Minister Nathi Mthethwa dedicates heritage month to ‘South Africa’s living human treasures’

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Dr Esther Mahlangu is a visual artist who, after learning and mastering how to paint Ndebele motifs from women in her family, transferred the practice from walls to canvas. (Photo by Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Dr Esther Mahlangu is a visual artist who, after learning and mastering how to paint Ndebele motifs from women in her family, transferred the practice from walls to canvas. (Photo by Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
  • This Heritage month the Department of Sports and Culture is honouring national treasures by publishing their books.
  • Living human treasures refer to the carriers and protectors of South Africa’s indigenous knowledge systems.
  • Figures who are being celebrated include Dr Esther Mahlangu, Madosini Latozi Mpahleni and Ouma Katrina Esau.


The week starting on 7 September 2020 marks the commencement of Heritage Month. This year the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture will observe the month under the theme “celebrating South Africa’s living human treasures”. Under this banner, living human treasures refer to the carriers and protectors of South Africa’s indigenous knowledge systems. To announce the department’s plans its minister, Nathi Mthethwa addressed the public. 

According to the minister, national programs around holidays like Heritage Day exist as a platform to “right the colonial and apartheid wrongs” while ensuring that those whose significant contributions were rendered invisible are brought to the fore and adequately archived. 

To celebrate carriers of knowledge, Mthethwa says the department will increase efforts toward ensuring that suppressed (indigenous) forms of knowledge are acknowledged and supported throughout September and beyond. After acknowledging the aesthetics (whether visual, lingual or sonic) that come with spotlighting indigenous knowledge systems, the minister then went on to add how these systems have the potential to contribute toward the country’s economy. 

As a part of the department's indigenous knowledge system-focused heritage program, the department is said to launch three books by three women that minister Mthethwa says have “distinguished themselves in their chosen fields… putting South Africa on the map”. These women are Dr Esther Mahlangu (visual artist), Madosini Latozi Mpahleni (musician) and Ouma Katrina Esau (anti-linguicide activist). 

About the “living human treasures”

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 1 : South Afric
Dr Esther Mahlangu pictured here exhibiting her paintings at Melrose Art Gallery in 2017. Esther Mahlangu is the first African person and female to design a BMW 525i which was painted with typical motifs of the Ndebele tribe. (Photo by Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Dr Esther Mahlangu is a visual artist who, after learning and mastering how to paint Ndebele motifs from women in her family, transferred the practice from walls to canvas. Apart from the work she is commissioned to do, Mahlangu preserves the indigenous process — of mixing pigment and painting straight lines, freehanded, using one’s fingers or chicken feathers — by teaching it at the art school she runs in Mabhoko in the KwaMhlanga district of Mpumalanga. 


National treasure Madosini is the National Arts Fe
National treasure Madosini was the National Arts Festival's featured artist for 2020. (Photo: Simphiwe Nkwali/ Gallo Images)

Madosini Latozi Mpahleni is a musician,composer, instrument-maker and storyteller. With a practice rooted in oral tradition, she has preserved music indigenous to Xhosa folk through her use of instruments like uhadi, umrhubhe and isitolotolo. 


Ouma Katarina Esau is one of two remaining N|uu sp
Ouma Katarina Esau is one of two remaining N|uu speakers. (Photo: Supplied)

Ouma Katrina Esau is a N|uu preservationist. Believed to be more than 25 000 years old N|uu is spoken by San people and the oldest language indigenous to South Africa. Since the apartheid government prohibitted its use, Esau and her siblings have actively been involved in preserving the language. She runs an informal school where she teaches children in her Upington-based community N|uu vocabulary and pronunciation.

Over and above celebrating the country’s cultural diversity, Mthethwa says the department’s Heritage Month activations will also address gender-based violence. By being “forceful and unequivocal” about the department’s stance against GBV, Mthethwa says he hopes “that these messages against GBV and femicide… may overtime lead to positive behavioral change, especially with our menfolk”.

Click here to read the minister’s full address. 



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