In search of our common heritage

I hope you are patriotic enough to know that the month of September is a Heritage Month in South Africa. This is the time of the year when we should pause and reflect on our rich and diverse heritage with planned festivities leading to the official heritage day, which is the 24th of September. All countries of the world have a day penciled in their calendar where they reflect on the issues related to heritage. They look internally and focus on who they are, where do they come from and what are the values that are common and unifying in that nation. This is an obligatory exercise if we are to keep our nationhood intact.

But what is heritage and how do we celebrate it? Heritage has to do with the culture and the history of a people. In a country as diverse as ours, whose culture and history do we celebrate? I have heard people talk about SA’s common heritage. Is there such a thing? I have found that finding this elusive common heritage is as difficult as finding diamonds in Kimberly’s disused diamond mines. The euphoria that we often experience when one of our compatriots achieves greatness in a field like sport is often short lived. After we welcome our sporting heroes back to the country we quickly run back to our enclaves.

Racial undertones
We feel safe when we are in a company of those who look like us. After we are done with the discussions about the achievements of people like Chad le Clos we quickly revert back to our usual conversations that are laced with racial undertones and stereotyping. We have all done this. You walk across the room towards someone who looks like you in order to gossip or say something derogatory about those who look and sound different from you. You do this because you assume the person who looks like you also shares your heritage and therefore should also share your bigotry towards those of a different heritage.

This is the reality of how our country is and it is a reality we often pretend does not exist. The truth is I have never felt I have a common heritage with someone who is not black and from Africa. There have been many times when I got despondent and exasperated in trying to be understood and accepted by white people in SA. I felt that in this country we have a propensity for missing each other and our politicians have mastered the art of capitalising on this racial divide. They employ the tactic of “divide and rule”.

They like to refer to black people as “our people” as if they have hegemony of black South Africans. This reference also implies that other South Africans are not “their people”. To be fair there are “other” South Africans who behave as if this country is a guesthouse to them and that their primary residence is elsewhere. They do not engross themselves in finding solutions to the problems that continue to bedevil our nation. So you see, I am still looking for this “common heritage.” It is difficult to find it when we have so many differences and disparities.

It is in our faith.
I will tell you where we can find this common heritage. It is in our faith. ladies and gentlemen. It is not our race and neither is it in the places and spaces in which we find ourselves. Walking a heritage trail can help us connect with our past but it does not help us connect with our present and future. It is not only where we come from that matters but also where we are going. The Christian faith has a rich heritage that we still need to mine. This heritage is not divisive and neither is it condescending.

There are Christian men and women whose legacy is now being tarnished by a complacent and self-serving Church. I am talking about people like Johannes Gutenberg, Florence Nightingale, William Wilberforce, John Langalibalele Dube, etc. These are people whose exploits and courage have thoroughly enriched our faith. We have to emulate these people so that generations after us can build upon the heritage we would have left them. My concern is not what we have received from those before us but what we are leaving for those after us.

Today we have such a dearth of leadership in every sphere of life because people are refusing to take responsibility. We don’t look like we are capable of producing leaders of the calibre of Dr Nelson Mandela. All we have is mediocrity and leaders who are bickering and have been blindsided. We deserve more; not only from others but also from ourselves.

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