The individual sites and monuments that have been identified and built over the last 20 years have been introduced as part of transforming the heritage landscape.

There is no doubt that men like Rhodes subjected Africans to a certain type of cruelty. To move forward we will need to focus on individuals that symbolise resistance to oppression in all forms. These are part of the larger movement towards a just and equal society.

The renaming of Johannesburg International Airport to OR Tambo International Airport is quite significant and has such symbolism only to be paralleled by the likes of JFK International Airport in New York and Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris. It is a fitting tribute for a colossus of our revolution.

Think of the a larger-than-life statue of former president Nelson Mandela at the Union Buildings lawns, the symbolism of the triumph of the human spirit in Robben Island and the erection of the statue of Inkosi Bhambhata in Greytown.

» New South Africa

Let us use the protest over the statue of Rhodes to rediscover and reconnect with what is our heritage to begin a programme where we pay tribute to the heroes and heroines of our people from the precolonial epoch to the liberation heritage.

But it needs to be emphasised that the government’s attitude and policy to all heritage sites including statues of former oppressors like Rhodes, among others, is based on a national policy of reconciliation, nation building and social cohesion.

Much as we come from a conflicted past, we are determined to move towards a common future. This will begin with an important distinction between history and heritage and, at the same time, reconcile all heroic figures with the values and principles of the new Constitution and where we want to go as a society.

We have to be seen to be charting the peculiar contours of the individuals and organisations that were part of shaping the road to becoming.

As poet Aimé Césaire says in his poem Return to my Native Land: “There is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory.”

Rhodes is history but our heritage should belong to us all and should be a source of our pride – and not division – as South Africans.

» Nathi Mthethwa is the minister of arts and culture

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.