Culture vs Heritage: Do you know the difference?

Culture vs Heritage: Do you know the difference?

We’ve just celebrated Heritage Day in South Africa and Terence Pillay asks if we honoured our uniquely South African Heritage or just simply nodded to our individual cultures.

South African people braaing meat together / iStock
South African people braaing meat together / iStock

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I read a really interesting story on social media recently where a young man wrote about being away from South Africa for a while and coming back home there was a palpable sense of excitement – not just from him, but also every other person on his flight. 

I know whenever I travel, I love the idea of coming back home. I think there is a whole revolution of this now – almost like a movement, at the moment, of people, despite all the negativity in our country – a  groundswell of people who think they can't get Africa or South Africa out of their blood. Anyone born on this continent knows that Africa is in your blood.

So we celebrated Heritage Day yesterday, and I want to explore the idea of Heritage Day; what it is and what it should be, because as a South African Indian, being Indian is my culture. It's my lineage. But I'm South African because I was born here. So the there’s almost a hierarchy of heritage. So I think, one needs to decide – are you European first and then African second, or Chinese first and then African and vice versa? I mean, where do you draw the connection? I think that's a personal choice of heart, how connected you feel to your roots. If you're a fourth-generation South African Indian for example, at what point do you drop the “Indian”? At what point are you just South African?

The thing with me is, while I'm fascinated by the culture and all of that which speaks to my Indian roots, I feel absolutely no bond or connection to India. Better yet, I don't feel as strong a bond or connection to India, as I do to South Africa. And that’s because I’m a South African first. I'm a South African of Indian extraction. I think because we were a multicultural society or whatever you want to call it, a non-heterogeneous society if you will, because we have a history, you can't deny history. The fact is, we're a country, made up of people who come from all over the world more so than any country in the world. Most countries are much more homogenous. So for example, Asian countries like China and Korea and Scandinavian countries, it's a lot more uniform where everybody kind of has similar roots.

But we have a unique history. And so, we are a mixed bag of people. So how do we define what a South African heritage is, or what a South African heritage should be? In my view, a South African heritage is a reflection of that melting pot; it's all the things that make us uniquely South African, whether you are White South African or Black South African, a South African of Indian extraction, or a South African of Chinese extraction, there are lots and lots of things that connect us. We have a common history with each other.

I don’t like the fact that Heritage Days has been co-opted in the way it has because a braai is not unique to South Africa. They do a barbecue in the US and Australia and other parts of the world. What I would hope is different about it here, is that it is about bringing people together. It's not about the meat on the fire; that’s just incidental. So forget about braaing, and think about how you define heritage; is it nation first or is it history first. Do we define ourselves by those tenuous links to our culture, which is different, in my view, to our heritage? I think we start to see more of it now; people are starting to really identify with South Africa as a country, and there are certain things that kind of that reignite that. So, for example, the Rugby World Cup, or sporting events have a way of connecting people; it's a unifying force. 

I don't think we make a conscious effort to go and connect with other cultures, we don't embrace that. I want to be able to sit around the table with my friends of all shapes and sizes and persuasions because that's what makes us uniquely South African; this whole melting pot of different things. 

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I’m really enjoying the idea of the #I’mStaying group that’s on social media at the moment. So some or other random guy who, I think, in the face of all sorts of negativity and especially in light of xenophobia and gender-based violence, started the hashtag to get people to spread some positivity in the country. And then it just caught on and has gone viral. It’s all about building people up, positivity and giving the reasons why we are connected; and it's been very, very successful.  

I think what I've learned from the #I'mStaying is that there's a small community of people who are divisive, and who are negative, but by and large, I think we pretty much get along. I saw something really amazing recently where someone posted a picture of her domestic helper carrying her baby on her back and told the story of when she fell pregnant and her husband left her, this helper raised the kid with her. 

There are hundreds of stories like that in South Africa. And that's what we should be focusing on as opposed to all the negativity that is being spread here. These kinds of stories are a lot more prevalent than we think. But what happens is, you get a little group of angry, divisive, negative people – more often than not, politicians, who go and spread this kind of bull, and people buy into it.  

At the end of the day, what unifies people most effectively is the fact that we’re all human beings. And the question needs to be asked:  what did you celebrate yesterday? Did you celebrate your heritage, which is South African if you were born on this soil, or did you celebrate your culture? Are your culture and your heritage the same thing? If you were born here, you may borrow things from your culture, you may prefer to eat from your culture or dress from your culture or speak the language from your culture – but that’s not heritage.

I read an interesting story on #I'mStaying about a guy who went to Japan and lived there for five years. He didn't say what his motivations were, but just that he went over and spent a lot of time exploring the Japanese culture and the geography and history, and he learned a lot. And he said what he learned was that the people are very hard-working, and they and had a certain work ethic and he thought he actually needed to come back to South Africa, and bring some of those lessons back here and that's what he did, he came back and he started to invest in property and he's been building a business and that kind of thing. 

And I thought it was just really interesting in that he said he would encourage other young people in South Africa to travel the world and learn about how other people live. Because then you come back not only with an appreciation of this country and its beauty and its people, but also you come back with lessons that you can implement, and improve this country and make it a better place for that. And that’s what our heritage should be.

We live in a global society now. I think we are a generation who stayed here, we got educated here and we found jobs here. This new generation has so much more than we had and they have the opportunity to do great things and be great. But they can't do it if they're going to be insular in their thinking and how all they know is this little world, which is South Africa, or even a little village or town. And this is how they can start building their South African heritage – informed by so much more.  

I think for a lot of people, because their parents are so angry about the past, for whatever reason, they’re passing that on to the children here and they’re developing a culture of anger and heritage of anger; so let's let that go. So you see, heritage is not only about the traditions and the folklore and all those things it’s also about starting to move beyond the anger.

You know people keep saying you can't tell me to forget. you can't tell me to do this, you can't tell me to do that. So when do we stop? At what point do we say we’re moving past the anger and we get into a happy heritage that is of love and embracing. You can remember, but it doesn't have to define it. Express and live those kinds of values.

I don't understand why we don't translate that into our politics and economics to actually say “let's change things”, because we have the opportunity to. I think we still have an opportunity to be a revolutionary country in that we do things differently because of our history. 

We don't have to follow the ordinary path. We can do the path less travelled. That means, it might be challenging and it might mean you have to step outside of your comfort zone learn something new and put yourself in a little bit of an uncomfortable situation. But we have that opportunity. And I think that when you do ponder on what is so uniquely South African in our heritage, you’ll find it’s our resilience, as a people. No matter what colour we are, we're all resilient and we come out on top. 

You can email Terence Pillay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter and engage with him there.

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