New identities and the construction of heritage

Eleanor Roosevelt holding a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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New identities: Human Rights for all

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations Organisation (UNO) in 1948. It is the basis for human rights protection and promotion around the world.

In the same year that the UDHR was accepted at the UNO in 1948, the National Party came to power in South Africa. They put into practice the racist policy of apartheid, under which black South Africans were denied basic human rights. The system of apartheid clearly did not meet the standards set by the UDHR. The apartheid government did not sign the UDHR, and apartheid was later declared a Crime against Humanity by the UNO.

In South Africa under apartheid, people who lived within South Africa’s borders were taught that they were different because they had different skin colours. Laws were applied which benefited whites, and oppressed blacks. There was no common sense of national unity.

After the 1994 democratic election in South Africa, a new non-racial constitution was drawn up. It includes a Bill of Rights, and is based on the UDHR.

“We, the people of South Africa, recognise the injustices of the past; honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”

A challenge for the democratic government is to create a new national identity from a divided legacy of division and discrimination.

However, we continue to be divided by our blackness and our whiteness. The Chairman of the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), Jody Kollapen said as recently as March, 2008:

You can read the full article called 'Racism alive and well in South Africa' at www.thetimes.co.za

"I think the challenge is to transcend the sense that we have over our blackness and our whiteness...I think it requires hard work and I think it requires ordinary people to speak to each other."

The construction of heritage: new symbols of unity

These are some of the things that were used to construct a new South African identity, and a new heritage for a democratic nation of South Africans:

National Symbols were changed

National Anthem: South Africa adopted a new National Anthem in the spirit of reconciliation, a combination of “Nkosi Sikelel’” and “Die Stem”.

Flag: The new national flag of the Republic of South Africa was first used on 27 April 1994.

Coat of Arms: A new National Coat of Arms was adopted. The motto is:!ke e: /xarra //ke, written in the Khoisan language of the /Xam people, literally meaning: diverse people unite. It calls for the nation to unite in a common sense of belonging and national pride - Unity in Diversity.

National sports teams were created

Under apartheid, national sports teams were made up of whites only. South Africa was boycotted from participating in international sport during the apartheid years. South African teams now compete against people from all over the world.

South Africa will be the host nation for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It will be the first time the tournament is held in Africa. It will be a great event to reinforce one South African identity.

However, racism in sport is still prevalent in South Africa despite the country declaring all forms of racism illegal. Merit selection of teams is often dubiously used to exclude disadvantaged individuals from being selected into elite teams.

History of Soccer in South Africa (sections on the sports boycott and the 2010 world cup) An interesting article on racism in rugby can be read on www.buzzle.com

South African joined international organisations

During apartheid South Africa was excluded from international bodies. Since 1994, South Africa has been welcomed into the international community, and belongs to, for example, Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union, the Commonwealth and the United Nations Organisation.

South Africa officially assumed its seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council in January 2007, the first time the country has sat on the UN's most powerful organ.

Robben Island. Source: blouberg.co.za

New heritage sites were created

Since 1994, many new heritage sites and museums have been opened to contribute to forging a new South African identity. These include:

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg: This pre-eminent museum deals with 20th century South Africa, at the heart of which is the apartheid story... more

Freedom Park in Tshwane: This memorial aims to mobilize for reconciliation and nation building in our country; to reflect upon our past, to improve our present and build our future as a united nation; to contribute continentally and internationally to the formation of better human understanding among nations and peoples... more

Robben Island Museum (RIM) near Cape Town: This museum aims to develop the island as a national and international heritage and conservation site. RIM strives to maintain the unique symbolism of the island, nurture creativity and innovation. This museum also aims to contribute to socio-economic development, the transformation of South African society and the enrichment of humanity... more

Museums Online South Africa: This online heritage portal gives access to most South African museums... more

New provinces were created

South Africa under Apartheid had four provinces - Cape Province, Orange Free State, Transvaal, and Natal. The new South Africa has eight provinces - Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Northwest Province, and Limpopo Province (initially Northern Province).

Some towns and streets were renamed

The renaming process is part of a national drive to make South African cities and street names sound more inclusive and less reflective of the colonial and apartheid past. For example, the cities of Pietersburg, Louis Trichardt, and Potgietersrust were named after Afrikaner leaders. They became, Polokwane, Makhoda, and Mokopane.

South Africa is not unique when it comes to changing names. There is an interesting article on international name changes on news.bbc.co.uk

Within South Africa, the process remains controversial, and renaming is likely to continue for a long time as South Africa continues to redefine itself.

Airport names were changed

SAHO biography: OR Thambo

The names of all South African airports were first changed from Apartheid politician's names to the city or town where they are located. Later, Johannesburg International Airport was changed to O.R. Tambo International Airport after the great ANC leader.

For additional guidelines see our feature on 'Oral History'

Last updated : 07-Sep-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 22-Mar-2011