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There is no South Africa without heritage

South Africa's diversity is reflected in our national heritage, which is as multifaceted and complex as our people. Heritage Day is a chance to share the things that make us unique, and to celebrate the stories that bring us together.
There is no South Africa without heritage

Heritage is a tricky thing to define. It’s not just history – it’s more personal than that. And it’s not only tradition – it’s too fluid. Heritage is a nebulous concept that encompasses community, storytelling, and identity. But does it matter?

Unequivocally, yes. It might resist neat definitions, but heritage is as important to society as the laws that govern us. Heritage grounds us, gives us a sense of shared experience and history, and connects people within and across social groupings. Heritage is the web of stories, practices, and cultures that brings us together.

South African heritage: multifaceted and unifying

If heritage is difficult to define in general, it’s even harder in South Africa. Our 11 official languages and rich cultural diversity are reflected in our heritage, which is as multifaceted and varied as the people who call this country home. That’s also what makes it beautiful. For all of our differences, there’s a common thread that binds people here. It’s at the heart of what makes us South African – and is an essential part of what it means to be African. That thread is our heritage.

And while so many celebrations in South Africa are also rooted in pain – the Soweto Uprising, the Sharpeville Massacre – Heritage Day doesn’t have to be. On 24 September, we can celebrate the stories we have in common as well as the things that make us unique. For some South Africans heritage is as local and specific as a neighbourhood – with the current fight to preserve the character of Bo Kaap the most immediate example. For others it’s food or South Africa’s natural environment. Even our country’s cultural icons have been recognised around the world. However you define your heritage, you have the right to celebrate it in the way that you choose.



The power to heal

Heritage Day is a chance to enrich our social fabric and strengthen the threads that link South Africans together. Sharing your heritage is important because in South Africa self-expression is an act with political power. Our storytellers, artists, and performers protect our heritage by honouring the past. And they keep it current by reflecting on contemporary events.

Both are necessary for us to move forward. We need to remember where we came from in order to learn, and we have to heal if we want to build a better future. The more we can celebrate our diversity, the stronger we are as a society. Sharing your heritage can be a powerful tool for strengthening the South African community.

It’s how you use it

Heritage can change over time. Look at pantsula, the dance which started as an expression of political resistance for men in Alexandra and Sophiatown. Today Gugu Mofokeng has turned it into a demonstration of her own power, breaking down the idea that pantsula is for men. A historical declaration of unity during the struggle has become an assertion of modern freedom.

And heritage can also stay constant. Abduraghmaan Morris is protecting his heritage through performance. Morris is the president of the Young Men Sporting Club – the oldest Malay choir in Cape Town. Through World War II and apartheid-era evictions, the group has sung and performed for its community. Morris is a custodian of heritage and identity, a performer whose craft is a comfort and a sign of continuity and stability for his people.

Zinhle Zulu is an illustrator and storyteller using her heritage and her craft in a way that she hopes will promote literacy. She creates pictures and stories for children that pay tribute to Zulu oral history. Her goal is to show kids stories that they can relate to, and through doing this, to get them to take an interest in reading.

Our heritage is also rooted in our natural resources – South Africa’s soil and land. Our national parks are free to visit for a week every September, because the beauty of our country is just as much a part of our heritage as any practice or event. Take the Valley of a Thousand Hills – an area in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands steeped in grandeur and historical significance. From Shaka’s reign to steam powered locomotives, it has seen people come and go while its natural splendour has remained. Its heritage is rooted in its stories and majesty.

You don’t have to be able to dance or sing to show off your heritage. You just have to let others know where you come from – what it is that defines your identity. Expressing your heritage means being proud of who you are and the people in your community.

A positive assertion of identity can take any form you choose. That’s the beautiful thing about heritage. It’s not static. It doesn’t have to be written down or stay in the past. It’s a present, living, breathing thing – and it means something different to everyone, while holding the power to bring millions together. Heritage is the essence of what it means to be South African. And that’s what we need to protect.

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