Remarks of the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, on the Occasion of the Celebration of National Heritage Day, Galeshewe, Kimberley, 24 September 2004

Honourable Ministers and Deputy-Ministers,
Premier of the Northern Cape, Dipuo Peters,
Honourable MPs, MPLs, MECs and Councillors,
Distinguished Guests,
People of the Northern Cape,
Comrades, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Today is our National Heritage Day. We meet here in Galeshewe to celebrate our rich culture and heritage drawn from all our people, black and white.

The weavers of iHluzo and Isilulu, the baskets from Hlabisa woven with care by Reuben Ndwandwe and Beauty Ngxongo, the makers of Ntwana dolls, the Litema of the Basotho women, the iNcwala, the reed dance - these are only some of the traditions that have survived the passage of time.

Yet, as we meet today on this Heritage Day, we must ask ourselves the question whether we are preserving our heritage; whether in all that we are doing, we advance or retard and destroy our traditions, our languages and our customs.

We need to confront the reality that by our mannerisms, our accents, our preferred cuisines, our style of dress, the music that we play, the step of our dance and the totality of our ways of living, many of us see ourselves as clones of other cultures, and accidentally happen to be condemned by birthright to be Africans.

We need to ask ourselves as to how many of our children can speak their African languages properly, and, ask whether these children, our own flesh and blood and our youth, know their traditions and customs. And if they are ignorant of these traditions and customs -who is to blame?

These are the questions that we should address, not just because today is the National Heritage Day, but also because failure to do so would condemn us to become a people without a past, without identity and without culture and tradition.

We must confront this challenge everyday and ensure that we bring to a halt the erosion and destruction of our traditions and beliefs. This is necessary because if, as Africans, we are to claim the 21st century for ourselves, we have a duty to preserve our traditions and heritage.

Of course as we work to preserve our traditions, we will do this within the context of an ever-changing world that is driven by modern technology.

Accordingly, it is inevitable that these technological changes will impact on our traditions, cultures and beliefs.

Yet, it is important and necessary that these changes should not make us lose our identity and our African tradition of Ubuntu, upon which is derived such critical humanist and uplifting practices as Letsema, Batho Pele and Vuk'uzenzele.

The ethos represented by all these, of human solidarity, sacrifice for the common good, a people-centred approach to development, and self-reliance, are aptly expressed by an old African adage: motho ke motho ka batho!

We are fortunate that there are still some ordinary men and women of our country who are daily weaving a memory, beading a legacy, cutting a spoor, telling a story, and loading into these into bowls of history, a future for all our people driven by the humane vision of Ubuntu, the deep-seated sentiment that makes us who we are.

All this constitutes our living heritage. Indeed, there are some elements of that living heritage that we practise, or witness today, which are part of the inheritance from our human ancestors from time immemorial.

Yet again, why should it be that it is by chance that we practise these important elements of our traditions!

Some of us practise our African traditions in the cover of darkness and nervously giggle as these are mocked, ashamed to acknowledge our connection to, and the full benefit we derive from the rich tapestry of these customs and traditions.

Our living heritage ranges from oral traditions, oral histories, rituals, and indigenous knowledge systems. Clearly, elements of these traditions, being an expression of ourselves in our changing conditions, have been subjected to a process of transformation.

Some of these changes relate to the correct emphasis on the important question of equality among all our people, irrespective of class or gender.

Accordingly, we see our traditions and customs as important building blocks for a non-racial, non-sexist, multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural democratic society.

All of us gathered here know that we are emerging from a terrible past that ridiculed and sought to destroy our customs and despoil our traditions and religions.

We come from a history part of which still defines our lives. This is a history in which to condemn anything and everything African, was to be 'civilised', a history wherein to embrace without question foreign traditions and beliefs was a passport into being a kitchen nigger or in the South African parlance - a baas boy.

We come from a past where colonial masters sought to inculcate a false belief that the natives of this country had no history and that the beginning of history was when the white man came to our shores. Hence a native could not be Matome, but James, and Nomathemba had to become Jane.

Fortunately, through our determined struggles, we defeated colonialism and apartheid. The freedom we won through our sacrifices has created the possibility for all our people to reclaim our heritage.

Part of this heritage is the rich history of indigenous knowledge -in the arts, psychology, medicine, social sciences and others.

African artefacts exhibited in museums and elsewhere are collections that may suggest they constitute merely a historical marvel. Yet, they are part of a living heritage that tells stories of our real life experiences.

This living heritage is a totality of our historical experiences -the manner in which communities deal with birth, coming of age, maturity, marriage, old age and death, and the manner in which we celebrate these stages of human development.

Living heritage represents the manner in which we deal with poverty and destitution, how we build our economies, how we create stability; how we resolve conflicts; how we cope with war and the ways in which we bring about peace; how we co-exist with other communities and build a healthy relationship with our natural environment.

This living heritage is the narration of our stories, passing from generation to generation, about who we are, where we come from and where we should be going. All these are communicated through oral history, through song, through dance and today, also through the written word.

As we know, traditional knowledge has been impacted upon by colonialism and apartheid. This has included the propagation of false philosophies concerning the inferiority on the African peoples. It has entailed the spread and advancement of economic paradigms such as the worship of personal enrichment at all costs.

It has encompassed the introduction of benign foreign religions, which were introduced to destroy ours.

Clearly, these have had an influence on indigenous rites of passage, indigenous methods of conflict resolution, and consequently and more insidiously, on the self-esteem of our people.

Accordingly, part of the challenges of the renaissance of Africa is to empower Africans to be proud of their traditions and of who they are, so that they occupy their pride of place as equals with all the peoples of the world.

Government departments, non-governmental organisations, community-based organisations and individuals have undertaken pockets of uncoordinated initiatives to preserve and popularise our living heritage.

While these are recognised and commended, a better and well-coordinated approach as well as participatory community driven strategies are required to develop a comprehensive programme to enrich our living heritage.

The programme should transcend the collection of elements of that living heritage and culminate in the development of coherent policies and programmes that would mobilise and inspire the totality of all our people.

This means that our traditions must form part of our daily activities, as we celebrate or commemorate significant events of our lives, whether as families, communities and the nation. It means that when a visitor happens to observe our communities as they celebrate their achievements or our nation engaging in important national activities, he or she should see the unique tapestry of South African traditions, different from what they may have observed elsewhere.

We should create better conditions such that those who have been and are still engaged in the work of preserving our culture are empowered to contribute to the celebration of our identity as a people. We have a duty to ensure that the preservation of our culture is the responsibility of all the people of South Africa.

All these things we should do because we owe our children, the generations yet to be born, and ourselves, the gift of African culture, of the African languages and our belief systems. Let us together work to save our children and ourselves from an empty, shallow and misleading, yet pervasive pop- culture.

I wish you and all the people of South Africa a happy and fulfilling National Heritage Day. May we from today, ensure that everyday is a heritage day.

I thank you.

Enquiries: Bheki Khumalo
Tel: 012 300 5437
Cell: 083 256 9133

Issued by: The Presidency
24 September 2004

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