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All have the right to celebrate their heritage – SAHRC


23rd September 2015

On the 24th of September, South Africans will celebrate Heritage Day, one of 12 officially-recognised national holidays. This day gives South Africans a chance to pause and take stock of how the rich diversity of our country can build a better nation.
Heritage is the collected range of practices, traditions, objects and artefacts of a particular cultural group. Attached to each of these is a history, and a meaning through which we may celebrate our values. Heritage is both tangible and intangible, seen in oral traditions, knowledge systems, literature, art, music, dance and food.
South Africa is blessed with a multitude of ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic communities, all of whom have shaped its development. Envisaged as an opportunity for all of these diverse communities to celebrate the varied experiences and traditions that have contributed to our national identity, Heritage Day also serves as an occasion to reflect on what we can learn from the past, what we can do to preserve its meaning and how diverse cultures and traditions can co-exist in harmony.

Previously, this date was traditionally celebrated by the Zulu people as Shaka Day, to honour King Shaka Zulu. After the fall of apartheid, the new democratic government decided to include this day as a national public holiday adapted as an encouragement for all those in South Africa to come together and celebrate the country’s rich cultural heritage and diversity.  Recognising the multitude of cultural, religious and linguistic communities, the day has become an occasion for a broader celebration of South Africa’s diversity.

Often the celebration of heritage brings with it challenges in relation to the manner in which specific communities have been treated in the past. Globally, and in South Africa, cultural hegemony and patriarchy have seen some traditions, cultures and religious practices favoured over others, enforced through the institutionalisation of discrimination in the form of colonialism and apartheid. For this reason, issues of heritage often bring about negative emotions and debates about the historical suffering of oppressed groups. Indigenous peoples, landless communities and other cultural minorities continue to struggle to have their heritage protected and celebrated equitably. In order for diversity to be fully celebrated, equality in law and in practice is a necessary condition that we, as a nation and as a Commission, continue to work towards.

The Preamble to the Constitution states that South Africa ‘belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity’, while section 1 notes that the founding provisions of our country are ‘human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms’, reflecting a commitment to ensure that the nation is an inclusive one which places equal value on all customs, traditions and practices. Similarly, section 9 of the Constitution prohibits unfair discrimination on the basis of race, religion, culture, language and 12 other grounds.

The celebration of diversity is of particular importance this year. South Africa has witnessed numerous incidents of discrimination and violence in 2015, such as attacks on non-nationals often on the basis of socio-cultural characteristics like race, nationality or religion. These incidents are regrettable. Discrimination and the denial of basic human dignity often occur because of an individual or group’s association with a particular culture, religious practice or traditional custom. These are violations of basic human rights, including the right to human dignity and the right to equality.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) continues to promote, protect and monitor the attainment of human rights in the country in fulfilling its constitutional and legislative mandate. In that vein, the SAHRC will be consulting with government on instruments and policies aimed at promoting the nation’s diversity and social cohesion, including the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances. Similarly, where rights violations arise, the Commission uses its complaints-handling and investigative mandates to ensure that the Bill of Rights is respected. For this reason, an investigative hearing into the rights of indigenous peoples in South Africa is anticipated, as is an investigative hearing into the resurgence of violence against Non-Nationals in early 2015. The SAHRC also works closely with the Commission for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (the CRL Commission) to ensure that heritage rights are advanced, and will be collaborating with the CRL Commission in celebrating South Africa’s living heritage in September 2015.
The Department of Arts and Culture is the custodian of South Africa’s National Social Cohesion Strategy, and serves as the national focal point for advancing this agenda. It, therefore, coordinates national heritage celebrations each year, and seeks to advance knowledge of, and respect for, diversity and inclusivity. The Department is also the custodian of South Africa’s ‘National Days’, of which Heritage Day is counted as one.

The SAHRC encourages all South Africans to embrace the vibrant multicultural, multilingual and multiracial tapestry that will be celebrated on Heritage Day by engaging not only with their own traditions but, also, with those of their compatriots. As we celebrate our own traditions, practices and customs, we must also celebrate the manner in which they interact with those of other communities to produce a society that is characterised by mutual respect and dignity. The SAHRC wishes all South Africans a very happy and fulfilling Heritage Day.

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