A UJ student perspective on celebrating Heritage Month in South Africa

​Heritage, while it is simply defined in several dictionaries and thesaurus as honour or pride that comes to one because of birth or through inheritance, transcends this. Heritage also comes by socialisation. It refers to the principles that one is taught by family and society. This is how Ms Cynthia Chigwenya sees heritage and culture as well as the need to preserve them despite the changing perceptions caused by globalisation.

Chigwenya is a 2020 MPhil in Social Policy Development candidate at the University of Johannesburg. She says that in some instances, heritage comes from the observation of common practices within one’s environment, practices that are inherently human, practices that even if one is not taught, they come naturally to human behaviour such as ubuntu.

“I took part in various celebrations and festivities that happen around Heritage Day, but as I always say with celebrations, including Africa Day and Youth Day, culture and heritage should not only be celebrated in one day. Our culture is expressed in the way we live; the kind of food we eat; the way we dress; the way we interact with others, particularly with elders or the vulnerable groups. I use social media to express the stuff I like about our African heritage, a tool that many young people have managed to leverage,” says Chigwenya.

She says that culture and heritage influence her lifestyle. “The values that I possess, including being respectful, kind, tolerance, greeting elders, being polite and hardworking, were certainly passed through both through the Ndebele and Shona cultural practices, my origins. I cannot imagine living my life outside these inculcated values.

“My understanding of heritage in modern-day society is that the current modern society has aided the preservation of our heritage, through initiatives like Dr Esther Mahlangu’s contemporary art, which has been digitised. Digitisation grants a wider audience the opportunity to peep into other people’s cultural windows, and create awareness. At the same time, however, modern-day society has downplayed the importance of expressing our heritage beyond heritage day. There are limited platforms where young people interact with their grandparents so that indigenous knowledge can be passed to them orally,” explains Chigwenya.

On whether the current generation of young people in South African understands the importance of cultures and heritage, Chigwenya says, “Yes, I think that the youth (this current generation) know and understand heritage and culture very well; they have taken up the struggle against contemporary issues such as racism, representation in different organisations, gender roles, and other ways, albeit in an unconventional way.”

She raises awareness about African cultures and heritage through intra-Africa travel to countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia, Botswana. She believes that the mainstream media have painted wrong perceptions and images that have caused many African people to opt for travelling to Dubai over knowing the diverse African heritage. “I also express my African pride in the way I dress, I retell the richness of the #Africanprint material and the need to express this every day,” explains Chigwenya.

On whether heritage is a national or individual matter, Chigwenya says “Heritage and culture should undoubtedly be a matter of national interest. It ranks up there with the national flag; heritage is identity in practice. It is what defines a people. Their shared values, principles, priorities, and commonalities, therefore, to strip a nation of its heritage, is to strip that nation of its identity.

Chigwenya believes that it is important to preserve culture and heritage because the two add to national prestige. In cases where indigenous practices are at risk of disappearing due to the introduction of foreign cultures, she says, preserving heritage helps in keeping people’s shared integrity and values. Preserved heritage could also be a means to generate income through tourism. She refers to Dr Esther Mahlangu as an example. Dr Mahlangu is an artist who has preserved the Ndebele culture through contemporary paintings, earning her international fame and acknowledgements, including a doctorate from UJ.

Chigwenya says that young Africans should live the African brand through their diverse heritage and cultures even in the modern lifestyles young people lead.I think that African culture, in general, is at risk of being influenced by other practices, mainly due to the transfer of practices through globalisation. As a result, cultural identity has gradually shifted to an individual matter. Of course, there are those who are still grounded in cultural identity, but we cannot be oblivious to the changes that are perceptible in modern-day cultural identity,” she says.


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