Image by Songi Langeni

Is Africa’s heritage eroding at the expense of civilisation?

Today, much effort is made to retell the stories of political activists who advanced the liberation of South Africa from apartheid. The thinking is that the journeys, actions and philosophies of activists such as Steve BikoChris Hani,Nelson MandelaWinnie Madikizela Mandela, are the nation’s “liberation” heritage. But the reality is that the country’s “liberation” heritage goes much further back, and far deeper. For centuries, ordinary Africans have used culture to liberate themselves from the yoke of oppression.

Heritage is anything that is considered important enough to be passed on to the next generation but culture has become the baton very rarely passed on. The very cultural heritage of African’s used to be the one thing that gave them freedom, liberation, a sense of belonging, and the one thing they could call their own.

Would the millennial generation need liberation from oppression? Maybe, but not from the same oppression our ancestors faced. like many other things decolonisation is a process, Africa’s heroes and activist fought for what was pressing in their time, but in today’s generation the oppression is different, the question is if we can use our cultural heritage to liberate ourselves from today’s yoke of oppression?

Born and raised in a country considered to be the least “African” in the continent, Heritage Day is the only timely reminder to show we are all Proudly South Africans. If embracing our cultural heritage brings liberation from oppression then should it not be heritage day, every day?

University of Zululand celebrates Heritage Day, South Africa

In some African countries, heritage can be seen as something for the elite – or as an irrelevant harping back to the past. Its economic value is not widely recognised. In fact, heritage is often associated with poverty. And yet culture, historic buildings, landscapes and traditions are essential to shaping our future wherever we are in the world. They form a vital part of our identity and we must keep alive even the most hard-to-tell stories to avoid making the same mistakes.

More than a decade ago, a move was made in Ghana to promote the wearing of traditional clothes at least once a week. Serving as Ghana’s president at that time, John Agyekum Kuffour announced an unusual initiative in 2004. He suggested that all Ghanaians put on local garments each Friday and called the campaign “National Friday Wear”. The idea was to stem the flood of western clothing and to promote Ghanaian products.

Wear Ghana Fair – 2017

I believe this was not just to promote people to ‘wear Ghana’ but this was an initiative to remind the people of Ghana of their heritage. In the long run, however, the initiative hasn’t changed Ghanaians’ choice of clothes much and for some reason I am not entirely surprised.

Wanting to be reminded of our heritage every Friday or once a year, is equivalent to asking for a mirror once a week to remind yourself of how you look like.

Amanda Sibiya

Today other modern-world pressures are, in many ways, pushing our heritage to the brink. Africa’s ‘culture’ and ‘heritage’ is quickly eroding at the expense of civilization.

One thing I wish to make clear is that embracing cultural heritage is not the refusal of development or adaptation. I was once asked if I would rather see Africa adapt new development or stay put to its original practices; and my answer is that its not a question of “either, or”. I wouldn’t be a true African if I didn’t want to see my continent develop and neither would I be a true African if I didn’t believe in embracing our Heritage. If it is a choice between heritage and development, I wouldn’t be able to choose one and not the other.

There is a dual nature to the modernisation of our cultures, and development doesn’t have to jeopardise the existence of cultural practices or our heritage. The practice of cultural ceremonies and rituals have become a choice, one I do not wish to remove from individuals but the knowledge thereof is one I will always deem as imperative to this generation and the next.

Wedding ceremonies are a good example of this dual nature of our culture – we might have a big, modern, white wedding but we will also go home to our families for the traditional African celebration.

In the African diaspora of the southwest Indian Ocean, islanders have relied on culture in times of slavery and colonisation. The Malagasy still practice rituals that revive belief, emphasise self-knowing and obtain the ancestors’ blessings. Through famadihana, the ritual of the dead, the Malagasy honour their ancestors. 

Malagasy people take part in famadihana, the ritual of the dead, to honour their ancestors. Tee La Rosa/Flickr

Mauritians also commune with their ancestors. Every January 2, Mauritians of African descent visit the graves of their loved ones. There they place cigarettes, alcohol, food and special gifts; things that their loved ones would have enjoyed. The ancestors are regularly spoken about and unusual events are discussed as potential intervention on the part of the dead.

Evidence of culture as liberation can also be seen today in the revival of indigenous dress and hair styling. These communicate alternative worldviews and challenge dominant style and beauty norms, globalising the rich material and symbolic culture of Africans. 

South Africans are no different. They also use ritual and other cultural practices to respond to and challenge oppression. This is revealed in a survey by graduate students from Nelson Mandela University in the Eastern Cape province. It reveals the liberating potential of intangible cultural heritage. 

Understanding, valuing and embracing these parts of South Africa’s cultural heritage is crucial. The richness of those cultures and their persistence to this day, compels a rethinking of the idea of liberation heritage. 

The cultural evidence shows that, for centuries, Africans and South Africans have been liberating themselves through their heritage of music, song, dance, poetry and language. Instead of promoting a narrow conception of freedom, those in power should use this knowledge to diversify perceptions of liberation in the country.

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