Another year another Heritage Day commemoration but what do days like the 24th of September in South Africa really mean? This is something I reflected on this week as I was considering the varied ways South Africans marked this public holiday. When I peeked into Facebook this week I noticed a surge in the use of clan names by those who consider themselves to be indigenously African. Others made a point of wearing clothes that have a tribal or cultural connection.
I am not really sure what we are supposed to do on this day. I used it to mow the lawn and I noticed my neighbours also using it to catch up on household chores. What exactly is this heritage we are supposed to be celebrating? The English definition of this word does not help me to understand what I am meant to be celebrating. It talks about the history, traditions and qualities of a country or society.
What then are our traditions and qualities as South Africans? We do not have a common heritage and so I suppose we don’t have common traditions and qualities. Some white compatriots refer to this day as “Braai Day” and I presume that is their tradition, to have a lekker braai. If it is of interest, the theme for this year’s Heritage Day was, “Reclaiming, Restoring, and Celebrating our Living Heritage.”
The government came up with this theme, of course. These are people who normally use such days for long speeches where they extol their own virtues. The main celebration was held in the Mdantsane township and was addressed by our Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe. If we are to be true to heritage then we should remember that this man was a caretaker President until the current incumbent took office.
He has now been sidelined since that bruising battle in Mangaung. Jacob Zuma is now president and I wonder how we would remember his tenure 20 years from now. How would we celebrate our heritage two decades from now, if one considers our current trajectory? It is important for us to reflect on our past but we can’t be expected to disconnect from “every day” South Africa to commemorate a day that has more to do with the past than the future.
We urgently and desperately need inspirational leadership that would cause us to believe the impossible and perceive the inconceivable. We basically need someone who can sell us the future. I sense that South Africans are fatigued and there is a disconnection between the rulers and the ruled. In Mdantsane Motlanthe spoke about a South Africa that is characterised by poverty and underdevelopment.
This is a correct assessment and yet a situation that cannot be changed by mere rhetoric. Driving a long government motorcade that screams privilege and elitism does little to inspire confidence in government’s commitment to the wellbeing of the marginalised. But what about our Christian heritage? Is there anything in our past worth celebrating? How would we be remembered? It is easy to talk about government failures but what about our own?
What about our history?
In our history we have people like Florence Nightingale who established the nursing profession, Wilberforce Smith who helped end slavery. We have Johan Gutenberg who established the printing press, the Reformist Martin Luther…and I can go on and on. We need to write a different story than the one we are writing. Today’s Christians are fickle people who complain about such things as the air conditioner being too warm or too cold.
There is a lack of sacrifice and understanding the price others have paid to give us what we now take for granted. We risk having a heritage that is tarnished by complacency and indifference. If we cannot find heroes outside the Church, why don’t we raise our own? If we do not like our history, why don’t we rewrite it? If we do not like our political leaders, why don’t we change them?