Reflecting on Dr Duane Jethro’s Talk on 09.10.2017 on the Question of Heritage in the South African Context

Dr Jethro focused his talk on a number of central issues pertaining to heritage, such as the question of heritage itself, the historical depiction thereof, and the important aspects of gender and indigenisation. He used the film ‘Krotoa’ – which traces the life of a Khoi woman torn between two cultures (her own and the European’s) during the reign of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape in the 17th Century – as a launching pad to open the discussion on the relevance of heritage formation and indigenous identity in the post-apartheid era.

Heritage as such and in the South African context in particular raises a number of concerns which are complex and problematic. As we know, apartheid and, more generally, the colonial era had interrupted and/or destroyed the original mode of existence of the peoples they ruled over, suppressed and oppressed. Under the new dispensation since 1994, Government has put in place a number of laws and practices to protect and enhance our heritage in its diversity and glory. However, what seems to be mising in the equation for both government and the people are the openness to and necessity of cross-cultural exchange which should help to invoke understanding and diminish misconception and negativity. At the same time, it brings into focus the question of the formation of an ideal unified nation.

As some of the film-footage at Jethro’s presentation showed, one is made aware of certain groups in Cape Town, for example, seeking recognition and sanctity of their ancestral past, through commemoration activities, protests and awarenessbuilding. Although these are very honourable and respectful deeds in their own right, such acts still seem to leave us wondering as to where our priorities lie at this stage of our democracy. By priorities I mean bread and butter issues such as poverty, unemployment, healthcare and education which I believe need our full attention. Identity concerns (heritage, for example) are of course important to us as a people but I just fear that we may be putting our efforts in the wrong place at the moment. I share the opinion that the heritage discussion is important; however it should not develop into a group-oriented debate only. A national approach is needed. Otherwise, we may fall into the trap of isolating ourselves into groups again, which is what we fought against in the fight for liberation.

These are very sensitive issues, and need proper scrutiny (and more) by all institutions – government, academic/academia, civil society, ngo’s – to find the best way forward. Participants at our talk highlighted some of these complexities by referring to the language in thought and application, the cultural importance and relevance of our existence, and the question of identity as a person or group in any given social context.

I found the talk open and constructive. Such debates are necessary and important for a greater understanding of some of the issues that are fundamental to the South African society as a whole.

Arnold Isaacs

20 October 2017

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