The National Heritage Council says it’s time to liberate our heritage
It is a known fact that South Africa bristled itself out of a past that is still uncomfortable to talk about. The struggle for freedom took nearly 400 years, starting with the resistance battles between traditional leaders and settlers and evolving into several epochs that left our history crisscrossed with painful memories.
The most recent freedom fight, against the oppressive apartheid government evoked worldwide sympathy and left generations of South Africans traumatised.
It gave rise to an army of activists and unleashed emotions so deep that they remain an indelible part of our nation.
It is little wonder the people who were left battered and bloody by their hard-won freedom wanted every shred of evidence of those dark, oppressive times expunged.
People rejected anything that degraded the indigenous people of this country and the deliberate apathy slowly eroded the interest in that era of our history.
Today, however, reality poses a totally different scenario and I believe we have to preserve our history as part of our heritage, despite the bad memories that it may evoke.
The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), at its 33rd General Conference in October 2005, recognised liberation struggle heritage as being of universal value and significance. This year marks the 12th anniversary of this resolution and South Africans are able to reflect on a number of milestones that have been recorded by the National Heritage Council (NHC), an agency of the Department of Arts and Culture, as the implementing agency of the programme on behalf of South Africa.
Before, it was recognised by UNESCO, liberation struggle heritage was uncharted territory in the heritage sector. The journey of recording one of the longest resistance and liberation struggles ever waged by a nation that emerged peacefully to adopt a democratic dispensation was punctuated with valuable lessons.
In many ways, the liberation struggle history of South Africa had a global impact.The eyes of the world were on South Africa because our political developments would have a direct impact on other countries. This and other factors made the liberation journey of this country particularly significant.
We may have been despondent about the history as it was during the struggle but its value to the nation has multiplied.The significance and value of this history will continue to increase for future generations. It will be regrettable if the current generation does not fully embrace the responsibility to preserve this history as one of the most defining features of the nation.
The destruction of property as valuable as the apartheid statues and the City Hall in Bloemfontein was a sad awakening.
One of the means to ensure that the liberation history remains a distinct public memory is to consciously embed symbols that signify critical turning points and properly document the information in all forms possible.
The need for public involvement in this process cannot be underestimated. As a nation, we need to come to a realisation that this is important in defining who we are and where we come from. This self-discovery will lead us to appreciate the undiscovered treasures that lie dormant in our liberation heritage.
The NHC and its stakeholders across the country, which include national government departments; provincial sport, arts and culture departments; as well as select municipalities, have conducted research of more than 400 potential heritage sites that are landmarks of the liberation struggle. Selected sites have now been included in a world heritage listing that could lead to recognition by UNESCO.
In acknowledging and preserving our resistance and liberation heritage, we will make future generations think twice before leading the nation into another conflict which would undermine the blood and sweat of those who fought for freedom.
Liberation Heritage Route
The NHC's Liberation Heritage Route (LHR) project seeks to identify and develop precincts on the sites of historical and heritage significance.The LHR reflects the supreme sacrifice for freedom by South Africans. It is about the recognition of people, communities, events, places, icons and the recording of epoch-making stories which had a significant impact on the South African struggle for liberation.
The project is a post-liberation agenda to symbolise the national liberation struggle and fight against forgetting the critical milestones that mapped the way to the freedom of the country. Through the LHR, government seeks to document and preserve the memory of the liberation struggle through research and identify and protect heritage sites.
The LHR is about telling a coherent story of the road to freedom and to symbolise the eminence of the liberatory stories.
The challenge that was discovered along this journey of preserving the resistance and liberation heritage is the lack of a consolidated and coherent national plan that would guide all the role players on the strategic vision of this agenda.
Fortunately, the Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, has taken the lead to ensure that not only South Africa, but southern African countries, come together to develop a strategy that will ensure we work as a collective and cooperate in cross-boundary preservation initiatives, while prioritising resource allocation for these assets.
Minister Mthethwa's intervention comes at an appropriate time as the country is celebrating the centenary of Oliver Reginald Tambo this year and that of former President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela next year.The centenary celebrations of these two leaders of the struggle, who worked fearlessly with other political stalwarts, have granted us an opportunity to reflect on what value we can derive from the liberation
struggle history for the advancement of society.
The NHC has deemed it appropriate to reflect on the record of the liberation struggle and ways in which this and other archives may be used to advance, deepen or consolidate democracy and the ideals on which our Constitution is founded: equality, human dignity and freedom. While this is in itself very important, it is also critical that we look at how it can be of economic value to society, especially the communities in which these heritage sites are located. Unlocking economic potential is therefore the next biggest task facing us.
Access to original and authentic documentation relating to the struggle for democracy in South Africa is critical to the writing and interpretation of this history and ensuring that the contributions of all the organisations or parties who played a part are acknowledged.
In addition, factors such as state repression, censorship, exile and restrictions on academic freedom mean that much of this historical material remains dispersed across institutional, public and private collections, in South Africa and internationally, and public access has been limited.
The price of access to our own material is so high that it begs the question: Should we not consider restitution to recover the material that was taken from us without our consent?
There are also ongoing challenges and debates on how to maximise access to these valuable collections, how these collections could be utilised to broaden our understanding of our history and how this understanding could promote reconciliation and deepen democracy in South Africa. A simple question to test this assumption is: How will we teach future generations and society about the intensity and value of the liberation struggle if we do not have access to the material to tell the story?
Preserving our heritage
The LHR is a mouthpiece for South Africa to tell the world about how communities survived the tough times. It will never be told sufficiently in our lifetime because there is always a new story of an ordinary person.These are the treasures that will give writers new material and filmmakers fresh angles. However, if we don't work collectively, as a nation, to preserve this narrative, it will disappear like the evidence of African civilisation at Mapungubwe, the ruins of many traditional communities including the KhoiSan, the ancient technology of land and water transport, medicine, law and the science of leadership.
A century after the birth of the liberation movement and 23 years into our democracy, there are signs that the work of appreciating our liberation history as a new typology of heritage in South Africa has only just started.
Monuments, landmarks, community activities, street and building names in the recent years of our democracy reflect nostalgic commemoration of the historic liberation struggle.This growing public interest is a symbol of accepting the past as important to society.
The LHR will go a long way in cementing this progress and instilling greater pride in South Africa's transition from a struggle-beleaguered country to a respected global player.This is the treasure that we need to discover.
The NHC is a government institution that is responsible for the preservation and promotion of the country's heritage. Focus areas of the NHC include policy development for the sector to meet its transformation goals, public awareness and education, knowledge production in heritage subjects that were previously neglected, as well as making funding available to projects that place heritage as a socio-economic resource.
CEO of the National Heritage Council of South Africa Adv Sonwabile