Defining culture, heritage and identity

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What is heritage and identity?

Questions of heritage and identity are not as straightforward as they might first appear. Perhaps the first and best place to begin addressing these topics is by acknowledging that in a country like South Africa, there is not one heritage, or an easily delineated set of distinct identities. The cultures, languages and heritages of South Africa are multiple, diverse, and dynamic. Intersectional issues of gender, ethnicity, and race further complicate the matter of identity and make it highly inadvisable to categorise the different people contained within South Africa’s borders. This is especially true in the wake of segregationsit Apartheid policies which attempted to divide and conquer the majority of the country's population by emphasising the ontological immiscibility of different races.

South Africa is heir to a legacy of autochthonous livelihoods (see, most famously, the Khoi and the San) as well as Bantu immigration; slavery; colonisation; settler economies; and liberation movements. These histories have all had a drastic effect on the make up of South Africa's population. Yet somehow through the interchange of cultures and sharing of cultural influences in the age of globalisation, there defiantly remains a tapestry of phenomena which can identifiably and unabmiguously to termed 'South Africa.' In this article we look at heritage, culture, identity in South Africa and attempt to provide some overview of what is meant when people speak of South African Heritage.

Culture

Like 'heritage' and 'identity,' 'culture' is a term that causes much confusion and suffers from its misuse. Traditionally it has been used to refer to the ways of life of a specific group of people, including various ways of behaving, belief systems, values, customs, dress, personal decoration, social relationships, religion, symbols and codes. The pitfalls of the term are however, considerable. For instance, it is not unusal for European visitors to South Africa or Africa at large, to innocently enquire into the nature of "African Culture." Such an enquiry clearly makes little sense, for the Xhosa, Zulu, Pedi, Dinka, Himba, Berber, Arab, and so forth all represent vastly different modes of practice and have little in common save for the relative geographic proximity in relation to the rest of the globe. Even to ask about 'Zulu culture' is potentially wide of the mark, given how varied and dynamic the Zulu population is. While it is a stretch of the imagination to state that culture simply does not exist, as has been claimed by certain postmodern intellectuals, it remains difficult to reach a consensus about what the term really denotes. Is there such a thing as 'White culture' or 'Coloured culture,' for instance? 

Throughout history, various people and institutions have attempted to define what is meant by culture. In 1871, one of the fathers of British social anthropology, Edward Burnett Tylor attempted to describe it in the following way: "Culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." More recently, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2002) described culture as follows: "... culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs." Once one begins to search for an adequate definition of culture, one quickly realises that there are so many to choose from it is virtually impossible to decide which one is best. 

In South Africa, the question of definition according to race and culture carries an especially sharp edge to it, which potentially makes it a more contentious issue here than elsewhere. This is primarily due to the policies of the Apartheid government that sought to distinguish and segregate the country according to rigid definitions of race between 1948-1991. These policies reached their apotheosis in the establishment of the 'Bantustans,' which were created as homelands for the major different ethnic groups represented within South Africa's borders. For this reason, subsequent attempts to define the people of South Africa may easily carry an unpleasant connotation of racist categorisation from the past. With this proviso, South Africa has a hugely diverse population, representative of a vast spectrum of different languages, practices, and values.  

Culture in South Africa

South Africa has been famously referred to as the rainbow nation because it is made up of so many diverse cultures and religions.  Contained within South Africa's borders are Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Tswana, Ndebele, Khoisan, Hindu, Muslim, and Afrikaner people to name but a few. All of these people are united by calling South Africa home, and therefore their lives all contribute to forming a part of the country’s heritage, identity and culture. Understanding that South Africa is composed of all these various influences is essential for helping South Africans to understand and respect each other and to learn from each other’s cultural practices. This is part of the healing that democracy has brought after culture was used to divide South Africans in the past. 

Identity

A person’s identity is made up of their own character combined with their family and social roots. Identity, like culture, is ever changing. For example a person can be a teacher, parent, spouse and driver to their children, as well as being a famous politician fighting for justice or a farmer growing crops for food. To this person it is possible to be all of these and much more. At the same time being a person of a particular race or class also influences one's identity. When people speak of 'intersectionality,' they are broadly referring to this way that a single person can be at the intersection of multiple different social identities. The experiences of a White, heterosexual, urban, and middle-class mother, for instance, will be vastly different to that of a Black, homosexual, rural, and working class single woman. Identity, in short, is made up of a multitude of factors and an individual is both subject to their circumstance and an agent able to influence which parts of themselves they present to the world. 

Heritage

Heritage might be best broken up into two types: natural and cultural. A country’s natural heritage is its environment and natural resources, like gold and water. Areas that are very special and where animals or plants are in danger of extinction like the St. Lucia Wetlands and uKhahlamba Drakensberg Parks in KwaZulu Natal are often designated World Heritage sites. They are respected and internationally protected against harm. Cultural heritage, on the other hand, can be an altogether more contentious issue. Normally, the term 'cultural heritage' is used to describe those things that contribute to the sense of identity of a particular population or community of people. These can be special monuments, like a building, sculpture, painting, a cave dwelling or anything important because of its history, artistic or scientific value. The area in which this can become problematic is when a part of somebody's cultural heritage seems to clash directly with the dignity of another person's, or where it appears to transgress established global human rights practices (as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). An example might be the practice of female genital mutilation or the display of monuments that celebrate the lives of people who were responsible for the deaths of vast numbers of people, such as Cecil John Rhodes

Heritage and the South African Constitution

A constitution is the guiding law on a country's values and rules. A constitution directs the government and all the people who live in a country on the rules for how citizens should be treated and how they should treat others. A constitution supports and protects a country and the heritage and culture of its peoples. South Africa is widely considered to have one of the fairest and most progressive constitutions in the world.

In South Africa the vision of the constitution is for everybody to be equal. This means that nobody should be permitted to discriminate against anyone else because of things like skin colour, age, religion, language or gender. South Africans have human rights that are protected. For example, some schools have turned away children who have AIDS. However, the law protects these children’s rights to an education. In the same way the right to practice different religious beliefs is protected. Every person has the right to be part of any religion and to use the language of their choice. For this reason South Africa has 11 official languages so that all the major languages used in the country are given recognition. These languages are Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu. Languages used by smaller groups such as the Khoi, Nama, San and sign language must also be respected under the constitution. Other languages used in South Africa include Shona, French, Swahili, Lingala, Portuguese, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil, Portuguese, Telegu and Urdu. Other languages like Arabic, Hebrew and Sanskrit, used in certain religions, must also be respected.

World Heritage Sites in South Africa

A World Heritage Site is declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). There are two types of World Heritage Sites: the first represents cultural and the second natural heritage. 

Cultural sites

Cultural heritage sites have to show a masterpiece of human creativity or an important exchange of human values over a long period of time. This exchange must be seen in architecture or technology, the planning of the town or city and the design of the landscape. It has to show evidence of a tradition or civilisation that has disappeared or is still alive. It can also be a very good example of a type of building, group of buildings, and use of technology or reflect important stages in human history.

A place where humans settled and used the land in a way that represents their culture can also be a cultural heritage site, especially if the area is affected by change that cannot be reversed. The authenticity and the way the site is protected and managed are also important factors.

Natural sites

Natural sites that can be considered to become World Heritage Sites must display major stages in the earth’s history. They can be in fossils, rocks or other geological features. 

If an area contains rare natural formations, like unique rock shapes, or is very beautiful, or has habitats and species of animals and plants that can only exist there, it becomes important to protect it. This also makes it a possible World Heritage Site. As with cultural sites, preservation is very important.

Some special places fall into both cultural and natural heritage sites and in 1992 UNESCO decided that places that show the relationship between people and their environment could also be cultural landscapes.

South Africa has 8 places declared as World Heritage Sites. These are:

  1. The iSimangaliso Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park
  2. The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park
  3. Robben Island
  4. The Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and environs
  5. The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape
  6. Vredefort Dome
  7. The Cape Floral Region
  8. The Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape

Last updated : 03-Oct-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 14-Oct-2011