Fifteen years of heritage and cultural shame

Fifteen years of heritage and cultural shame


OPINION: The government has over the past 15 years, failed to exert its authority when it comes to protecting and preserving the culture of all groups across the country, writes Thando Mahlangu.

As we kick off Heritage Month, we ought to remember that language and culture are two pivotal factors for any South African.

Your language and culture signify who you are.

They build your character.

It is no secret that when a person respects other people’s cultures, they show tolerance and courtesy.

The sad reality, however, is that at times, those who live in our communities display high levels of intolerance over who we are, what we eat, where we live, the clothes we wear and ridicule our activities of choice.

I’m familiar with how even those who form part of my Ndebele culture – who are supposed to understand me better – from time to time also show intolerance.

I remember how, years back, when I began selling my Ndebele painted hats on the streets, I was shunned. Some people concluded that I was crazy while others assumed I smoked nyaope (drugs).

But nothing is as disheartening and shameful as how the government has over the past 15 years, failed to exert its authority when it comes to protecting and preserving the culture of all groups across the country.

Some cultures and traditions have been given superiority over others as if the Constitution does not recognise us all.

It is also shameful that post-democracy, some people are not free to celebrate who they are in a safe space.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to reflect on the inception of what we now know as Heritage Day, celebrated annually on September 24. According to records, prior to democracy, September 24 was recognised as Shaka Day – in a bid to commemorate Shaka Zulu.

However, communities then proposed a Public Holidays Bill before Parliament; Shaka Day was omitted, a move which at the time, the IFP vehemently objected to.

Just as negotiations were finalised by political leaders to move South Africa forward, the same compromise had to be reached in respect of the country’s public holidays. This agreement between parties with dissenting views introduced Heritage Day, a time when various people celebrate their cultural diversity.

Some would be quick to point out that the Department of Arts and Culture has fared well in developing a draft policy on South Africa’s living heritage.

But over the past decade it has become clear that when it comes to our heritage and culture – we are on our own.

The department has become dysfunctional almost to the point that it doesn’t exist. It boggles the mind why the Presidency would merge this important department with sports?

Department of Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa is seemingly also clueless when it comes to running that department.

His ministry should help bring together new and old and different generations and preserve language and culture, but we haven’t seen that.

The biggest travesty of our time is that after 1994, our government failed to respect our heritage. Our govern- ment hasn’t bothered building the economy or investing in our languages and culture – the way that the People’s Republic of China has.

Let us consider our national anthem for a minute. It only has four languages.

As an Ndebele man, I ask myself why was my language excluded when we have 11 official languages.

Am I meant to sing an Afrikaans and English part proudly, knowing that isiNdebele is not part of it?

While South Africa recently celebrated 27 years of freedom, little has been done to preserve our cultures.

What saddens me the most is that all KwaNdebele firms have shut down from Siyabuswa right up to Kwaggafontein and Tweefontein.

Now Ekandustrial firms are closing down one at a time since the ANC government took over in 1994. In October 2018, I had an incident with a luxurious train in transport.

You see, they wouldn’t allow me to board their train from Park Station to Hatfield, Pretoria.

That incident affected me badly.

The stress escalated and matters were complicated further. My confidence dwindled.

It got to a point where I began isolating myself. I was afraid to face the world wearing my Ndebele attire.

Then three years later, the same calamity struck.

This time, I was at the Boulders Shopping Centre in Midrand when I was asked to leave the Clicks store simply because, yet again, I was adorned in my Ndebele attire.

The humiliation I encountered at the hands of another African brother in full view of everyone, including Clicks staff members who did nothing to help me, left me feeling battered.

I was humiliated by a brother, who was supposed to protect me, but he didn’t. Instead, he made a mockery of my culture and even went as far as to point out that I was wearing underwear when he could have learnt what my garments symbolised.

Sikhathi sokuziphathela, maNdebele (It’s time for amaNdebele to take back their power).

As we move forward as a country, we ought to remember the importance of teaching our children our languages, our family trees. We must teach them to respect and accept others. I am resolute in who I am and would never change.

I love my culture; I love our paintings and all the humanity that amaNdebele come with.

This month, let’s remember who we are.

That is where our strength lies.

* Mahlangu is a Ndebele activist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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