Heritage Month: History, Culture and Social Cohesion

How does knowing South Africa’s history contribute to celebrating our diverse culture and reinvigorate our vision of social cohesion?

South Africa celebrates Heritage Month annually in September, culminating on the 24th. The month, in the aftermath of Apartheid, is intended to provide an opportunity to create awareness of the diversity of the people in South Africa in terms of amongst other attributes – race, religion, tribes and ethnicities. Awareness firstly, but secondly and perhaps the most important since the advent of democracy in 1994: social cohesion.

Heritage month cannot be commemorated or celebrated in the absence of understanding the tumultuous history of the country. In what we may term our “modern” beginning, the San and Khoekhoen provide rich historical evidence for their hunter-gatherer and pastoralist lives as far back as 2000 years.

The first European settlement was commercial, through the Dutch East India Company or VOC which was the world’s first corporate conglomerate, initially intended for trade with India, but it soon became apparent that there were more opportunities for expansion and in 1652, South Africa was settled starting in the Cape. The settlement was intended as a docking station for ships but soon morphed into a colony. It’s worth noting that the Portuguese did land in South Africa in 1497 as part of Vasco da Gama’s voyage of “discovery”, but unlike the tales of myth; he and his company did not discover South Africa or settle in it at that time. The British Empire, who by now, had used its vast and strong naval fleet to become a major colonial power, moved to settle South Africa, to ensure the Dutch did not lay claim to the wide potential of resources, arriving initially in what is now known as Nelson Mandela Bay, in 1820.

Throughout the 1800s, European colonialists moved to occupy the country and divide  into four provinces: the Cape and Natal controlled by the British with Free State and Transvaal under the administration of the Dutch. The British moved quickly to extend its area into the northern part of the Cape as diamonds were discovered there from 1867. Later, the gold and gems discovered in the Free State and Transvaal led to bitter competition over mineral resources, resulting in the brutal Anglo-Boer War from 1899 to 1902.

Often glossed over is the slave history of the Cape Colony for over 200 years until 1834 when slavery was banned. Slaves were commodities that were sold and had their occupation and lives determined. The majority of slaves bought and sold within South Africa were from Angola, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia and Mauritius. From this infusion between the San, Khoekhoen, African tribes who had settled south, the colonialists and the slaves, emanated the language of Afrikaans, which particularly amalgamated Dutch with Malay. Added, religions such as Islam and Hinduism were brought to our shores alongside a variety of Christian missionary denominations. Augmenting, the slave culture mingled with the European colonials to create a race now known as Coloureds who were mixes of the races. They developed a culture of their own in how they used Afrikaans, traditional food, music, dance and cultural observances. Likewise, the British, Dutch, Huguenots who sought sanctuary from France, Indians, Khoekhoen and San each came and in time adapted their language, food and cultural practices, reinforcing their religious beliefs in the process.

This is the colonial history and it’s often unfortunate that  Black tribes, other than the San and Khoekhoen, find too large gaps in our history between this period to the 1900s.  Colonial apologists are fond of using the “empty land myth”, which attempts to argue that other than what they term the Khoi-San, the European colonialists and Black tribes arrived in South Africa at a relatively similar time and had equal claim to “undiscovered” land.  The closer truth is that Bantu tribes started moving and settling south around 500AD. Within this broad categorization were our Zulu ancestors. The Xhosas in turn formed part of the Nguni tribes, who also moved south and were thriving settled prior to the Dutch arrival in 1652. Likewise, by 1500, the Sotho and Tshwane had established solid chiefdoms. It is therefore a false narrative that Black Africans were not settled and had claimed South Africa as their home alongside the San and Khoekhoen, significantly before the Dutch, British, French Huguenot and also Portuguese i.e. European settlement.

Fast forward to 1900 and the White European population began to stamp its authority in terms of language, religion and creating a spatial planning that used a Black manual labour force, including freed slaves to extrapolate resources to be used and refined by the colonial powers to build the wealth and military might of their empires. From this period legislation was put in place to reinforce the practice. The African National Congress was established in 1912 to attempt to push back this minority rule. South Africa was granted independence from the British Empire and became a republic in 1961. Apartheid was legislated and the United Nations had declared it a crime against humanity in 1966. The indignity and impoverishment accompanied by harsh inequality of Blacks continued until a negotiated settlement that led to the first democratic elections in 1994, which the ANC won and within 2 years in 1996 a constitutional democracy was formalized with the adoption of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

We could evaluate 26 years of ANC majority rule in South Africa, but that isn’t the point. The point is to use September to delve deeper into our history from 2000 years ago and fill in the blank spaces or add the details that may even surprise you. If we acknowledge that history is based on fact, not around the fire stories and we broaden our knowledge beyond our echo chamber, we move from commemorating Heritage Month to celebrating it.

Gift your neighbour or colleague a bowl of your traditional food.  Add a little note of its history. Eat the samosa, bunny chow or Gatsby. Think about how braai meat with pap and sous binds so many of us together. Look into learning, sharing information and understanding (before judging) on practices like circumcision, wearing a bindhi, Mosque call to prayer, why orthodox Jews won’t work on a Saturday, lobola, polygamy, why no visitors are allowed after the birth of a child in some cultures and how religions vary significantly in death and burial practices.

This September 2020, though the COVID_19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has taken a heavy toll on many, we have an opportunity to take time to learn at least one small period in our history and from that, reach out a hand to say ‘tell & show me more and don’t forget the foods’. Life is for the living and we live in an incredibly diverse country with a complex history but also through openness of mind, heart and active citizenry, the ability to create a state of social cohesion, a state where socioeconomic equality is a norm, not a clash of culture or classes.

The uncomfortable truth about finances and academia

Can an average South African afford an academic career?

Every time Stats SA releases the country’s economic statistics, it is always a harsh reminder of how bad and unequal our economy is. A shocking statistic found by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group shows that 55.5% of our population lives below the upper-bound poverty line, which is currently at R1,227 per person per month. The discussions sparked by the 2020 first-quarter stats made me reflect on how finances are one of the leading systematic barriers to entry in the academic field.

I have had a first-hand experience of how finances could lead to choosing a different career path, even when one is a passionate academic.

In the final year of my MSc, I was faced with a financial dilemma; my mother was unemployed and desperately needed to purchase a bigger house that could accommodate our family. Being the eldest daughter, I really wanted to help her. Yes, I had a scholarship, but banks would never consider giving me a housing bond. As passionate as I was about science, my upbringing propelled me to assist my mother. My job applications were successful, and hence I was employed. This would have been the end of my academic career; fortunately, my mother secured a job, which paid enough for her to be able to buy a house. As a result, I was able to resign and continue with my studies. Unfortunately, most people never make it back to academia. 

I was also fortunate to receive a scholarship for my PhD studies, meaning that I would be able to assist at home financially. However, some of my colleagues are self-funded; this is another harsh finance reality. Most of these colleagues are at an age where families expect them to contribute financially, or they have families to look after. Ultimately, they have to rely on the income from tutoring, teaching and lab assistances. The time consumed on preparation and teaching compromises the quality of their research while the privileged students are able to solely focus on their research.

A major highlight from the Black lives matter movement conversations is how the prevalent inequalities are deeply rooted in the systems. The Department of Science and Innovation’s White Paper lists various strategies on how the department plans to transform the field of science, but will their approaches be successful? The National Research Foundation (NRF) has played a significant role in diversifying the post-graduate space; currently, the bulk of their scholarships are received by learners coming from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. But does their funding model suit our economic climate?

The truth for this generation is that most students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the first to attend university. Families sacrifice a lot with the hope that an educated child is destined to improve their living conditions. This means that as soon as the student graduates, there is a financial expectation. Many label this as ‘black tax’ but I believe that the spirit of ubuntu that is engraved in our upbringing drives us to lift others as we rise. Unfortunately, current funding models do not cater for such students.

My ideal funding model would be one where the student signs an ‘employment’ contract which is recognised by South African financial institutions. The universities could also offer tutoring or lab assistance posts with an extended timeframe; not the usual annual contracts. This would allow post-graduate students to carry out similar responsibilities as peers in work environments. The major game-changer, of course, would be if financial institutions realistically catered for all the different economy populations. Countries like Colombia have been leading in the global financial inclusion rankings as their finance sector is able to equally cater for people at various income levels. A study showed that these were the main drivers for financial inclusion:  the government developed financial inclusion indicators and reports, the innovative establishment of bank access points, and custom-made products aimed at different segments of the population with a special focus on low-income individuals.

Transformation in the academic sphere is non-negotiable. However, it has to be more than just diversifying on the surface. True transformation is one that will change the current systems that are major barriers to entry. These changes would enable students to make career decisions that are based on passion and not biased by financial circumstances.