When we celebrate Heritage Day on 24 September, we as South Africans are encouraged to stand together, celebrate our cultures and the diversity of our beliefs and traditions, within the wider context of a nation that belongs to ALL its people. Due to its significance, the whole month of September is known as National Heritage Month.

We celebrate a nation that belongs to ALL its people

What is our living heritage?

Living heritage is the foundation of all communities and an essential source of identity and continuity. Aspects of living heritage include: cultural tradition, oral history, performance, ritual, popular memory, skills and techniques, indigenous knowledge system and the holistic approach to nature, society and social relationships.” Quote: S A Govt.

Heritage Day was originally known as Shaka Day, in commemoration of King Shaka Zulu. When Shaka Day was omitted in the proposed Public Holidays Bill before the New South African Parliament, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), with a largely Zulu membership, objected to the bill.  A compromise was reached when it was decided to create a day where all South Africans could observe and celebrate their diverse cultural heritage.

Khetshe Kids Academy, Western Cape

In 1996, during an address marking Heritage Day, our former President Nelson Mandela said: “When our first democratically-elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation.”

There are so many ways to celebrate this national day together. Dressing up in traditional attire, singing traditional songs, creating traditional music instruments using recycled objects, painting beautiful ethnic patterns, decorating your classroom, telling traditional oral stories that have been passed down the generations, and having a braai with family and friends. What else might you do to celebrate this important South African public holiday? 

A musical instrument made from recycled materials

South Africa’s heritage sites offer an abundance of cultural and natural values that encapsulate our diversity as a nation.

We have many world and national heritage sites you can visit in South Africa, which are places with significant cultural, historical, and environmental importance. Some of our World Heritage Sites are:

  • Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa in Sterkfontein, Gauteng
  • Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape, Limpopo
  • Robben Island, Western Cape
  • Cape Floral Region Protected Areas, Western and Eastern Cape
  • Vredefort Dome, Free State
  • Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains, Mpumalanga

Our country also has a myriad of museums that preserve memories of very many aspects and people of our heritage, including struggle heroes, such Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli and Steve Biko, among others.

Robben Island Museum

It is wonderfully enriching for children to learn about their heritage from an early age. 

In South Africa, this importance takes on another level, as our country has 11 official languages and a vast array of cultural and historical diversity. 

Here is what some parents and children have to say:

“Making sure my son R (Zulu name Khumbulani), knows his roots and heritage is important to me’” says one mum. 

R age nearly 1 (Zulu name Khumbulani)

M is 5 years old. His mom says, “M is proudly South African. He is growing up in a multicultural environment. We are Africans through and through, surrounded by the melting pot of cultures our beautiful land has to offer. M has a special affinity for the Zulu culture and enjoys dressing up and pretending he is a Zulu warrior/impi.”

M aged 5

Another mother says this about her daughters, who love to sing our national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika: “It’s been important to us to teach them to love their motherland… the land that has done nothing but nourish and nurture us all from the very beginning. Being human means having the highest regard for our environment and its people.” 

M is 7 years old. His mom says, “On heritage day 3 years back all he wanted to be was Shaka Zulu. I had to make him this outfit and he was the happiest boy that day. We love our county and the diversity. Happy heritage month.”

M age 7

“It’s Thanksgiving, except we have a braai instead of turkey.”

C is also 7 years old. Her mother shared: “Growing up in South Africa as a young girl of Indian descent, I was never exposed to our unique heritage. Today I am proud that my daughter is able to experience her true heritage as a South African. I asked her what Heritage Day means to her and she said: ‘It’s Thanksgiving, except we have a braai instead of turkey.’ The more I think about it, the more I believe she is right. I am thankful that this heritage month, that we live in a beautiful country with beautiful people.”

C aged 7

And so, what are your plans for today’s celebrations? What does it inherently mean to you? 

To one person it might mean nurturing a braai fire and eating our traditional and popular ‘farmers sausage’, fondly called ‘boerewors’. To another, it might mean to dress up in one’s cultural attire. To proudly display one’s roots and ancestry. And to yet another, it might mean a festivity… a feast. A dance! With the sway of the hip, the flare of the costume, the clink of traditional beads, and the bright palette of dress colour… a dance of flight. 

Culture. Heritage. Meaning. 

Whatever and however you choose to personally acknowledge and celebrate Heritage Day, may it keep dear to you what our magnificent conundrum of a country is about. 

In all her pride, in her tilting of the chin and her cultural attire, she stands tall and firm. Her people embrace each other beneath her rainbow flag, and look forward to a brighter future. Together. 

As a country, we have ridden a storm of note, especially this year, but together we can rebuild and nurture. By acknowledging the diversity of cultures and heritages involved, and by celebrating our differences and working together, we are sure to move forward in this great country of ours. 

Let us celebrate National Heritage Day together. Nkosi Sikilel’ iAfrica. 

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