The paternal side of my family tree was recently replenished with two boys whose births were separated by a day. I had the pleasure of meeting the one of the boys three days after his birth and the most outstanding aspect of meeting with one of Earth’s most recent arrivals was the carefulness with which his mother held him, as if she were holding humanity’s last hope in her very hands. Perhaps she is. That’s because the birth of a child is, to some extent, to interface with a future in its infancy and unblemished state and the task to nurture and raise that future is probably daunting and exhilarating. What, when and how do you teach and shape the minds of the latest addition of the human lineage, a lineage whose roots are many millennia deep? What do you leave behind for them to, not only remember you by, but also that places them in a propitious position to emulate what you have done or better it? In other words, what kind of heritage will your successors inherit?
September, as the designated period for heritage, didn’t disappoint as far as contestations of what constitutes heritage in a nation as diverse and polarised on so many fronts as our own. The fact that the Equality Court, through Judge Lamont, effectively ‘banned’ the governing ANC and the president of its youth wing, Julius Malema, from singing the struggle song, “Ayesaba Amagwala”, at the behest of a somewhat paranoid Afrikaner-centric civil rights organisation, Afriforum, certainly sweetened the debates. I, however, still feel that too much of our heritage narrative emphasizes the ‘traditional dressing up’ and therefore reduces heritage only to cultural identity. But heritage is more than, say, celebrating linguistic communities or social groupings to which one ‘belongs’, it’s also as much about the present as it is about the past and the future. That’s because heritage is both inherited (past) and created (present) and languages are probably a better illustration of what I’m arguing. The languages that we speak today have been passed down from generation to generation since their origins and they form part of our linguistic inheritance but when the time comes for us to pass the baton they would, hopefully, not be in the state in which we received them because we would have added some new words that signify the development that we would’ve been part of at the time. In that very process we can safely say that we would’ve contributed to what would be an inheritance for our successors. Sophie Didier,Natasha Erlank, Karie Morgan, Naomi Roux and Mfaniseni Sihlongonyane of the French Institute of South Africa, Universities of Johannesburg and Witwatersrand respectively, in a Mail and Guardian published piece “The meaning of heritage”, co-wote the following: “If heritage is something that is created, rather than something that is found, then it follows that heritage changes. Events are written out of our favoured narratives of history, “hidden heroes” are brought to light in a new account, new stories are spun and old ones are laid to rest. In an urban context heritage may include past events but also, less tangibly, neighbourhood identities and histories with resonance in the present.”
The government of the democratic dispensation has gone to great lengths to try to construct new identities to which all citizens may feel are connected to but the irony is that Apartheid, or rather its legacy, is arguably the common inheritance South African share, with different experiences, of course. Who says heritage ought to always be positive? This Apartheid heritage expresses itself on a political, economical and social level. Our political affiliations are still (justifiably perhaps) across racial lines; the colour economic prosperity is still largely white while the colour of economic depravation is as black as it was before 1994, if not worse. This, however, doesn’t negate the swelling of the middle class by Africans, black diamonds they are called. Needless to say that economic leverage, or lack of it, has implications on socio-racial relations in the republic because the affluent will, in all probability, mingle amongst those of similar tastes and those in the working class will equally keep to themselves but is this sustainable and consistent with our constitutional aspirations? A more pertinent question would be whether or not we are satisfied with the socio economic heritage we’re creating for those who will succeed us? It would be the worst indictment on our name for some of our children’s children to be taught under trees like their grandparents and those who preceded them or for the infant mortality rates to remain just as high in the future. Where would the sense of development be? If a Palestinian and an Israeli youth born in, say, 1990 will expected to be part of the long standing contestation of the 1967 border agreements, then what kind of political, economic and social inheritance awaits them? Will they be expected to respect each other, if so, how?
We must be mindful of the fact that in our everyday activities, or inactivity, we’re constructing, or contributing to, the heritage that will be bequeathed to those born presently. So, in essence we’re making future histories (as paradoxical as it is) because inevitably we’re all products of history, although we aren’t always defined by that whose result we are of. This presently created heritage doesn’t only assume a national political character but it starts at an individual level and within the family/communal structure. How was I raised? Do I want to raise my children in the same fashion? What is the source of information within my surrounding and is it contributing meaningfully to a desired result? If unintended consequences arise, how do I, within my immediate area of influence, counteract them? These are also the ideas that ought to form part of the greater debates that relate to heritage and not just ordinary (but well meaning) activities of ‘dressing up’ into our cultural identities because to concern oneself with the kind of heritage one produces is to be futuristic in one’s outlook. The opening stanza of his poem, “The Epilogue of Venom”, the South African poet, Moemise Motsepe, lament:”when the children of our children/hold us to judgement/the currency of our being shall be found in want/invalid and sterile/grim and grey with decay/there on barren grit/Africa looking down at his feet/chained, drained and dried to the core/sapped of all essence and worth/left poisoned and septic/and all by choice in fact.” Is that the kind of heritage we will bequeath? Only time will tell but we must be alive to the fact that if we don’t create anything meaningful, in all areas of our lives, then what our children will receive may very well be meaningless.