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Distorted notion of unity

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Picture: African News Agency (ANA) – Tshwane residents gathered at the Union Building to celebrate Heritage Day in Pretoria, South Africa.

by Dr Mpumelelo Ncube

September is the heritage month in South Africa during which the nation observes and celebrates all that it inherited from preceding generations. This is the sort of inheritance that includes but is not limited to culture, traditions, monuments, knowledge, land, and belief systems. It anchors the nation. The value attached to any form of heritage is what sustains it and any inheritance that may be deemed to be of less value, loses its significance with the progression of time.

Heritage month and day is the time the nation should celebrate oneness in diversity. Unity in diversity requires clarity of mind and extreme levels of tolerance for each other’s uniqueness. South African society presents such diversity in languages, cultures, religions, tribes, politics, and nationalities among others. Although some of these are inherited and others are acquired, they create a mosaic worth embracing and celebrating.

Language is one critical aspect of people’s heritage

We, however, need to be critical of what we celebrate considering the distorted nature of some of what we have inherited. Language is one critical aspect of people’s heritage. It defines who they are and through it, people are able to create their worldview and develop relationships not only with one another but with their world as well.

The African history of colonialism and apartheid that is still perpetuated through various colonial matrices of power has and continues to impact negatively on linguistic interactions.

The impact is such that the indigenous African languages are quickly losing their depth as communities experience a linguistic shift to English which is a minority language but due to its economic dominance, commands authority. African parents are putting up with a system that demands their children be taught in a language other than their own and many of them see nothing wrong with that. Given a chance, they would demand that the status quo be upheld or even enhanced. These are the lived experiences of colonisation and its impact on daily lives including language.

Picture: Khaya Ngwenya/African News Agency (ANA) – Hare Krishna girls during the One Spirit-Heritage Festival in north beach, Durban, South Africa.

If you control people’s language, you control their understanding which forms their worldview. You further control the extent of their development as language is pivotal in ingenuity. Ingenuity speaks to inventiveness and originality. Surely, such cannot manifest through the second, third or fourth languages of instruction which is a common phenomenon across the African continent. Even as people celebrate their heritage, many are struggling to identify some features of their heritage in their languages, let alone start and finish a sentence in their mother tongue. In some communities, it is even seen as a sign of being educated. What type of education is this that disinherits you of your mother tongue? In celebrating diversity, why is it that it’s only the black child who gets given an English name? So many questions that are indicative of a system that is unkind to language diversity as it is lopsided to disadvantage indigenous African languages. It renders celebrations of unity in diversity a mockery.

People have been turned tourists in their own heritage

African food, music, and attire form the tapestry of Heritage Day. At least for a day, one gets a rare experience of one’s identity. For a day, people marvel at the richness of their types of food and feel different but good in their traditional attire while dancing to the sounds of their own music. It is one’s heritage after all. The sad part is that people have become tourists in their own heritage. Their identity no longer forms part of their daily lives. It is one to be visited occasionally.

Foreign tendencies have formed habits that in turn are creating new identities and heritages. It is these new heritages that the current generations will bequeath to forthcoming generations.

However, we as a people would have moved further away from who we originally were. This has dire consequences on the identity and progression of the nation. As we celebrate this September, let us critically think about what it is that we are celebrating when we are detached from the heritage ceded to us by the generations before us.

Ncube is an Academic Head and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Social Work, University of the Free State (UFS).