Racism and “heritage” – very uneasy bedfellows

OK, this isn’t about jazz, but rather about culture. No apologies; this needs to be said.

Anybody who receives a weekly Joburg Caxton group knock n’drop newspaper may have noticed this week that pages eight and nine are devoted to a Heritage Day supplement headed South Africa’s multicultural heritage celebrated. The principle is praiseworthy – but did anybody apart from me actually read it?

There are multiple problems associated with the ‘cultural village’ approach to national heritage: here, a double-page patchwork quilt with each section dedicated to a different ‘tribe’.

One is that what apartheid downgraded to ‘tribes’ were previously real kingdoms: active, living polities rather than mere collections of customs. Colonialism and apartheid actively deformed these under invasion, bantustan and re-tribalisation projects, often murdering and replacing genuine national leaders with puppets. The settler regimes actively reinforced those more authoritarian and patriarchal aspects of tradition that better accorded with their preferences, preconceptions and prejudices. So there is an important debate about ‘tradition’ and ‘authenticity’ to be had around  the ‘cultural village’ approach.

Another is that, rather like that old retribalisation policy itself, it’s too easy to turn a celebration of custom into the exoticisation and celebration of unchanging difference – rather than what Heritage Day should be: the celebration of a heritage of growing consciousness (often expressed through culture), change and shared humanity that brought many diverse people together to get rid of apartheid. (And, no, not of the braai, in case certain supermarkets’ advertising in the same newspaper had you fooled too.)

So, we have Ndebele culture and history boiled down to “renowned for its distinctive beadwork,” the AmaSwati , of course, to the reed dance, the BaPedi to “dance and song”…and so on. It’s surely unnecessary, these days, to detail the dangers of such reductive stereotypes. And while Afrikaners are headlined “exceptional farmers”, the Tsonga are merely “cultivators”. That terminology is like the difference between calling something “art” or “craft” – it rests, implicitly, not on what is done, but on who does it.

But what got me so angry that I had to write this was the headline on the little orange patch devoted to the English.

Having outlined (albeit crudely and reductively) a rich diversity of social capital, creativity, enterprise, and networks of relationships – what many would call aspects of civilisation – in all the other little patches on the page,  what headline did the English get? British colonial officials were among those who began the process of disrupting, dispossessing, distorting and underdeveloping the historic African kingdoms of the southern part of the continent.

So what headline did those activities get? “Brought civilisation.”

I tell you, you couldn’t make it up…

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