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Preservation of heritage or perpetuation of a single national identity?
Preservation of heritage or perpetuation of a single national identity?
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Preservation of heritage or perpetuation of a single national identity?

Date Released: Fri, 21 September 2018 14:55 +0200

By Sino Falakahla, third-year Journalism and Media Studies student

National monuments, museums and symbols in South Africa are constantly under contestation. When the country became a democratic country in 1994, a new national identity needed to be realised. The change in the national ideology was met with a new heritage realisation that saw the shift from the old national symbols such as the national anthem, the national flag and a unique coat of arms.

During this transitional period, political elites can be said to have strived to erect new monuments that are meant to celebrate the kinds of ideals and national identity that they want citizens to strive towards, and in so doing, also remember the past. However, we are still met with memorials of colonial oppressors and symbols such as colonial names for towns, institutions and landmarks.

In 2015, students across the country joined in forces in what is known as the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which calls for the removal of statues and monuments depicting John Cecile Rhodes in public and university spaces. In light of this, and in line with National Heritage Day on 24 September, the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) requested meetings with students around the country to deliberate the transformation of the heritage landscape.  

On 17 September, DAC met with Rhodes University students in an open forum to discuss the need for a more transformative landscape which is more accurate to the country’s history and heritage. Among those present were Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela, several Arts and Culture Department heads and The Task Force Council (which includes the National Geographic Naming Council and Heritage Council of SA), the student body and local community members.

DAC’s initiative to create ongoing conversations around decolonising institutions and the removal of said colonial statues and monuments has been met with lots of contestation.

Dr Mabizela addressed attendees, “Heritage is about who we are as people, where we have been and where we are heading. Heritage both in tangible and intangible form is about our history and our national identity.”

CEO of the National Heritage Council of SA, Advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa, said, “Issues of social memory were placed within the public stream of discourse when students raised the flag on the issue of Rhodes Must Fall and subsequently, Fees Must Fall. The issue of that discourse was significant to the national discourse.”

The Rhodes Must Fall Movement believes that memorials and monuments are political constructions that recall and represent histories selectively, drawing widespread attention to specific events and people while silencing others. Johnny Mohlala, Chair of the National Geographic Naming Council, suggested that instead of removing memorials and statues, we erect new ones beside existing ones to represent South Africa’s history better.

“A nation that does not care for its heritage is a lost nation. A nation without a sense of its past is a nation with no sense of its future. We cannot desecrate, deface or destroy our heritage without desecrating, defacing or destroying ourselves. It is in valuing and appreciating our rich and diverse heritage that we can contribute meaningfully to the project of nation-building, national reconciliation and social cohesion,” added Dr Mabizela.