Heritage Day humbug – why do we erase the legacies that are really worth remembering?

People’s culture and South Africa’s heritage of struggle are far more worthy of celebration tomorrow than all the irrelevancies the public discourse invokes.

Nguni bull.jpg

So, tomorrow is Heritage Day – or, as the media insist on calling it, National Braai Day. For some of us, that latter is never going to stick. Maybe it’s the environmental impact of raising and then charring all that red meat: clearing land for grazing animals or the soy that feeds them, plus all that CO2 from charcoal and the 23-times-worse methane from cow farts (not putting you off your steak, am I?) are all really bad for the sustainability of our planet.

But I eat meat too, so maybe it’s something else.

Perhaps it’s the way something that should be priceless and in people’s hearts is instead turned into an excuse for self-aggrandizing politicians and grasping shopkeepers to sell us things: ‘heritage’ couture, braai tongs and promises.

Vlakplas.jpgPerhaps it’s the way the day is used to emphasise feudal difference, with the whole country turned into a gigantic, booze-soaked cultural village within whose walls legislators scurry to restore the worst of colonial-designed, patriarchal law via the Traditional Courts Bill.

And, inescapably, it’s the foul miasma from all those cosy braais at Vlakplas and Bird Island – not something any sane person should want in their heritage.

But before Ebenezer Scrooge takes over completely, let’s consider some of the things that are worth remembering. We can notice, while we’re at it, that most of them have been completely erased from the dominant public discourse about Heritage Day.

freedom-charterHow about, for example, our history of struggle? Not those convenient corners opportunistically appropriated by political parties when it suits them to win votes. Rather, the fact that millions of ordinary people risked and gave their lives every day across more than two and a half centuries to defeat colonialism and apartheid and put something better in their place. That something better is beautifully summed up in the Freedom Charter (http://www.historicalpapers.wits.ac.za/inventories/inv_pdfo/AD1137/AD1137-Ea6-1-001-jpeg.pdf ). Its goals have still not been achieved, and some of those who should have been fighting hardest for them have instead betrayed them. But none of that devalues them, and Heritage Day should be the time to celebrate the women and men who fought and are still fighting for their realisation.

And how about people’s culture? There are the obvious things: the jazz legacy, the intricate creative artistry of traditional attire and architecture, the social commentary of praise songs, the art, poetry and music by workers in town and country and liberation soldiers – and still, today, by this generation of activists around Marikana, Fees Must Fall, One in Nine and more.

But there are other cultural legacies too. Despite the patronising guff of the chattering classes on 702, there is, for example,  a township heritage of care and concern for the environment, expressed most powerfully in the mid-1980s by the Peoples Parks movement (https://asai.co.za/jdownloads/Peoples%20Culture/Imvaba/worksbycollectives.pdf ). Young people and their parents worked to take control of ugly, neglected township spaces. From junk, they built artworks, playground equipment and shelters in which to gather, using community spirit to transform their environment. Apartheid razed the people’s parks – and the market obsessions of the post-apartheid regime stole the confidence, solidarity and creativity that had built Unity Park, Crossroads People’s Park in Oukasie, Biko Park, Alexandra township’s Garden of Peace and more. That’s a legacy worth celebrating and reclaiming this Heritage Day.

lib proj onstage
The Liberation Project on stage

If you want some music for all this genuine heritage you won’t see on TV, you could do worse than pick up a copy of The Liberation Project (http://www.theliberationproject.co.za/) 3-CD set. More than 140 musicians from South Africa, Italy, Cuba and more worked together live and across the aether to create a compilation of familiar and unfamiliar liberation songs, fresh arrangements and new compositions celebrating people worldwide striving for freedom. The late Ray Chikapa Phiri was a guiding spirit until his death; other names you’ll know include Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse, Roger Lucey, Aus Tebza Sedumedi, Tony Cedras, Phil Manzanera, Cyril Neville, Juan de Marcos – it’s impossible to list them all. The CD-set and a DVD will launch formally at Joburg’s Melrose Arch on October 3, but tomorrow is the right date to start playing it. Happy Heritage Day.

Lib Proj



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