Wednesday 24th September was celebrated in South Africa as National Heritage Day. According to the South African Commission on Human Rights it is a day to celebrate because people have the right to live their culture, practice their religion and speak their own language enshrined in the Constitution of the country, and they have had these rights for the last twenty years.
This is, of course, a great opportunity to learn about and to celebrate the diverse cultures that make up South Africa. There is much that should be celebrated. People, for instance, wore their traditional clothes. I have to admit that In Hobeni that made very little difference at all because people wear their traditional dress as a matter of course. At the Trevor Huddleston Centre in Sophiatown they celebrated with music – what else? After all, it was Trevor Huddleston who acquired Hugh Masekela’s first trumpet and Jonas Gwangwa’s first trombone. Jonas Gwangwa apparently wanted a clarinet but did not know what the instrument was called, and so he asked for a trombone. And Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa used their music to help to liberate their country. At the Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre in East London, not that far from Hobeni, they celebrated with a party, cooking traditional foods such as umngqoshu, made from white maize and sugar beans, and amasi, which is fermented milk similar to yoghurt. Both are delicious.
But there is much in the various cultures that make up South Africa that has to be guarded against. For some reason the students at Stellenbosch University, once the heart of Afrikanerdom, thought that it was appropriate to dress up like Al Jolson, or the Black and White Minstrels. This was apparently a tribute to the Carnival in Cape Town that used to be called “The Coon Carnival” in the days of apartheid. Unsurprisingly, there has been widespread condemnation of their insensitivity and stupidity.
It strikes me that two of the most important things in South African culture that should be condemned are illustrated by the Oscar Pistorius case. The first is that this is a society where it is not thought dangerous to be armed to the teeth, even with unlicensed, and thus illegal, firearms. The second is that violence against women is accepted as the norm. This is illustrated by the “16 days of action on violence against women”. For 16 days, there is very little violence against women, but on day 17, that violence soars. Both of these are clearly not acceptable. These cultural attitudes have to be challenged and, more importantly, they have to be changed. We need to work closely with civil society organisations, like Masimanyane, that are taking the lead on these campaigns. We need to help them secure the changes that they are arguing for. We need to help them make sure that in South Africa there is a better life for all.
PS What did we do in Hobeni? Nothing. We have the builders in.