Why does South Africa celebrate Heritage Day?

Heritage Day – 24 September – is one of South Africa’s newer public holidays, declared after the republic became a democracy in 1994. The day was first observed in 1996.

The Orlando Towers in Soweto – once the cooling towers of an old power station – colourfully celebrate South Africa’s heritage. (Image: South African Tourism)

Priya Pitamber

Prior to that, 24 September was commemorated in KwaZulu-Natal as Shaka Day, in honour of the legendary Zulu leader, King Shaka Zulu.

When this day was omitted from the proposed Public Holidays Bill before parliament in 1995, the Inkatha Freedom Party objected. In the spirit of reconciliation, a compromise was made to create a day on which everyone in the country could celebrate diversity in cultural heritage.

“The day is one of our newly created public holidays and its significance rests in recognising aspects of South African culture which are both tangible and difficult to pin down: creative expression, our historical inheritance, language, the food we eat as well as the land in which we live,” said the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in 1996.

“Within a broader social and political context, the day’s events are a powerful agent for promulgating a South African identity, fostering reconciliation and promoting the notion that variety is a national asset as opposed to igniting conflict.”

Mandela on heritage

In marking Heritage Day in 1996, Nelson Mandela stated:

“When our first democratically elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation.

“We did so knowing that the struggles against the injustice and inequities of the past are part of our national identity; they are part of our culture. We knew that, if indeed our nation has to rise like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of division and conflict, we had to acknowledge those whose selfless efforts and talents were dedicated to this goal of non-racial democracy.”

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