Rhodes University connects past to present in heritage commemoration

South African flag showing unity in diversity.
South African flag showing unity in diversity.

Rhodes University’s Equity and Institutional Culture office recently hosted webinar sessions in commemoration of and closing off of Heritage Month. The two-day webinar series, themed “Connecting the past to the present”, saw different speakers presenting on several issues about the history of South Africa.

The organiser of the event and Rhodes University Manager: Anti-Harassment, Dr Zethu Mkhize said they organised the event to try and raise awareness about equity, redress and social justice. The event was not only for Rhodes University but for the greater Makhanda community. “We want people to know and understand where we come from in order to shape where we are going,” she explained. She said celebrating or commemorating the Heritage Day, is an annual event as per the Unit’s awareness calendar, however, the idea of a tour to the historical sites  came from a History student, Masixole Heshu, and it was in line with the Unit’s objective and functions. In light of the Covid-19 restrictions, a virtual tour and a webinar session were considered.

The first day started with a virtual tour of the five historical sites in Makhanda. Dr Mkhize said the discrepancies between the two  two monuments in Makhanda, namely the 1820 Settlers’ and Egazini monument were identified  as these are not elevated to the same standard. Day two had four panellists presenting on different topics. These were the  Head of Isikhumbuzo Applied History Unit, Professor Julie Wells; Equity and Institutional Culture Director, Noluxolo Nhlapho; Political Masters’ candidate, Chuma Nelani and member of the public, Ayanda Kota. The Student Representative Council President, Katlego Mphahlele was the facilitator of the webinar.

Among the issues tackled during the webinar was the validity of documented history. Participants acknowledged that not everything is recorded, and some of the written history might be distorted. The Panelists called for the excavation of events that have been documented in the history of Makhanda.

Mr Nelani touched on the issue of a visible inequality in Makhanda and said the city resembles an ontology of the South African state at large. “When you stand at the 1820 Settlers’ Monument and look at Makhanda, you can see a line that divides and separate rich whites and black elites from the poor and marginalised blacks. This demonstrates the characteristics you find in the rest of South Africa,” he explained.

Prof Wells argued that the early people who came to the English towns were very desperate refugees who had undergone extreme hardship. “When they got here, they were offered the opportunity to assimilate to western culture. However, even those who conformed eventually decided assimilating was a ‘lost cause’, tried to return to their roots and identified themselves as Xhosa in the 20th century. Makhanda does not only show the difference between rich whites and blacks, but there is an intermediate layer of black people who became the ministers, teachers, preachers, court clerks,” she said.

Mr Kota alluded to the Marikana massacre being misconstrued and distorted under a narrative about the workers consulting a traditional healer that told them his muthi would make them invincible ,and they would not die. “The workers were propelled by their socio-economic conditions. It was either some crumbs from the table of the master or their lives. They were prepared to lay down their lives for change. This narrative seeks to take away the urgency of our people to be liberated. Pre-1994 there was hope that our people would defeat the mighty apartheid but post-apartheid there is despair, and our people are still not free.

Dr Mkhize said it was quite disappointing that people have lived with elusive hope that they have not attained and enjoyed freedom as South Africans. “Economically and socially  we have not attained it, but politically  we have attained it,” she said. She called for people to learn to co-exist, accept one another and tap into the wealth of  heritage we have as people of this country. Mr Kota said there is an urgent need for learners to be introduced to the knowledge of historical sites to preserve them.

Due to technical glitches, Ms Nhlapo could not make her presentation during the webinar as she connected only at the end. Dr Mkhize said the discourse  would continue as part of the awareness raising strategy for the Rhodes University community.