The meaning of heritage

The word ‘heritage” is a slippery term that incorporates a vast range of contradictory meanings. South Africans celebrate Heritage Day on September 24, but it is unclear exactly what the public holiday is intended to celebrate.

September has become the month of choice for various arts, culture, public history and nation-building activities, using the opportunity to capitalise on ‘heritage month”.

We need to recognise, though, that our ideas of what heritage is and the purpose it serves are inevitably selective; heritage always serves a deliberate purpose in the present, whether tourism, social cohesion or political grandstanding.

Heritage Day isn’t just a day for South Africans to get out the braai tongs — it’s a time to celebrate our great diversity and culture. And this year the celebrations started early.

So what do we include and exclude from the ‘heritage” umbrella? Heritage encompasses many things: objects, practices, collective memories of past events and public history. Often the idea of African heritage (a sweeping generalisation) is firmly located in rural identities or in cultural landscapes, for instance Great Zimbabwe. But urban histories and memories form a gap in our thinking about African heritage.

This is surprising considering that the African continent is experiencing rapid and unprecedented urbanisation. Urbanisation and migration are central facets of national identities and histories — particularly true of South Africa. For many, the city is an immensely powerful locus of memory, nostalgia and notions of home. Cities have lives and histories of their own, made up of the memories and experiences of those who live or have lived in them, of shifting architectural landscapes. Urban life and cities are central to the construction of heritage.

In South Africa an alternative understanding of heritage to that centred on culture is often located in anti-apartheid struggles and their remembrance, prominently located in urban histories.

The past 15 years have seen a burgeoning of apartheid-related memorial sites, such as the Apartheid Museum, the Hector Pieterson Museum and the District Six Museum. These projects proliferate, although the era of massive, spectacular state-driven postapartheid memorial projects is over. If heritage is something that is created, rather than something that is found, then it follows that heritage changes. Events are written out of our favoured narratives of history, ‘hidden heroes” are brought to light in new accounts, new stories are spun and old ones are laid to rest.

These identities
In an urban context heritage may include past events but also, less tangibly, neighbourhood identities and histories with resonance in the present. These identities fly below the radar of national importance and are often quite ‘ordinary”. Do we count the experiences of a young Zimbabwean artist living in a church room in Yeoville as urban heritage? Likewise the story of an Afrikaans family who moved into a new three-bedroom house in Triomf/Sophiatown in 1965?

There is a need to broaden our thinking to incorporate people’s lived experiences and memories more explicitly into the way we envisage our city’s heritage and not just heritage in the city.


Sophie Didier (French Institute of South Africa), Natasha Erlank and Karie Morgan (University of Johannesburg), Naomi Roux and Mfaniseni Sihlongonyane (University of the Witwatersrand) contributed to this article

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