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What will we celebrate on Heritage Day?


What will we celebrate on Heritage Day?

Used with permission of the author:
Author: Steuart Pennington
Co-founder and Partner
SOUTH AFRICA - The Good News project
20 November 2007
This article appeared in SOUTH AFRICA - The Good News, 21 September 2007.

“I’m going to spend Heritage Day reconnecting with my Dutch family,” said a friend of mine as we chatted at the Primedia ‘1 000 days to 2010’ event. I was somewhat confused - and it showed. “You see in 1976 I spent six months in solitary confinement (for printing anti-government T-shirts), I couldn’t do it again so I escaped to Botswana and then went into exile in Holland. I married a Dutch girl and had two children. Sadly when I came back in 1991, they didn’t accompany me; they have a Dutch heritage and no connection with South Africa at all. So I came home after 15 years and started a new life! Nevertheless - they will always be part of my heritage.”

According to the Oxford Dictionary, heritage has to do with what we inherit as well as things of cultural or historic value that are worthy of preservation

Monday 24th September is Heritage Day.

What is our heritage in South Africa, what have we inherited and what is worthy of preservation?

The answer depends largely on how far back one is prepared to go to determine what we have inherited. The story above tells of anexile heritage, a person whose life has been substantially informed by several years in exile, meeting in secret, worrying about South Africa’s Security Force surveillance, attending Communist bloc-supported training camps and planning a revolution. A large group of South Africans have this heritage.

Then there are those who spent a similar amount of time incarcerated as political prisoners in jails around the country, mostly in Robben Island. Much of this time was spent without access to information regarding political developments, in solitary confinement and in torture rooms with very few prisoner privileges. This prisoner heritage was also experienced by a large group of South Africans.

There was another group of anti-government South Africans who were not jailed but who were a thorn in the flesh of Nationalist Party politicians. Politically they aligned themselves to the Progressive Party led by the remarkable Helen Suzman as they extolled liberal values and guardedly criticised the ruling party. These people would probably lay claim to a liberal heritage as well as, in part, the change of regime in 1994.

Finally, there were those who supported the National Party and what it stood for during its 46 years of rule. When the Union became a Republic in 1961, these supporters believed that the divine right to govern, to separate, to classify was bestowed on ‘His people by the Almighty’. These people might be quiet today regarding their nationalist heritage but that’s what it was – in their social, economic and political lives – race-based nationalism.

The four categories above represent those people who probably had strong political views and were, in all likelihood, politically active. But many of us weren’t, that doesn't mean we didn't have strong beliefs, or strong convictions, or a point of view. We may have been black or white, rich or poor, disenfranchised or franchised. We participated in our own ways with different levels of intensity, but we were there, our heritage was significantly influenced by the course of events in this country – an experiential heritage if you like. We may have identified with one of the above four groups - but we were not necessarily active in them.

(This list of ‘heritage categories’ is by no means exhaustive but is intended to illustrate why so many of our public holidays are viewed in different ways by different sections of our population.)

So when we celebrate Heritage Day who will be there and what will we be remembering? Our pre-1994 Heritage? Will many of us want to go that far back? Will we pop in to the Apartheid Museum to remind ourselves of that dark chapter in our lives while lamenting what some of that time meant for some of us?

Monday 24th September will probably be characterised by the coming together of large numbers of exile and prisoner compatriots, and people whose experience is much the same, as they celebrate the freedom won in 1994 and the signing of our constitution in 1996. But will the same events be attended by ourliberal and nationalist compatriots – and the people who share experience with them? Probably not. And least of all by those who present themselves as modern post-1994 neo-liberals. They will probably argue that there is nothing to celebrate as they wrestle with their own disconnectedness. Oddly I think some of our nationalist compatriots will attend; many are proud of what this country has achieved and have forsaken the racial ideology that formed part of their nationalism. No doubt much of our liberal media will carry cartoons ‘celebrating’ our heritage of crime, corruption, HIV/Aids, unemployment etc. as if this is all that we have inherited over the past 13 years!

It’s a pity that we are unable to celebrate Heritage Day the way the Americans celebrate Thanksgiving Day or Independence Day exemplified by “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right” (US Senator Carl Schurz in 1872) and to demonstrate the same level of unity.

How we celebrate Heritage Day is important because it has as much to do with what we perceive as being of value and worth preserving as it has to do with how others perceive us. We are seriously challenged with the building of a national brand that truly reflects our national character. Are we able to show who we are, as a nation, what we stand for and where we are going?

As British government advisor (specialising in the field of nation branding) Simon Anholt says, “A nation’s reputation is not built through communications, and it can’t be changed through communications…it is the quality of marketing done by all the country’s stakeholders and the consistency between the messages they send out about the place that builds a positive, famous, well-rounded national reputation. So it is essential they work together….if they are telling the same powerful, believable, interesting story about the country, then the country will start to achieve some control over its international image.

“And that’s not all, what really makes the difference is when a critical mass of the businesses and organisations in the country become dedicated to the development of new things – new ideas, new policies, new laws, new products and services etc. When these innovations seem to be proving a few simple truths about the place they come from, reputation starts to move, the place produces a buzz, people start to pay attention, and prepare themselves to change their minds.”

In other words, we need to walk the talk before we communicate it!

My sense is that Heritage Day must confront the challenge of building a national reputation. This will best happen if we focus on the heritage that we are building post ’94, particularly for the generations that follow and those who are watching our country. A heritage based on our ‘new’ South Africa; the victory over oppression, the achievement of universal human rights, the defeat of the scourge of poverty, the de-racialising of our diversity, our industrial innovation, spectacular tourism offerings, the building of a new Africa and the culture of ubuntu. Only then will the exiles, the prisoners, the liberals, the nationalists and the experientialists have, at least, some common ground - acutely aware of their own pre-1994 heritages, but expressly prepared to put them aside in the interests of building something of future value, worthy of preservation, as they tell proudly of the remarkable story that is South Africa.

As branding guru Scott Bedbury said on a recent visit to South Africa: “A country’s brand is defined by what is said by anyone, anywhere, at anytime.”

Happy Heritage Day!

Steuart Pennington is devoted full time to the SOUTH AFRICA -The Good News project and he's primarily responsible for product content development. Steuart owns Good People Management (GPM) which specialises in enhancing strategy delivery for corporates and he continues to publish books about management practice. He holds a BA.Hons from Rhodes, a PDM from Wits University and a Certificate in Management from Oxford. Stuart believes that we "don't describe the future we see … we see the future we describe." He can be contacted at +27 (0)11 463 5713,steuart@sagoodnews.co.za or  http://www.sagoodnews.co.za.

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