It starts at home

2017-09-17 06:06
South Africans get into the swing of things and adorn themselves in the colours, clothing and defining features of their respective cultures. The ideal time to show off their moves and wear their regalia is in September, when the nation celebrates Heritage Month.

South Africans get into the swing of things and adorn themselves in the colours, clothing and defining features of their respective cultures. The ideal time to show off their moves and wear their regalia is in September, when the nation celebrates Heritage Month. (Litaletu Zidepa)

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SA has come a long way since only a few were allowed to give culturalexpression to their heritage, while the customs of the majority were not even recognised. Dumisane Lubisi catches up with Sonwabile Mancotywa, head of the National Heritage Council.

After reading a note that his grandson brought home from his preschool in Pretoria, a grandfather was infuriated. He went to the school the next morning to discuss it with the teachers. In their note, the teachers wrote that the five-year-old’s command of English was bad because he was not practising the language regularly at home.

“I went to the school,” recounts the grandfather.

“We spoke frankly, without fighting, and I asked what the problem was. The teachers wanted me to speak English frequently at home with my grandson.

“I told them: ‘We have a contract. My contract with you is that you must teach my child what I cannot teach him at home. I cannot teach him English, I teach him my identity. You teach him English. So, it means that you are not doing well at this social contract [if his command of English is poor]. I am doing well by teaching him isiXhosa, his identity – because away [from home], he won’t learn isiXhosa except from me.’”

At Sonwabile Mancotywa’s home in Tshwane, his family speak isiXhosa. This is the rule. After all, he is South Africa’s chief custodian of our heritage.

Mancotywa is the chief executive officer (CEO) of the National Heritage Council of SA, a post he has held since its inception in 2004.

He says the role of parents in preserving culture and heritage cannot be relegated to government and to schools. Parents must play a meaningful role in teaching their children what they cannot learn in school, where different races meet.

As the country celebrates Heritage Month, culminating in Heritage Day on September 24, Mancotywa has called on parents to contribute to the preservation of culture and heritage. “Before we [parents] cry to government ... I wish to sound a warning to them during Heritage Month – you parents are killing society; you are killing the future. Our kids are interacting with children from other cultures, be they Mexican or Italian. They do not forget their cultures.

“One day, your kid will be so annoyed at you and so angry, and will ask you this: ‘What is our culture?’

“And you will say: ‘We are Pedis.’

“But they will ask: ‘Why don’t we speak Sepedi at home, because I don’t know Sepedi?’

“That child will be so naked and it will be so late to teach them the language at that stage. Before we talk against government, let us instil this pride in ourselves,” he says, adding that the issue of heritage concerns all South Africans.

He points to the distorted way in which our national carrier, SAA, is promoting South Africa’s languages, saying it applies the vernacular inappropriately at times.

“For instance, the SAA crew will say ‘Hambani kahle’ [Zulu for goodbye] in Limpopo, instead of using the Sepedi, Xitsonga or Tshivenda greeting.

“Or, when you land in East London, it is appropriate to speak in isiXhosa and say Nihambe kakuhle,” he says. “That way, we can move from preserving to developing and popularising our languages.”

Mancotywa says this issue has been included in the council’s Heritage Transformation Charter, which serves as a regulatory framework to transform the heritage sector and calls on various stakeholders to play their part to promote heritage.

Highs and lows over 13 years

Looking back to when he started at the council 13 years ago – it was just him and a secretary, working on a temporary basis – Mancotywa says much work has been done, but much more can still be achieved.

With the exception of Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape, where partnerships have been formed to tell the histories of those provinces, Mancotywa says the notion of heritage as a socioeconomic driver has not been taken up by all spheres of government, though it should be.

He points out the positive spinoffs after research was done by the council in tracing the history of the Makhonjwa Mountains in Mpumalanga and the wars of dispossession in the Eastern Cape. These studies are now part of the cultural tourism and growth development strategies in these provinces.

“I would love for each province to have partnerships where we tell its history and related stories,” he adds.

Our vast heritage

Mancotywa laments the lack of a comprehensive audit of all artefacts, sites and properties that have contributed to the country’s rich history, saying we need to ensure that these are preserved and protected from theft.

He expresses concern that the country is constantly losing parts of its heritage, and attributes this to the lack of training provided to law enforcement agencies regarding what constitutes heritage. As a result, customs officials, who know no better, have allowed many artefacts to be taken out of the country.

Mancotywa has proposed that an information portal be set up showing all that constitutes heritage. This could help law enforcement agencies and customs officials identify which artefacts must remain here. The portal could also show the locations of all our important historic sites.

Mancotywa may soon see his proposal come to fruition. Recently, the SA Heritage Resources Agency conducted an audit of artefacts in three cities – Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Cape Town. While it was not done nationwide, Mancotywa makes mention of a memorandum of understanding recently signed by the council and the National Tourism Authority to digitise those properties that are part of our heritage. This, he says, is a step in the right direction.

Once digitised, the heritage sites could be classified in a way that facilitates research and serve as a valuable addition for tourists to find places they want to visit.

Legacy projects

A project that Mancotywa would like to see realised is one he has worked on for the past two years. It concerns the so-called Mandela Routes, comprising a series of sites that are key to South Africa’s liberation struggle history – including journeys taken by former president Nelson Mandela during apartheid. It has been sent to UN cultural agency Unesco for consideration as a World Heritage Site.

Mancotywa says the project, in essence, tells the story of the fight against the oppressive apartheid system. The idea is for local and international tourists to look at the Mandela Routes map and decide which sites linked to liberation they would like to visit across the country.

“I would love to achieve that,” he says, adding that there is support for the project.

Another project he plans to see realised countrywide is the turning of sacred spaces, which are largely unknown to the public, into strategic development nodes. This can attract people to the sacred space and boost the economy for the communities living there.

Mancotywa decries the fact that tourists pay a tourism levy for their stays in hotels, B&Bs and guesthouses, but no heritage levy is charged. Part of the tourism levy should go towards maintaining heritage sites as our fiscus cannot afford to fund heritage maintenance.

“Heritage is an input factor for tourism, while tourism is the output,” he says.

Back to the formation stage

In 2004, the heritage of most citizens was not recognised in the not-so-new South Africa. This prompted the council to convene a summit to hear people’s thoughts on heritage. The Heritage Transformation Charter was born and became the blueprint for the sector.

The charter advocates development planning to “encapsulate the minimum and maximum demands of the sector – determining what we need across the sector [in terms of tangibles and intangibles], as well as place names, indigenous knowledge, the economics of heritage and how to commercialise heritage”.

At the summit, people called for transformation to ensure representation, as well as for the purpose of using heritage as a strategic resource for nation building.

“The African voice had been silent for too long. People were silent, so their heritage was not part of the public discourse in the public arena. Their names were not there, while the names of oppressors were there. There was a lack of transformation,” says Mancotywa.

But he is all too aware that the journey to entrench heritage is not a one-day or a month-long celebration.

“We need to live our heritage every day,” he says.

A brief biography

  • Born in Ross Mission in Mthatha, Eastern Cape.
  • Worked as a labourer after matriculating. Was pulled off a bus that was transporting men from the Eastern Cape to Gauteng’s mines. This, after revealing his age and the fact that he had matriculated.
  • He ended up working as a clerk for the employment bureau representing the mines until he got a bursary to study law at the University of Transkei (Unitra).
  • He became involved in ANC structures while working as a labourer and a clerk.
  • His love for culture blossomed at university, where he was a founding member of the Unitra Cultural Society.
  • Did his articles at Mthatha Legal Advice Centre (now the Mthatha Justice Centre).
  • Joined the ANC Youth League and served in its provincial executive.
  • Served on the inaugural Eastern Cape legislature as an MPL before being appointed as an MEC a year later.
  • In 2003, he left politics and legal services for a post at the department of public enterprises, where he oversaw the legislation establishing the national lottery.
  • Was appointed CEO of the National Heritage Council of SA in 2004, which he started from scratch.
  • Co-led and developed the Africa Position Paper, which he presented to UN cultural agency Unesco at a conference it held in Durban in 2005.
  • Was part of a team that established the Africa World Heritage Fund, which seeks to ensure that Africa’s heritage is properly represented internationally.
  • In 2006, he established Ubuntu Honour, which seeks to integrate ubuntu as a philosophy in the public domain.
  • He is a health fanatic who loves aerobics and soccer.
  • There is a history of diabetes in his family. He was hit hard by the death of his father – a diabetic – which occurred when Mancotywa had served as MPL for just two months.
  • He is a single parent of five, a grandfather, a die-hard Orlando Pirates fan and an avid reader of the works of Shakespeare, Amílcar Cabral, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Senegalese scholar Anta Diop.
  • He loves Rastafarian music and also enjoys listening to musos Ringo, Brenda Fassie and Yvonne Chaka Chaka, as well as new kids on the block Nathi and Amanda Black.

In partnership with the National Heritage Council


What is your heritage and how do you celebrate Heritage Day?

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SMS us on 35697 using the keyword HERITAGE and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

Read more on:    heritage day

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