Heritage Day won't stick until we recognise unity in our diversity

Zibusiso Nguse and fellow preschoolers at Jacaranda Pre-Primary School in Pietermaritzburg celebrating Heritage Day last year. The day signifies our pride in our different cultures.
Zibusiso Nguse and fellow preschoolers at Jacaranda Pre-Primary School in Pietermaritzburg celebrating Heritage Day last year. The day signifies our pride in our different cultures.
Image: JACKIE CLAUSEN

On September 24 , South Africans across the country will pause to commemorate their heritage.

Many use the day as an opportunity to express their pride in their culture and origins. The philosophy of "unity in diversity" will be displayed through the myriad traditional attires that will be on show on the day.

In this way, this day is more of a showcase of our differences than it is of what binds us together as a nation.

Heritage Day makes more glaring the inadequacy of the nation building project.

Twenty-four years into democracy, it is difficult to speak of a common nationhood.

Nationalism denotes that people should unite on the basis of language, nationality or culture.

Nation connotes shared territory, language, history, culture, common ancestry or nationality, a shared religion, belief system or values.

SA, as a nation, does not fit into this characterisation. It is a stark example of how difficult it is to build common nationhood on the foundation of division.

The process of deliberating on the proposed amendment of section 25 (property rights) of the constitution provides a suitable analogy.

From chants of "izwe lethu" (our motherland) to nostalgic reflections on the quest to preserve the right to "die vaderland" (the fatherland), the contested nature of SA nationhood is on display.

How can we build a common nationhood on the basis of history when the accounts of history differ so markedly depending on which side you're coming from? Can it be done when many still do not have an equal claim to land?

The various and contesting nationalisms - of (Afrikaners, British and revolutionary Africans) - that have vied for primacy in the country's 300-year colonial history continue to wage a vigorous battle even in a democratic SA.

Diversity has overtaken the imperative to unite, as unity comes at a cost, particularly to those groups who have enjoyed the material fruits of social and economic mobility before and continue to do so now.

This only gives impetus to calls for revolution and radicalism among the dispossessed - fomenting a fracture to the fledgling "nation" on racial lines.

Constitutionalism was the best attempt of the liberation Struggle stalwarts to forge a new nation of reconciled differences by providing a common narrative of the past and presenting a vision for a united future.

The constitution itself acknowledges that building unity would have to be premised on a common understanding of history, acceptance of the need for redress to ameliorate the injustices of the past.

But all we've seen is the brazen expression of denialism of historical injustice against the majority by some members of minority groups.

In the same vein, we've seen the shameful appropriation of past injustice by politicians
for opportunism and
populist ends.

Because it is near-impossible to forge a nationhood premised on a common denominator, it is important to get the historical, territorial and values elements right.

It is little wonder that Heritage Day, a day so important in the quest for a cohesive society, has been appropriated by corporate SA and dubbed national braai day.

Not only is this a commercial gimmick but it signifies the failure by our political leaders to grapple with these difficult questions of constructing a common nationhood for a new South Africa.

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