Heritage boss punts tradition, upholds diversity

CULTURE COP: Sonwabile Mancotywa, National Heritage Council head. Pic. Unknown.
CULTURE COP: Sonwabile Mancotywa, National Heritage Council head. Pic. Unknown.

In days of antiquity, there was the old griot, who carried tales from one generation to the next.

These days this function is performed by those like Sonwabile Mancotywa, the chief executive officer of the National Heritage Council (NHC).

The organisation "strives to create an enabling environment for the effective preservation, protection and promotion of South African heritage for the present and future generations".

In Mancotywa, it is in good hands. He's in a navy suit and matching tie and shirt for our meeting, on the fringes of an NHC seminar on ubuntu, in Kliptown, Soweto, where Nkosi Phathekile Holomisa is decrying the lack of empathy for the elderly.

Shunting our aged off to old age homes militates against our heritage, says Holomisa.

This, and related subject matter, is what the NHC concern themselves with.

They will tell the SPCA, for example, that ritual slaughter is not barbaric and those, like Tony Yengeni, who practise it do not live in the Stone Age.

When they started speaking to the animal rights people they were "on opposing ends of the pole" but ended up reaching an understanding.

African people, says Mancotywa, whose rural upbringing remains a matter of pride to this day, value animals.

"Africans name their livestock," he says. "Shepherds mourn when a cow is killed to accompany a dead person."

He finishes the point: "When we spoke to them they said they didn't know this."

Before this the SPCA would only "go to the homes of people to terrorise them", the heritage chief says, having been through the same unwelcome experience with the lobbyists when he slaughtered at his own home.

"We need to educate our people," he says.

Mancotywa is well placed to say this. Born at Ross Mission, a rural enclave in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape named after a missionary, his people painted their faces, herded cattle and considered stick fighting a recreational activity of distinction.

His people accepted religion but they still stuck to their old traditional practices which "influenced me a lot," he says.

An advocate by training, Mancotywa did his articles under the tutelage of the celebrated Dumisa Ntsebeza.

But bringing cases before Judge John Hlophe, his former lecturer, did not hold much allure for him and he packed his robe away to become the first MEC for arts and culture in the inaugural democratic government of the Eastern Cape led by the late Raymond Mhlaba.

Two years later he quit, citing boredom, to take up a position at Foreign Affairs in Ethiopia.

Here too, the labour lawyer would not feel optimally challenged and back in South Africa, he became the first CEO of the Heritage Council in 1999.

Mancotywa also did a two-year stint at the Department of Trade and Industry, an experience that has stood him in good stead now as a board member of the National Lotteries Board.

One of the important elements of a nation is its culture, says the University of Transkei law graduate. In matters of identity, culture is important, "just as the economy is important".

Mancotywa makes his point using the example of Asian countries, such as China and Japan.

The modern world has its imperfections, he says, and nothing can remedy these ills like our own concept of ubuntu.

There are home-brewed values which can be used successfully in modern times, he says.

"We need to foster the idea of a joint culture," says Mancotywa, who espouses interesting ideas about the issue of renaming.

"Our public space must reflect South Africa," he says. Renaming of public amenities must infuse the elements of reconciliation, nation building and unity.

When we memorialise our heritage, we need to take into account that renaming should not "just be confined to bridges and roads" - there are mountains and rivers too.

But just plonking a name on a stretch of road is not the answer because people need to know who is being honoured and what the significance of the renaming is. In Paris for example, he says, when a street is named there's a line or two about the person being honoured.

"There could also be documentaries ... public lectures," he says.

Those who say this is a waste of money are misguided, he says.

"We can't simply bash other practices as backward" as there is value in such rites of passage as circumcision.

We learn from many practices that rights come with obligations. The current culture of caring for the elderly, who are vulnerable to abuse, as articulated by Nkosi Holomisa, can have far-reaching implications on our lives.

Holomisa says taking care of the elderly can accrue to blessings, a thought Mancotywa shares wholly.

Countries have been known to go to war because of culture "if they believe their own identity and dignity are impaired".

The NHC supports the preservation of traditional music, as evidenced by their financial backing of Zindala Zombili.

A stickler for tradition, he has banned the use of English in his home for a certain period of time every day to ensure that his children can speak their mother tongue of isiXhosa.

Language, he says, is heritage in danger. He cites the death of indigenous languages in several colonised countries he is familiar with.

Married with five children, his wife Skhumsa is a senior manager in the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.

Mancotywa's reading includes the work of African intellectuals, like Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop, who writes on African civilisation.