To See ourselves as Others See us…John Betjeman; First and Last Loves (1952)
“History must not be written with bias, and both sides must be given, even if there is only one side.”
September in South Africa is known generically as ‘Heritage Month’, with Heritage Day itself falling on the 24th of the month. But what exactly is ‘heritage’, and why should it attract attention? If we look at the word itself, we see that it dates back to the period around 1200 CE, and was a Middle English construct from heriter; to inherit, and age; as in, well, age. In other words, we take on the history of the past and, importantly, the traditions that were created. Heritage is living history; the important history that helped form society’s ‘honour, pride and courage’, to quote the dictionary.
In South Africa, heritage is an extremely complex topic. What some people regard as inalienable history, others might view as oppression and with enmity. With a wide range of cultural backgrounds, our complicated tapestry of historical experiences don’t necessarily always meld into a happy pattern of past events. The problem with ‘heritage’, putting it back into quotation marks, is that it is a product of selection. Whereas history is a record of events, heritage is a focus on selected events, places, artefacts and attributes that have been specifically selected for conservation as vital parts of the society. Herein lies the problem: a battle may have been fought leading to a supposedly miraculous victory and this event is chosen (and celebrated) as an important aspect of cultural history by the victors. But, and this is the crux, not for the vanquished. What goes through their minds each year as anniversary celebrations play out and focus on their defeat? What happens when politics eventually level out and those two cultures now meet again on a level playing field: can the victors still laud it over the vanquished? Not if we wish to remain at peace; and not if we accept that some aspects of our difficult history are offensive.
Which is why cultural memory – internationally and locally – needs to be carefully monitored and positively focussed. Here in South Africa the South African Heritage Resources Agency oversees and protects the national cultural heritage, but within that purview is a multiplicity of responsibilities. As noted above, heritage can refer to sites, objects, events and monuments, and there are thousands of candidates for selection. The SAHRA is supported by regional authorities, and naturally at Waterfront Charters we focus on the Western Cape: as one of Cape Town’s top tourist attractions we know that knowledge about our past, our environment, our treasures, our wildlife and our archaeology is vital in our role as tourism experts. Heritage Western Cape is the official custodian of over 2 500 provincial heritage sites: we can’t help wondering how many of these the average Capetonian could name…
They were known as ‘Historical Monuments’ during the years 1934 to 1969, at which stage they were designated ‘National Monuments’, which lasted until the year 2000. Now known as ‘Provincial Heritage Sites’, the name is far more embracing of the nature of the wide variety of sites: it’s difficult to compare the first ever heritage site – the Castle of Good Hope – with Baboon Point in Eland’s Bay or De Hel Nature Area on Table Mountain, but for widely differing reasons they are all extremely important sites worthy of preservation, investigation and protection. It would be fun to list the other 2 497 Heritage Sites, but we’ll leave those up to the reader to investigate; one thing is certain, visiting and exploring some – or all – of these places is an incredible experience – living history that helps us understand where we are, and more importantly, why we are.
Which brings us back to the 24th September, Heritage Day. We would like all South Africans to embrace the day. As alluded to earlier, there are many, many reasons why groupings of South Africans may feel alienated by the events of the past. Whilst these times are extremely important in terms of knowing the why of now, it’s what lies ahead of us that matters. As a country we need to embrace the present, accept the differences that are culturally ingrained, and understand that the future can only be bright if we take lessons – not anger – from the past.
Join us at the V&A Waterfront and take a cruise with a slice of South African cultures. We host the most incredible variety of local and international guests on our beautiful vessels; from miners to farmers, bankers to musicians, doctors, delivery people, divers and adventurers. We all have our own special heritage that we are proud of, (Waterfront Charters have the great Lord and Admiral Horatio Nelson as an ancestor; whilst your scribe is a descendent of Edward Teach, more commonly known as Blackbeard the pirate); let’s blend those aspects and create a South Africa that moves confidently into the future, nurturing all her sons and daughters. It’s an incredible country, rich with opportunity, but only a united population will be able to create a heritage that, in years to come, will be a proud inheritance.