Reflections on Heritage Month and diversity

On September 24 the country celebrated Heritage Day. During the month of September many organisations and people will have used the time to celebrate the rich and diverse heritage in South Africa. We may have done this in a variety of ways: celebrating the different culinary traditions, rituals, song and dance. No doubt many of us would have had a braai or danced to Jerusalema in an attempt to recognise the diversity of heritage in the country and to create a sense of cohesion in the country.

That we all have a cultural heritage is undeniable. That we express and interact with that heritage as a part of our identity in different ways is equally undeniable. Coming to terms with our different heritages can be liberating, but it can also be a site of struggle. Reflecting on the celebration of heritage in the month of September, there are a few points that can be touched upon.

Heritage Day is, on the one hand, a reflection of what we regard as our cultural identity, but it is also a recognition and celebration of the different cultural identities in South Africa. Culture is complex and it may mean different things to different people. We also have to be mindful of the fact that people attach a different level of importance to the different aspects of cultural identity. Notwithstanding this fact, it is important that spaces are created for the affirmation, recognition and even exploration of diverse identities. When thinking about diversity, we also need to be wary of arguments that frame diversity as a simple sum of different identities. This argument may go as follows: white + black + woman + man + LGBTI person does not = diversity. An aspect of diversity is creating access to different types of people, but diversity also involves a commitment to creating spaces that allow people to be themselves when they arrive in those spaces.

In addition to the complexity of our cultural identity, something also needs to be said about the fear of cultural diversity. I am reminded of the words of the late Chief Justice Langa when he was presiding over a case (MEC KZN v Pillay 2008 (1) SA 474 (CC) para 107) of a young Hindu girl who wanted to wear a nose stud to school as part of her cultural expression. In explaining that reasonable accommodation should be made for cultural and religious practices in schools, places of employment and various other institutions, he said the following: “The display of religion and culture in public is not a ‘parade of horribles’ but a pageant of diversity, which will enrich our schools and in turn our country.” The South African Constitution guarantees the right to language and culture in Section 30. This section contains an internal limitation in stating that it must be practised consistently with the rest of the Bill of Rights. All rights in the Constitution are furthermore subject to a general limitation clause. Therefore, one would not simply be able to do whatever one wants in the name of cultural diversity.

Dealing with our heritage will continue long after September has ended. The words of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, namely “compassionate imagination”, can be helpful in carving our path towards a more inclusive and equal society. In her explanation of “compassionate imagination”, Nussbaum states that as human beings we are bound to have compassion and understanding first and foremost for those closest to us and those most similar to us. In cultivating “compassionate imagination” we should try to imagine the position and struggles of the people in our circle but also beyond our own circle. It starts with what she calls “ethical criticism”.

The recent Clicks and TRESemmé saga that depicted black women’s hair as “dry and damaged” and white women’s hair as “fine and healthy” has revealed the wounds that still exist as a result of unequal recognition of cultural identities and an insensitivity towards the diverse types of hair that exist. The advert resulted in different reactions — from hurt and outraged to nonchalant and unperturbed. The classification of people according to race by testing the texture of their hair existed for over 50 years in South Africa. With these types of classifications came various racial stereotypes that still exist today. Even after the start of our constitutional dispensation, debates still exist about hair and the stereotypes that accompany them. Sensitivity and an understanding of the context and history of South Africa may have gone a long way in the matter. Despite regrettable episodes such as the Clicks incident taking place, we need to be mindful that the manner in which we respond to such events can cause further harm, or ease the pain of such events. In dealing with issues of diversity it is essential that we engage with each other while recognising that we are all equal participants in that dialogue. Equally, we have to allow ourselves to be transformed during that dialogue.

In the past three years the North-West University (NWU) has launched a number of platforms to stimulate dialogue, discussion and criticism on matters of diversity. These platforms include Facing Race Week, Gender Awareness Week and Language Awareness Week. This year, the NWU has combined the language and gender awareness weeks in the month of September. The week started off with song and poetry by students and staff, expressing their understanding of gender. This week showcases academic discussions, artwork and other presentations relating to gender and language. Gender itself intersects with many other issues such as sexual orientation, the non-binary nature of gender and the prevalence of gender-based violence in South Africa. These events have created spaces for students and staff to interrogate the university as a space where different identities intersect.

Dr Allison Geduld is a Senior Lecturer at North-West University’s Faculty of Law

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