On the 24th of September this year, South Africa will pause and celebrate national Heritage Day. As part of the new approach for the national days program of government, the focus hasn’t only been on the main celebration itself but rather on the entire month, with a plethora of activations to celebrate our diverse heritage since the launch by Minister Nathi Mthethwa earlier this month.

At the very outset, one might ask as to why we celebrate heritage? Also more generally, why the national days program? What purpose do they serve and is there a reason to celebrate in the face of the current global pandemic that has ravaged lives? Firstly, heritage ought to be celebrated because it foregrounds our collective sense of self-identity as a people. In saying so, one is also acutely aware of the politics of heritage and the political economy of heritage

Under colonialism and apartheid, heritage was employed by the racist administrations to deepen divisions in society by celebrating certain forms of heritage, mainly white and western, and denigrating and rendering absent other forms of heritage, mainly black, but African in particular. In other words, the social texture of the heritage narrative and the national estate exemplified the racist nature of South African society and the racialized social structure that put whiteness at the peniccle and blackness in the lower rungs.

Transformation of the heritage landscape which Minister Nathi Mthethwa embarked upon since assuming responsibility in this portfolio is meant to deconstruct the racist meta-narrative and thereby ensure that overall the heritage meta-narrative now speaks to our collective sense of self and it is inclusive. In a nutshell, the task, which remains work-in-progress is to ensure that progressively the heritage landscape is transformed.

Given the patriarchal nature of South African society, it would be important to also acknowledge that not only is our heritage kept captive by race but is also gendered. At a more practical level, we are all too familiar with the notion of men being “heads of custom”  – and thus licensed to shape the discourse and praxis in terms of culture and heritage. In this context, some have even argued that some of the subjugation women suffer, even Gender-Based Violence, may be predicated on pretexts such as “observance of our culture and heritage”. As we celebrate Heritage Month, this needs to be deconstructed and put right as such a perspective clearly stands in conflict with the letter and the spirit of the Constitution, in particular, such values as equality and non-sexism.

I am particularly encouraged nonetheless that the theme for this year’s Heritage Month is: “celebrating South Africa’s living human treasures” and in demonstrating the need to have women’s contribution foregrounded and celebrated, government has chosen three women who are flag bearers. These women are Dr Esther Mahlangu, Mama Madosini Latozi Mphaleni and Mama Ouma Katrina Esau. Dr Mahlangu has for many years put South Africa on the global map through her unique and much sought after paintings, depicting her Ndebele heritage. Mama Madosini is an expert in traditional African musical instruments and is one of the few people who can play and impart knowledge about various Xhosa traditional musical instruments such as uhadi, mhrubhe and isitolotolo. Ouma Katrina Esau is on a noble mission to preserve and protect the indigenous N!uu language among the Khoi and San, which is facing extinction.

As we celebrate Heritage Month this year, let us be mindful of the greater goal, which is about ensuring that South becomes a socially integrated and inclusive society. We can begin to demonstrate our intent and commitment by celebrating the diversity and colour of heritage and look at it as a sign of strength instead of weakness.

Professor Vuyisa Tanga is former Vice-Chancellor of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology but writes in her capacity as a Social Cohesion Advocate in the national Department of Sport, Arts and Culture.