Call for unity as South Africans celebrate Heritage Day

The mood among South Africans was celebratory as they commemorated Heritage Day, with those who attended the main celebrations in the North West being addressed by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

unity heritage day
Cyril Ramaphosa, the Deputy President, says Heritage Day is a day for citizens to tell their stories about who they are and where they come from. (Image: GovernmentZA, Flickr)

Brand South Africa reporter
Each year on Heritage Day, 24 September, South Africans dig deep into their wardrobes and fish out their traditional attire to celebrate their unity in diversity.

Some citizens, however, see this as a day to meet together with friends and undertake what has become a unique South African tradition – buy plenty of boerewors for a braai.

Formally known as Shaka Day before 1995, the day is a national holiday and gives South Africans a chance to pause and take stock how their diversity can contribute to building a better South Africa.

Heritage Day

There are different ways that South Africans have come to celebrate Heritage Day. Some wear traditional attire at work – usually on the day before Heritage Day – and some gather at stadiums for a day of celebrations which includes music, dance and speeches by local leaders.

Tsonga women adorn their familiar xibelani attire, a waist-high skirt made of metres of cloth; married Zulu women wear skirts made of cow hide called izidwaba; Venda women parade in their colourful skirts called minweda; and Xhosa women distinguish themselves with their beautifully painted faces and head gear.

But it’s not only women who showcase their flair for traditional fashion. Zulu men also embellish modern trousers and shirts (usually khaki trousers and shirts) with detailed designs and patterns which have come to be known as umblaselo.

In most cases the big occasion is the “official” Heritage Day celebrations where a top government official addresses masses of people in a chosen region. This year the official celebrations were held in Klerksdorp, in the North West province, where Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa urged citizens to forge a united society.

“South Africans unite”

Ramaphosa said South Africa has done quite a lot to unite all South Africans in the past 20 years, but should continue to strive to build “a nation of citizens that care for each other, respect one another and share a deep love for our country”.

“We are building a nation that is proud of its national symbols, our flag and our anthem. They reflect our shared values and the principle of unity in diversity,” he said.

He said South Africa has developed a National Development Plan as a way to guide its efforts to develop a better society over the next 20 years.

“The NDP accelerates our efforts towards building the society that is envisaged in the Freedom Charter.

“In particular, the NDP is concerned with securing a better future for young people through better educational and economic opportunities.

“In isiZulu, we say: ‘Indlela ibuzwa kwabaphambili’. Before we undertake any journey we must remember where we come from and learn from those who have gone before us.

“We dare not neglect our past. We dare not ignore our heritage,” Ramaphosa said. Heritage Day is a celebration of South Africa’s “rich, proud and diverse heritage”. Although South Africans speak different languages, practice different beliefs and engage in different cultural practices, they are bound by a common African heritage. “This notion is reflected in the words inscribed on our country’s coat of arms, !ke e: /xarra //ke, which calls on diverse people to unite,” he said.

Telling stories

Heritage Day encourages South Africans to celebrate not only their own cultural traditions, but also the diversity of cultures, beliefs and traditions that make up the South African nation, according to Ramaphosa.

He said it is a day for citizens to tell their stories about who they are and where they come from. “This day allows us to create awareness through educational programmes, dialogue and public engagements about the meaning and importance of our heritage.”

But society is not static. As society transforms, so does heritage, said Ramaphosa, adding that as people do not replace what has come before, rather, they should enrich and enhance what they inherited.

While South Africa has made significant progress in changing the institutional barriers that previously divided country, the quest for a non-racial society is far from over.

Ramaphosa conceded that too many citizens “cannot live where they want, cannot pursue the professions they desire, and cannot achieve the standard of living they seek”. “We are still prone to stereotyping each other. We are reluctant to trust those who do not look like us or who don’t speak like us – or who do not belong to the same economic stratum.

“The challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment unmask the reality that there is much that still divides us.

“We are all too aware that our cultures, traditions and value systems are still influenced by the spatial, economic, social and ideological distortions of colonialism and apartheid,” he said.

However, this reality is what should drive South Africans to forge a common identity, an inclusive nationhood and a better future.

“This is a future where all people feel they belong, have access to opportunities and can develop their talents. It is a future where their quality of life will give them a sense of place, security, purpose and comfort,” Ramaphosa concluded.

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