Our shared South African Heritage

A talk by Dr Roy Stauth, Committee Member, Graaff-Reinet Heritage Society given at the AGM of the Graaff-Reinet Friends of the Museum 28 June 2007


My dictionary defines heritage as anything that has been transmitted from the past (or handed down by tradition), or evidence of the past (considered collectively as the inheritance of the present-day society), or a way of life practiced in the past. These definitions indicate that anything we can discover or know about the past may be considered as our heritage. But heritage is not simply history – that which befalls us – it is rather what we choose to know, keep, and value from the past. Heritage is that part of our history which defines us and which we cherish.

I define heritage as anything which we “inherit”, and which we recognize as rightfully or appropriately belonging to us, and therefore value for that reason if no other. People often speak of “personal heritage” – those things from the past that are distinctly one’s own – but here we are referring to “collective heritage” – those things from the past that belong to groups of people with whom we identify or relate to in some way.

Collective heritage is important for two reasons. First, a shared heritage provides us with a common past, and this gives us a sense of identity and belonging. Second, a shared heritage is like a rich mine from which we may select and emphasize the good that we choose to cherish and to celebrate with others. These two aspects of collective heritage are closely related because both tie us to other human beings, often forging among us the strongest of human bonds. The main difference is that the first – knowledge of our common past – plays a significant role in understanding ourselves, and thus shaping our destiny. This aspect of heritage helps us to see what we are and why we are what we are; it also explains our place in the world. The second aspect of heritage – the ability to choose and cherish what we value in our history – enables us to take pride and satisfaction in who we are; it also points to our possible futures: what we want to be, and where we want to go.

But who are “we”? In South Africa that is a big question. How can so many people who have been on so many different roads call themselves One People?  I think the first thing we must do is step back and see the whole of which we are all a part. Historically South Africa has been (and to a large extent still is) an unusually fragmented and fractious country, with many different cultures, traditions, values, and memories; and thus South Africa’s heritage is not only greatly disjointed, it has been deeply conflicted and remains potentially divisive. What is one’s person’s valued heritage may be another person’s lamented tragedy. Given that heritage implies shared and cherished values, is there, in fact, anything that may appropriately, unambiguously, without any contentiousness, be called “South Africa’s heritage”?

I think there is, but to be so regarded we must begin to see South African history and present day society in a very different light than is customary. We must cultivate a new way of thinking about both history and heritage, try to see the past in terms that are positive and tinged with sympathy and understanding, and adopt a view about both the past and the present that is much broader than is the “common view” (usually limited to that of one group or another). If we can better understand and empathize with those from whom we have been historically divided, if we can develop greater appreciation of their part of our national heritage, if we can find it in ourselves to extend greater consideration and tolerance toward all members of this society, then this concept of a “national heritage” – comprising our many distinct cultural heritages – can lead us closer to Nelson Mandela’s and Desmond Tutu’s cherished dream of a “Rainbow Nation”.


One of the important things about heritage is that it gives us a sense of identity, defining who we are, as well as seeing that we are part of something that is bigger than we are, and something in which we can take pride. Heritage consists, above all, in those things we are happy to claim, and to cherish.

If you were to go overseas and stay for a long period, and one day you overheard a bit of Afrikaans being spoken, or a strongly accented bit of South African English, or an expression like “Ag Man!”, or a phrase like “just now”, you would probably feel delighted to meet and greet your compatriot. Back in South Africa you might well not pay any attention to each other, but here in a foreign land you would recognize something very special in this person that you would value – no matter his race or ethnicity, or what constitutes his own special heritage.  Imagine for a moment what you might talk about, reminisce about. Those topics of discussion are some of the things that would constitute an important part of your national heritage.

Ironically it may be easier for me to see and appreciate, as an immigrant to South Africa, this country’s national heritage than it is for those of you who were born here, and grew up in a terribly divided society. I remember when I first arrived in South Africa, in April 1974, entering an incredibly beautiful, rich, colourful and vibrant world – “a world in one country” (as SATOUR aptly labelled it) – and somehow it all fitted together, not in the neat way that pieces of a puzzle fit, but in the rough, aesthetic manner of a mosaic. It was a powerfully impressive, profoundly fascinating world – and I immediately fell in love with it.

Two things above all made South Africa seem so very rich and appealing to me: the country’s great cultural diversity, and its great natural diversity. Both of these sources of diversity contribute greatly to the great richness of South Africa’s heritage. The first thing that impressed me was the rich diversity of the people and their cultures – diversity of racial and ethnic groups, languages, architecture, dress, food, traditions and customs. Then there were the highly diverse and beautiful landscapes, and the amazing biological diversity. I had come from a place much less varied, and far less interesting – and whenever I go back to visit family in the mid-western United States, I find myself bored – unstimulated – and can’t wait to return to South Africa.


There are really only two basic kinds of heritage: natural heritage and human heritage.  There is but one “type” of natural heritage: all those things bestowed by Nature, such as landscapes, wildlife, and plant communities. Our natural heritage is (or can be) a great unifier because it belongs to all of us.

Human heritage is much more complex. There are many levels of human heritage: for example there is personal, family, and community heritage; and there is ethnic, national and world heritage.

A good, general, all-encompassing term for human heritage would be “cultural heritage”, defined as all those special or defining attributes we share with those for whom we feel a unique affinity.  This would include, for example, not only the personal bonds we have established with family, friends, and members of our communities and various community organizations, but also associations we feel with our respective ethnic, religious, racial, linguistic, educational, social, and economic groups.  We all belong to different ethnic or racial groups, speak different languages, have different religious beliefs, etc. Thus every individual is an amalgam of different cultural threads, and his composite culture may be quite different to that of his best friend.

Unfortunately, cultural heritage can and very often does divide us; and if we are not sufficiently sensitive to and tolerant of the cultural beliefs and values of others, these beliefs and values become divisive. But if looked at from a broader perspective, cultural diversity is extremely enriching.  South Africa has an extraordinarily rich assortment of cultural heritages, and this is part of what makes South Africa so special: it is truly “A World in One Country”. And all these cultural heritages taken together – along with our rich natural heritage – comprise another level of heritage – this country’s national heritage – which is indeed something all South Africans can be justly proud of.  In fact, I can think of no other country that can boast of having such a rich and diverse national heritage.

At the broadest or most general level of collective heritage there is what we call “world heritage”.  South Africa, for example, now has eight World Heritage Sites (the latest – the Richtersveld – has just been proclaimed). These sites are regarded as the heritage of all the peoples of the world; that is, they represent things which have value to every national, ethnic, and cultural group in the world, and as such they give us a collective identity (which we call “humanity”), and provides a special source of pride and celebration for all peoples of the world.


Every sector of society, every identifiable group, has many things to cherish. Consider, for example, the poignant story of District Six in Cape Town – what it once was, all that was special about it, and the terrible thing that finally happened to it. The most obvious challenge facing museums – and other organisations intent on preserving a nation’s heritage – is to identify all those things from the past that are cherished by the descendants of all South Africa’s many cultures, and then not only preserve them but display them in a way that is sensitive and accurately conveys their meaning and value.

A less obvious, more difficult, but no less important challenge is to identify and capture all those things from the recent past as well as the present time that we have reason to believe future generations will cherish. Consider, for example, what the descendants of Umasizakhe will want to know about this community – not only the story of its brave child Robert Sobukwe, but also the special qualities of the Xhosa way of township life: its vibrancy, friendliness, and sense of “ubuntu”.

We must remember that future generations of South Africans will have a very different point of view about our common past from those points of view we hold today. They will lead very different ways of life, have different values and opportunities, and thus will have a very different perspective. We must anticipate this when we think about what we want to save for them and “recollect to them”.

Today many of us tend to focus on the deprivation, the crime and the injustice that has long plagued many South Africans; but that is not what our descendents will want to remember and cherish. And so we need to document and archive the positive things that have been characteristic of all of South Africa’s diverse communities and their past ways of life, as well as the positive ways in which they are now changing. The “New South Africa” has indeed demonstrated many bright and inspiring points of adjustment and development that we must take note of and capture for future generations.

It is also important to discover and document those elements which may be said to comprise our “common national heritage”. A multicultural society may share many common elements: what South African does not understand and appreciate “wors and pap”, or the trials and ideals of Madiba?  Museum curators can seek to cultivate or assemble an overarching set of national elements in which all cultural groups take pride, and are pleased to consider part of a grander, national heritage.

Then of course there is our recently proclaimed Camdeboo National Park. This part of our “natural heritage” is a very important part of our common heritage, which also serves to create shared bonds.


I would like to conclude by alluding to the well-known metaphor of South Africa being “a rainbow nation”. I like this image very much, and think it very appropriate to South Africa. This country strikes me as being as brilliantly rich and as bright as a rainbow emerging from a storm, and as full of promise that we are now entering a period of freshness and calm. This symbol has deep meaning not only for South Africans, but for the entire continent of Africa, and even for the world as a whole. I believe South Africa is destined to contribute much to World Heritage.

To consider the “rainbow” metaphor further, the separate colours of a rainbow may be seen to represent the many different cultures found in South Africa, and when these are all seen together they form a perfect and entire rainbow: the national heritage we all share. The important thing is to recognize and respect each cultural heritage, and to acknowledge and embrace the larger national heritage of which each is a part.

We must not lose sight of this –each group will naturally place special value on its own, particular heritage, but there is also an overarching, national heritage. A rainbow consists of many brilliant bands of colour – but as beautiful and striking as each of these may be, it is the aggregation of all these bands that makes the truly inspiring spectacle of a rainbow. South Africa is a rainbow nation – it deserves this appellation more than any other country in the world.

Curators of museums must be mindful of this dual nature of a country’s heritage: the individual cultural elements, and the all-embracing national elements. We need to preserve elements of each of these general types of heritage, and communicate the value of each and every one of the “group heritages” found in this country; but we must also not fail to establish more links between these various cultural heritages, and to celebrate them as part of our national heritage. When I saw the Black Tie Ensemble perform recently, I thought of them as a cultural link between different races; Miriam Makeba is also a cultural link, as is Johnny Clegg. The artist Dumisane Abraham Mabaso is another cultural link in our national heritage.  I think we should take a leaf from the Japanese notebook, and declare such people “National Treasures”.

We must recognize and emphasize the value of our common, national heritage, because it is something greater than the sum of its parts. The more such links that can be forged, the stronger this nation will be.



I believe that South Africa can become the first country to rise above the barriers of racism and ethnic bigotry, and become a truly unified nation. The national motto of my native country – the United States of America – is e pluribus Unum: “the many are one”. This is, however, still an aspiration, not an accomplishment. I believe there are two reasons for this failure. First, in the United States there has always been one general, standard cultural model, and people were encouraged to jump into the “melting pot” and merge with what was long regarded as the “best” exemplar of the national identity. But many people did not want to forego their cultural heritage and join the “standard model”, and so removed themselves from main stream society.  Because the United States is such a vast country, it has always been possible for the various cultural groups to lead completely separate existences – and to a large extent they still choose to do so.

But here in South Africa, it is not so easy for any one group to distance itself too far from any other. And whereas this has certainly caused problems in this country, I believe it is now becoming an advantage. In the “New South Africa”, South Africans have to meet and mix, and forge a national identity. Unlike the people of America, South Africans are so closely intertwined that no group can lead an isolated existence; nor does it seem likely that any one group can succeed in foisting its values on all others.



We must also think about what museums of the future will be; they will be very different because they will be re-shaped by new technologies. That means we should, for example, not simply be collecting artifacts, but we should be videoing what is going on around us; and that means more than just demonstrating how things are done, and with what, but what life is like now – the atmosphere, the feeling of the place and times.

Traditionally museums have been concerned principally with the preservation and display of objects, artifacts and photographs to convey what has been interesting or meaningful about the past. But new tools and methods are now available – eg, oral histories can be recorded on DVD, and capture the memories and emotions of the generations that have made and lived through the recent, exciting history of this country.

Moreover, computer generated video has the ability to re-create scenes from the past, and impart movement to images so that we can better visualize and thus more accurately imagine long-gone things that we would like to witness. “Animated exhibits”, for example, could be presented using highly accurate digital recreations in a 3-D format to recreate fascinating or highly cherished scenes from other times – from both natural and cultural history. Such exhibits would be far more informative and interesting than static displays, even though they are “virtual”, so long as they are accurate. A virtual artifact can be as powerful and as useful in communicating the essence of something as an actual one. Capturing our heritage faithfully and fully requires that we explore these new technologies and exploit their promise.

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