It is only in remembering that we can claim our full heritage

If we understand heritage as our historical lived legacy, then Heritage Day, marked on 24 September each year, should compel us to reflect anew on our recent and distant past, asking ourselves difficult questions, said the CEO of the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, Piyushi Kotecha

If we are to rebuild South African society so that it truly includes all citizens and bequeath to the younger generation a future legacy of which our forebears and descendants would be proud, we need to recall the South African values that will hold each of us to account.

“Heritage Day is as much an opportunity to remember those values and reflect deeply as it is to celebrate. We have inherited resilience, fortitude and comradery, which form part of the fabric of South African society,” says Kotecha.

A better, stronger South African society can only come about after we have asked and answered the question of whether we have done justice to our people by remembering the sacrifices of those who contributed to the fight for our freedom. Facing the myriad answers to that question is no easy task.

Our answers will have to include how to fully honour our heritage: from the thousands of slaves who arrived on South African shores between 1653, when the first slave to arrive at the Cape – Abraham van Batavia – reached Table Bay, and 1834, when South Africa, under British rule, abolished slavery. These were people torn from their own families and homes, whether brought to the Cape on slave ships from India, South-East Asia and other parts of Africa, or taken from communities living near European settlements in South Africa.

We must also find ways of fully honouring the countless youths who contributed to the anti-apartheid struggle, ways of honouring the ordinary families whose lives were torn apart as a result of the Natives Land Act of 1913, the Group Areas Act of 1950 and the Bantu Education Act of 1953, among other legislation that systematically stripped black people of property and opportunity.

South Africa’s diverse heritage is evident in every corner of our beautiful country. It is inscribed in buildings, street names, statues, oral traditions and in the ways of ordinary life. It is alive in protest struggle songs, places of worship, ways of courtship and in recipes handed down through the generations. But we cannot fully celebrate our diversity without facing the tough questions and finding ways of bridging and healing the divides between us.

South Africa needs a second chance at a new beginning. We had one in 1994, when we voted for democracy, but the promise of 1994 has not been realised. It had not been realised in early 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic struck South Africa and the rest of the world, and it is not realised now. Real new beginnings are needed, not new empty promises.

The pandemic came on the back of a decade in which the values and principles on which our hard-won Constitution is based had been eroded: equality, dignity and opportunity for all, moral leadership and democracy, to name a few. Our society is marred by corruption and greed, both of which have extended the shelf life of the greatest hurdles we face: poverty, inequalities and unemployment.

Let this Heritage Day, on which South African society is found wanting, be about facing our complex history and diverse heritage bravely. Let it also serve as an alarm bell to be heeded.

We also need to stare barefaced into our darker corners, and find ways of facing up to what is to be found in them. We need to face up to each other, in remembrance. We need to inculcate and give privilege to the legacy of kindness and diversity of which we are as much the inheritors as we are of selfishness and racism, so that we do not look back a few decades from now and see more squandered opportunities and an unrealised freedom.

We have faced tough times and intractable questions before, and emerged stronger. We must do so again, with far greater resolve.

Photo Credit: MASUPHUMELELE/Gallo Images /Foto24/Yunus Mohamed