The month of September has historic significance in the South African context, as it is an opportunity to observe and celebrate our diverse cultural heritage.
September is the beginning of the spring season. Some refer to it as the beginning of a new year, as the first rains are witnessed and plants begin to bloom. It is a period of nurture.
South Africans have commemorated September 24, formerly Shaka Day, as Heritage Day since 1996, a day which some have coined Braai Day.
Depending on which angle you come from, the country also celebrates tourism during the month, thus putting the spotlight on the importance of the sector to the economy. South Africa’s diverse heritage also continues to be a tourist attraction.
Since its existence in 2004, the National Heritage Council of SA (NHC) indicates that it has managed to place heritage as a priority for nation-building and national identity.
The NHC defines heritage as: “What is preserved from the past as the living collective memory of a people not only to inform the present about the past, but also to equip successive generations to fashion their future. It is what creates a sense of identity and assures rootedness and continuity so that what is brought out by dynamism of culture is not changed for its own sake, but it is a result of people’s conscious choice to create a better life.”
Among the many forms through which we celebrate our collective heritage are South African national symbols, including the coat of arms or state emblem with the motto: “!ke e: /xarra //ke”, significantly written in the Khoisan language of the /Xam people, meaning “diverse people unite”.
The diversity and unity in our national symbols was recently confronted by the #ChangeForHer campaign challenging President Cyril Ramaphosa to ensure that women are represented on the coat of arms. The campaign, which was started by Newzroom Afrika, gained momentum during Women’s Month and called for national symbols to ensure inclusivity.
The hope is that changing for her will also be a firm commitment towards and prioritisation of bringing an end to the scourge of gender-based violence.
The 1955 vision to build a South Africa that belongs to all those who live in it regardless of race, colour or sex should be used by the architects of our new Constitution and democracy as a springboard for measurable change.
The days of talk shops should be left behind.
On June 26 1955, men and women from all corners of the country converged in Kliptown, Soweto, under the banner of the Congress of the People to craft the glorious rainbow nation of our dreams.
As the country celebrates Heritage Month, the questions that remain are: How far have we come and is there success in coexisting in our diversity?
It is in our hands to continue building and moulding a rainbow nation that appreciates and nurtures the diverse cultures which exist in the country and nation of our dreams.
Let the spring season usher in a rainbow nation that we desperately need to propel South Africa forward post the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. As we move forward, it is important that we succeed in building an understanding that no race is superior or inferior to another. The twin evils of racism and tribalism must never be allowed to derail the dream of a country united in its diversity.
As late musician, civil rights activist and songwriter Miriam Makeba once said: “Be careful, think about the effect of what you say. Your words should be constructive, bring people together, not pull them apart.”
Pertinent questions that still need to be answered as we search for that elusive rainbow nation include: Have we succeeded in using education, sport, arts and culture and economic development to build and foster a rainbow nation of our time? What are the impediments and what do we do to navigate through?
Even as South Africa moves forward, there are those among us who still want to engage in acts of racial discrimination and who continue to cling to the past. But let us recognise the current flag as our common heritage instead of hoisting old flags, let us be united in singing the national anthem and let us all embrace multilingualism and multiculturalism.
Late Indian lawyer, politician, social activist, and writer Mahatma Gandhi put it in his speech in Johannesburg on May 18 1908 that: “If we look into the future [of South Africa], is it not a heritage we have to leave to posterity, that all the different races commingle and produce a civilisation that perhaps the world has not yet seen?”
The government has rightfully created an enabling environment for diverse people to coexist, through the promulgation of relevant legislative prescripts such as the Constitution and other laws. It, however, remains our individual responsibility to embrace each other.
As late anti-apartheid activist Oliver Tambo said in his speech at Georgetown University in Washington DC, US, on January 27 1987: “It is our responsibility to break down barriers of division and create a country where there will be neither whites nor blacks, just South Africans, free and united in diversity.”
It is time that we build on our rich cultural heritage to foster a rainbow nation of our dreams.