MCEBO DLAMINI: What heritage are SA's black people meant to celebrate?


Culture crystallises into tradition, then from tradition gradually heritage is created. Simply, heritage is a set of norms and rules that have been passed down, some are imposed by circumstance and others through our very own agency.

What, then, is a heritage for a people dispossessed, violated and disavowed for generations? What is the heritage for a people who have been stripped of language, culture and their very own history?

Black people have for a long time known little of their histories outside of struggle and oppression. This has not changed, particularly in the case of South Africa, where the socio-politico-economic conditions are still unbearable for the majority of black people inhabiting the region.

When we are urged to celebrate Heritage Day, what does it even mean? Which heritage? The one of suffering, or do we find scraps in our imagination to figure out what we could have been like if our history was not disturbed by colonialism and apartheid?

Our past as South Africans does not begin with the arrival of the boat in the Cape. We had long had a social life long before our encounter with white people. I mention this to put plainly that we perhaps do have a heritage that is not defined by white interference.

This is to say that there is no doubt that we have certain things about who we are that we need to hold dear and perhaps celebrate, but how do we get to these things? It becomes hard because what could become our heritage is already dirtied by the history we have gone through.

So how does one become a proud Zulu or Venda student in a university that teaches a curriculum and language not of your own? How does a girl become proud of who she is when the first thing she sees when she watches the television is that her hair is dirty and ugly?

This is the conundrum: the fact that the world makes it impossible to have a heritage worthy of celebrating. Like, you are Tswana and you live in a shack, cramped every morning in an overcrowded train, eating almost nothing every day. Is there anything to celebrate there?

This is not an attempt to be an annoying cynic, but what is there to be gained? Especially if we consider that some of the things we consider heritage are in themselves upholding symbols of oppression.

An example is what Xhosa people wear when they exit they initiation. Do they not look like poor Englishmen? How did blankets, made and manufactured in foreign countries, become part of baSotho culture?

Tripe, chicken heads and mugodo have become our traditional food. These foods are considered waste and it is nothing but poverty and suffering that has made these cuisines traditional food.

I illustrate these examples to show how we have been so affected by our painful past that it becomes difficult to even conceive what a heritage looks like for black people. There might be a revolutionary potential within the concept of heritage, but for a people like us it is small.

Yes, we have to trace and preserve the little we have that still belongs to us, but at the same be careful that this over-appreciation does not blind us to something much more important. The fact that we remain in the margins of history and being, and therefore concepts such as heritage, culture and tradition are complex and at times problematic.

Mcebo Dlamini is a former leader of student protests at Wits University.