What is heritage and how does it link to culture and identity?

On 24 September every year, South Africans observe Heritage Day in
remembrance of all the various South African cultures and to celebrate
their heritage.  It was first observed as a national holiday in 1995.  In
an address marking Heritage Day in 1996, the late former State President
Nelson Mandela said, “When our first democratically-elected government
decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we
knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to
help build our new nation”.

Former President Mandela with Sonwabile Ndamase who designed the colourful shirts which Madiba loved to wear.

Heritage refers to something that is handed on to a person from his or her ancestors, such as different customs, beliefs, art forms, traditions, and sites that have been passed on to all South Africans by previous generations.  It
is the ‘inheritance’ that is passed down from generation to generation. Because every generation changes and adapts its cultural beliefs and practices to meet its needs and the demands of time, heritage is not something that is fixed and unchanging.

Heritage is important because it helps us examine our history and traditions and enables us to develop an awareness about ourselves. It helps us understand and explain why we are the way we are. Heritage is a cornerstone of our culture and plays an important role in our politics,
society, business, and global view.

South Africa is heir to a legacy of indigenous livelihoods (see, most
famously, the Khoi and the San), as well as Bantu immigration, slavery, colonisation, settler economies, and liberation movements. These histories combined to produce a dramatic effect on the make-up of South Africa’s population. Regardless, through the
interchange of cultures and sharing of cultural influences in the age of
globalisation, South Africa has grown a rich and diverse cultural heritage
that has been established through all the different ethnic groups of people
that inhabited it over its long history.

Culture is ever-changing as people live in communities shared with other
people from many different regions, races, language groups, religions, and
cultures.  People become citizens of a global community, and their
identities are increasingly influenced by this contact with others who are
different.  Different ethnic groups eat different kinds of food, dress in
different ways, worship differently, and speak different languages, yet we
all see ourselves as South Africans.  The diverse cultural heritage belongs
to all South Africans and gives us pride in ourselves, helps us express
ourselves, and helps us to learn about one another, which is the motive behind proclaiming Heritage Day.

Cultural heritage doesn’t mean just those forms that have existed and been
passed down over many years, but include evolved cultures found in art
forms, cultural practices, arts institutions, beliefs, and traditions that
exist today.  Kwaito music, for instance, is a South African cultural form
that has been shaped by South African life and forms part of our cultural

The opinion that all South Africa’s arts, culture, and heritage belong to
and benefit all South Africans, and that all South Africans should
therefore feel a responsibility to conserve and promote this cultural
heritage is often challenged when it comes to deciding who owns a particular
example of cultural heritage, such as a song, a design technique, or a rock
painting.  It is generally agreed that the particular group whose cultural
heritage is being used for any purpose should have the final say as to how
it may be used.  An example would be of a Ndebele design being used to
decorate the tail of a British Airways aeroplane.


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