Heritage Day


Issue No.22010

Words: Antoine Donnarieix

The National Assembly, Cape Town: this House of Parliament elected Nelson Mandela as president after the end of apartheid.Photo: Antoine Donnarieix

Each country has its own past, present and future. And South Africa is one of few countries that can remember their bitter past, by celebrating their inevitably bright future. In South Africa, 24 September is a public holiday and since 1996 this holiday has been known as Heritage Day. On this day, each citizen can embrace their great sense of pride and love for their roots, which even after a sore struggle, allows them to freely express their heritage.

The Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology defines Heritage Day as, ‘that which we inherit: the sum total of wildlife and scenic parks, sites of scientific or historical importance, national monuments, historic buildings, works of art, literature and music, oral traditions and museum collections together with their documentation’ (GCIS, 2009)1. To commemorate this delicate past, the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) celebrates the country’s history in different ways every year: customs, places, famous people, etc.

For Cecilene Muller – manager of the National Heritage Resources, related to SAHRA – ‘This association deals with: identification, conservation, management and preservation of all national sites. It’s a kind of South African Bible for all national monuments, now called heritage sites.’ Historically speaking, many elements stood in the way of this country becoming the so-called ‘rainbow nation’, which was meant to represent a union between all races.

Colonisations and resistances

Many Africans celebrate the end of the apartheid as now they are able to express themselves and rejoice in their different cultures and traditions.Photo: © South African Tourism

For 200,000 years, human beings have lived in the southern coast of Africa. The cultural mix began when the Dutch and English invaded South Africa. Afrikaners, Anglophones and many other mix-raced people were born and – until recently – the national population has remained the same.

Beverline Thomas, a coloured woman, remembers the origin of her ethnical group, ‘We come from Dutch people, when Jan van Riebeek engaged with Hottentots2 in the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, hence coloured families originated from these relationships. Then, two different groups emanated – the coloured and the Xhosa people.’

After several centuries, the Union of South Africa adopted a constitution in 1910, implementing a centralised power and imposing two main languages (English and Dutch) and it also gave each white citizen a right to vote. Three capital cities in South Africa were each given a different set of powers: Pretoria as executive, Bloemfontein for judiciary matters and Cape Town for legal matters. It was due to this constitution that racial inequity was legalised, remembered by many as the Colour Bar Act.

‘Heritage Day is created in order to celebrate the heritage of all South Africans,’ says Cecilene, ‘which means the beautiful places, such as Lake Fundudzi in Limpopo province, but also to keep in mind the unfair places such as the Slave Lodge Museum3 in Cape Town.’ The past builds the history of each nation, and monuments can be a physical means to remember it.

In 1913, two buildings were established to honour the country’s former national wars. The National Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein (in the Free State) remembers the death of 26,000 Boer women and children who died in the Bloemfontein concentration camp during the Anglo-Boer War4 at the end of 19th century. The second memorable building is the Union Buildings, in Pretoria – they symbolise the seat of power in South Africa and they incorporate the Delville Wood memorial and the Pretoria War memorial.

Apartheid period: split in population

On Robben Island, the jail’s dormitory was reserved for dying prisoners who suffered due to extreme conditions of work.Photo: Antoine Donnarieix

In 1925, Afrikaans was given an equal status to English, when it was made an official language in South Africa, by the National Party (NP). Soon after, the Union of South Africa’s flag was adopted in 1928.

In 1938, the Day of the Covenant’s hundredth birthday5 was celebrated with a ceremony inspired by Nazism. This was the beginning of a significant distinction between the white and black population, which led to the apartheid era after World War II.

Cecilene explains: ‘I was a teenager from the Western Cape during this period, quite isolated from apartheid. I grew up in a college community, to avoid troubles and I used to go to restaurants or beaches only for white people. When I went to university the apartheid finished, but I could see that I was used to spending my time with white people.’

Apartheid is the most well-known era in South African history because laws, which denied fundamental human rights, were established to discriminate and repress non-white people. For instance, the 1953 Bantu Education Act organised student segregation; it gave black people special – yet worthless – schooling and education with insufficient funds. Black people were classified as ‘useless’. Many women, children, the old or sick people, were used to living in dumping grounds. ‘This day was made so South Africans can remember the past and later instil the past on future generations,’ says Beverline.

In 1961, South Africa became the Republic of South Africa (RSA) and cut its relations with the Commonwealth. It was also around this time that many freedom fighters demonstrated some of the characteristic traits of many South African’s – determination, power and hope to have freedom and equality for all.

The 2010 World Cup success in South Africa opens up future prospects from an international point of view.Photo: Antoine Donnarieix

In the 1970s, there were more important monuments built to underline the national heritage of South Africa. In 1974, the 1820 Settlers Monument building was built, in Grahamstown, to venerate the English settlers of South African history and the English language. The Afrikaans Language Monument was erected in 1975 to honour the Afrikaans language. The monument’s design has a few specific meanings: three linked columns symbolise the contribution of the Western world to Afrikaans, three round shapes represent the contribution of Africa, and a wall for the contribution of the Malaysian people. A fountain symbolises new ideas and a pillar above the fountain represents the growth of the language.

In the same decade a popular uprising, created by coloured people, was known to be similar to the massacre of the student uprising in Soweto in June 19766. This conflict, even though resulting in a radical defeat, represented the struggle for equality – something that many South Africans desired. For Beverline, Heritage’s Day means, ‘celebrating where we come from, and informing our children, and our children’s children. Thanks to that, our future generation won’t miss out on their heritage.’ For many white people, the opposition to the apartheid policy is also symbolised by women. ‘To celebrate the women’s month in August we have chosen three of them: Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi and Charlotte Maxeke,’ said Cecilene. ‘Helen Joseph and Lilian Ngoyi played an important role in the women’s march in 1956 to oppose the Pass Laws. Helen Joseph was a white woman, born in Great Britain; she was an industrial and social worker. Lilian Ngoyi, an anti-apartheid activist, was elected as President of the Women’s League. Charlotte Maxere was the first African lady to graduate with her Bachelor’s degree, in the USA in 1905. Their graves have also been declared as heritage sites.’

Undercover movements continued to grow after the arrest of Nelson Mandela, who was the leader of the African National Congress (ANC). Many were put into prison on Robben Island and often Pollsmoor prison, by police forces in the suburbs of Cape Town from 1964 to 1988. On the island, black people were forced to hard labour under white prison guard supervision in stone mines. The mining job consisted of moving a mountain of dirt from one location to another and then back again. Death as a result of starvation and disease were common, and death from fatal beatings were even higher.

Robben Island is now part of the inheritance for the rainbow nation. Today, eight national heritage sites are considered monuments of the country. There are some worthy others in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, the Cradle of Humankind, Ukhahlamba/Drakensberg Park, Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape, the Cape Floral Regions Protected Areas, Vredefort Dome, and the Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape.

First steps to democracy

On 2 February 1990, President De Klerk, announced the end of apartheid and ordered Mandela’s release from Robben Island. Then, the desire to build a new society, keeping in mind the violent past, became possible. De Klerk called for a conference between all political parties and despite the National Party’s criticism, De Klerk took significant steps towards a new democratic South Africa.

In 1991, the meeting of CODESA 17 in Johannesburg was the first national discussion to initiate democracy in the country. From there, 68% of South Africans were allowed to vote and a new Constitution was required. The discussions finally stopped on 26 April 1994, with the establishment and implementation of a transitional Constitution. This Constitution was a symbol of success for the defenders of brotherhood, because since the beginning of the internal conflicts, they wanted a kind of union between all African citizens both black and white. The current flag, raised on this day, represents this union with the blue, red and white for colonial empire’s flags, and the green, yellow and black are the colours of the ANC. The first democratic elections enabled all people of colour (especially black South Africans) to vote.

Brotherhood and peace: the new South African policy

Eddo Kalasa, from the Congo, talks about Heritage Day as a day of joy and rememberance for South Africa.Photo: Antoine Donnarieix

On 6 May 1994, the elections crowned the ANC party victorious, which confirmed the wish for change. The National Assembly, mainly composed of ANC members, had to choose the new South African president. Symbolising fraternity and pacifism, Nelson Mandela was nominated as the President of South Africa, on 10 May 1994. This day was considered to be a day of great change and an increased hope for a new and positive era, especially for black people. Indeed, the nomination of ‘Madiba’ was not the end, but rather the first steady steps to overcome the struggle for equality.

There are now many immigrants in South Africa, like Eddo Kalasa, a Congolese man living here for six years. His impression on this year’s Heritage Day is, ‘This day means a lot to everyone. Before celebrating this day, they have been through the apartheid regime, which was very harsh for the black community. When I talk about black community, I mean black, coloured and Indians. So, it’s a real important day for the youth, because they have to learn from the past mistakes. Without a doubt, it’s a big event for South African people.’

The Constitution of February 1997 emphasised the ANC’s support: the focus on the 1993 Constitution enforces the liberties with protection, and ensures human dignity, equality and liberty. Amendments, such as the abolishment of the death penalty in 1995 and the legalisation of the same-sex marriages in 2006, underlined this wish.

These changes are creating a new identity for the rainbow nation. Consequently, the transformation of the state and the reconciliation between all ethnic groups in South Africa are creating the new South African population. ‘Now, the main word in the country is unity,’ says Eddo. ‘For me, it shows that if South Africa can unify its people, every country in Africa can do the same. Heritage Day, no matter race or tribe, is celebrating what we call the rainbow nation.’

Equality for all: dream or reality?

This new political system has been established for 16 years. Today, the South African government aims to continue improving, by implementing international campaigns such as ‘One Goal’, based on education, since the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Now, this successful worldwide event also takes part in the rainbow nation’s heritage.

Actually, Heritage Day is a public holiday, which aims to remind all South Africans of the past and the need to build a new nation, based on beauty, freedom and a non-racial democracy. That is the reason why South Africans are working for more equality day-by-day, and above all, reduce other burdens and crises such as HIV/AIDS and crime.

The theme for Heritage Day this year

The theme for this year’s Heritage Day is, ‘celebrating our living human treasures’, which is part of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) cultural inheritance. According to Cecilene, the criteria for selection of heritages sites are, ‘the importance for the community or South African history, it’s possible to use information that contributes to the understanding of South African heritage as the beauty of landscapes and cultural groups, or a high degree of technical achievement in a particular period, or a link with a special association in work with a person, group or organisation of importance in the history of South Africa.’

People in South Africa are used to celebrating their heritage with various activities. ‘In the many communities, the theme is constantly associated with braais,’8 says Beverline. ‘We call it National Braai Day and families go to various braai places and spend the day socialising with their family and friends. Others enjoy the day with various forms of activities, such as music shows, poetry, plays, drama...’

After all is said, South Africans have a very good reason to celebrate their heritage with pride.