Celebrating heritage

2008-09-22 00:00

“Heritage” is that which is handed down from the past by tradition. This nation has a remarkable depth and diversity of cultures and ethnicities, something that is both enriching and challenging. One of the mistakes of the past is that those who had political power refused to em-brace this diversity as a distinctive and a shared heritage and instead chose separation and the promotion of the sectional interests of the dominant group.

That folly continues to cast a long shadow, but it is shrinking. The unveiling in Durban of the statue honouring King Dinuzulu is — like the monument to the Zulu warriors at Isandlwana and the memorial to Chief Albert Luthuli near KwaDukuza — a significant step towards redressing the imbalance. Its position adjacent to the statue of Louis Botha, sometime Boer general, first prime minister of the Union of South Africa and the man who released King Dinuzulu from prison, gives it added symbolic significance. Despite the odd similarity of the uniforms they wear, the two leaders represent very different heritages. Neither should be negated, both should be respected, and it is right that they should stand side by side.

It is all the more distressing, therefore, that in renaming Durban’s streets the powers-that-be seem bent on aping the chauvinism of apartheid by rejecting Pietermaritzburg’s sensible example and exchanging one personal name for another. To discard politically neutral and honourable names, such as that of Edwin Swales who displayed extraordinary courage in the war on fascism’s genocidal authoritarianism, and instead to introduce politically charged names and those of foreign ideologues with no link at all to the city or the country, displays an insensitivity tantamount to vindictiveness.

It is right that neglected heritages should be given recognition, but that does not mean the obliteration of one heritage in favour of another. Serving a political agenda in this way can only reinforce the sectionalism and antagonism that bedevils this nation’s history. Group identities are a reality, and each group has the right to rejoice in its own heritage, but also an obligation to respect the heritage of others. The challenge of heritage celebrations is to build sensitivity and tolerance.

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