Shining a light on the 26th commemoration of Heritage Day in the Rainbow Nation
Writer: Phoebe Harper
Defined as ‘something that is handed down from the past; as a tradition’, heritage is a key cultural component of any national identity. It is a concept pinned to the elements of a country that will be left to the next generation; a rich jigsaw composed of national monuments, natural beauty, literature, music and oral traditions.
For South Africa, this notion is distilled into an annual occasion that grips the country in a series of events, festivities and social gatherings, as the 24th of September heralds the annual celebration of Heritage Day.
An official public holiday, Heritage Day was officially first implemented in 1995 in honour of the country’s variety and wealth in terms of ‘intangible cultural heritage’, or what is commonly referred to as ’living heritage’.
Indeed, as the ‘Rainbow Nation’, South Africa is renowned for the wealth of its diversity, standing as the cultural umbrella to unite a vast array of nationalities since its settlement. The country’s symbolic moniker was first coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in recognition of the many customs, traditions, histories and languages that call South Africa home.
In acknowledgement of the socially advantageous connotations of these cultural touchpoints, the South African government instils a sense of participation amongst the population, none more so than by sharing in a welcome day off work. This is also reflected across the nation’s schools and institutions, where Heritage Day is truly championed as a catalyst for nation building.
Education is the true cornerstone behind preserving these traditions, as the younger generations and wider community become imbued with the significance of their country’s culture. By instilling this sense of social cohesion amongst children in the early stages of learning, a natural respect and appreciation of difference lays the foundation for overcoming racial and social barriers that ultimately contributes to the sustainability of the country.
The occasion is spearheaded by the government-led South African Department of Arts and Culture, who organise annual events and meetings each year pinned to a central theme. In 2013, the department developed a draft policy concerning living heritage that sets the tone for the South African agenda, designed to highlight the role of ‘safeguarding living heritage as a valuable resource for future generations.’
On the day itself and throughout the month of September, South Africans are encouraged to turn to those members of the community who benefit from the wisdom of history and experience in sharing their stories, skills and knowledge to ensure the continuation of cultural legacy.
With commemorative events being held across the country, Heritage Day plays an in integral role in fostering further social cohesion by means of unification under celebration. The very process of joining together in recognition of the country’s history and values contributes to the dissemination and reinforcement of a shared identity, laying the foundations for nation building.
Nevertheless, as a country that has no less than eleven official languages, and a contentious history as a former settler colony, the question of whose heritage is being celebrated in particular can be source of controversy, since differences, past injustices and traumas abound.
To overcome these points of contention, South Africans are encouraged to unite over an aspect of traditional shared culture of a more universal appeal – the braai (South African barbeque). An initiative suggested by Jan Scannell, ‘Braai4Heritage’ represents a celebration of cultural common ground by gathering over a barbeque and has become a true mainstay of Heritage Day celebrations that additionally provides a significant stream of business for South Africa’s food and drink retailers.
Alongside celebrating diversity, Heritage Day is a harbinger of peace and reconciliation, whereby the conflicts of the past are laid aside. Promoting social cohesion, and therefore continuity, the event is the bedrock of both social and economic development.
Functioning under the mantra of reclaim, restore, preserve, the values encompassed within living heritage, such as tradition, oral history, popular memory and a reliance on the indigenous knowledge system, present a bank of beliefs that the community can fall back on when confronting challenges.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to leave widespread social disruption in its wake, threatening to severe the fabric of the country, 2021’s celebrations will be particularly significant after the virus prohibited social gatherings last year.
For South Africans everywhere, the event is a poignant symbol of how far the country has come, having shed the dark veil of apartheid and political turmoil. United by this wholistic vision, Heritage Day is the ultimate reminder that together, we are stronger.