Heritage Day or Mocking Day?

2012-09-21 20:08

Heritage Day! Should we celebrate it by having a braai or attend a political rally? Or should we rather value it as an opportunity to learn more about one’s own heritage and that of our fellow citizens and conscientise others to that effect?

With having some friends over for a braai or attending a political rally is certainly nothing wrong. However if conversations during the braai degenerate into racist mocking and when political rallies are used to verbally attack or insult specific groupings in the hope to score political points, than the very essence of what Heritage Day is all about is turned into a farce. Then it becomes Mocking Day!

Valuing Heritage Day as an opportunity to celebrate our diverse heritages is what this day is all about. Moreover it’s an opportunity to learn more about one’s own heritage and that of others. Knowing one’s own heritage and studying one’s countries’ history in particular foster self-pride and lay the foundation for mutual understanding and respect. These are the virtues that bring people closer to each other, that foster social cohesion and inspire people to strive towards a shared heritage. This is the ideal we should all strive for.

It starts however with a keen interest in one’s heritage and a scholarly approach towards history. For too long distorted historical perspectives dominated the educational domain and many of us were made to believe that indigenous people were inferior and that they were barbaric. This up to today continues to influence our thinking about and even our behaviour towards each other.

In a fascinating account of the highly organised way of life and wealth of indigenous people, Olfert Dapper [1688], William Ten Rhyne [1686] and Johannes Guilielmus de Grevenbroek [1695] has the following to say about the Kochoqua people of the Western Cape:

“The Kochoquas are called Saldanhars by our country¬men, because, they have always dwelt mostly near and in the valleys of Saldanha Bay. They settled in fifteen or sixteen different villages, about a quarter of an hour’s distance from one another. Each village consisted of thirty, thirty-six, forty or fifty huts, all placed in a circle a little distance apart. The Saldanhars for safety kept their cattle in the centre of the village at night. They also owned a large collection of cattle, well over a hundred thousand in number and about two hundred thousand sheep, which instead of wool have longish coloured hair on the body”.

What a revelation! Sadly this was not what I learned at school, instead we were taught that the Khoi were nomads who lived in squalor, that they were so gullible as to exchange their cattle for a piece of tobacco and that they were thieves and aggressors.

In another account by the young Swede, Anders Sparrman who also travelled into the interior of the Cape, between 1772 and 1776, he provided us with valuable insights into the life of mixed Khoi and IsiXhosa community who lived at the Little Sundays-river in the Eastern Cape. He wrote the following:

“We announced ourselves… and were received by them with a friendly simplicity and homely freedom, which, however, by no means lessened them in our thoughts as men. They presented us with milk and danced at our request; at the same time giving us to understand, that our fame, as being a singular people with plaited hair, as well as flower-collectors and viper-catchers, had reached them long before our arrival”.

What an equally fascinating story about a people who receive strangers in their midst with high regard, warmth and humility and an account that dispels not only the set perceptions of them as a bloodthirsty and violent horde, but that induces the need for us as South Africans not only to celebrate our particular heritage, but our shared heritage as well. This for me is critical.

Because, only then will we discover that our past is not only about who conquered, disowned, slaughtered and oppressed whom, but that our past is also about each and every person’s and communities’ contribution towards developing this country and the umbilical cord they share in this respect. This is what Heritage Day should in equal measures be about!

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