A letter on Heritage Day and the exclusionary nature of Homo Naledi

Sawubona South Africans,

I’ve never liked Heritage Day much. Sure, like every warm-blooded working mammal I appreciate a break in the middle of the week, but of all South Africa’s public holidays this is the one I like the least. The braai day and simunye, one love hype gets me. I don’t have a problem with South Africa’s rich diversity, but the trouble with the Rainbow Nation’s public holidays is that they’re all so commercialised and situated so much in the here and now, that the reason why they were specially marked on the calendar is often forgotten.

Of course, Zimbabwe’s overkill on old liberation footage in the build up to a national holiday isn’t any better, but most people can safely say they know what each day symbolises. In South Africa however, it’s rare to see the historical reference to Women’s Day or Heritage Day mentioned in the television adverts or on the street where talk of boerewoers and beer fests dominate, or in the malls where stores and restaurants use the holiday as an excuse for a month of knock-off sales and all you can eat specials to get rid of old stock.

Watching all this seemingly mindless consumption, I feel like I’ve learned few new things in the +-30 days honouring multi-racial, post-apartheid South Africa. The one plus, of course, is that in Johannesburg’s backyard lies a great discovery that tells us a little more about our human story. But even in being amazed at the evolutionary find of Homo Naledi, I – being the lefty grinch I am – have to ask, whose history is it anyway? At Naledi’s unveiling, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke effusively about discovering knowledge for the people and Witwatersrand University’s vice-chancellor, Adam Habib talked platitudes about breaking the hierarchies of knowledge and making it open for all. That sounded very nice and got the applause, but it skimmed by the part where seeing a chunk of bones belonging to some of our dead ancestors will set you back about R160 and how many South Africans can’t actually afford to see the Naledi collection at all. Do the people living in the shacks mushrooming around Maropeng’s Cradle of Humankind and nearby Magaliesberg have the access that Ramaphosa and Habib celebrated?

Compared to the flagship Apartheid Museum and lesser known //Hapo Museum in Pretoria, which is easily one of South Africa’s best-looking sites and costs R100 or R50 for locals, Naledi’s chamber of stars is over three times as expensive. R160 to R215 might not be so pricey when foreign currency-wielding visitors convert from dollars or pounds, but what about the locals?

If transformation is to become the defining struggle of this era, then transforming South Africa’s heritage so everyone can have access, is imperative. Taking commercialism out of the equation – and so making history accessible to the poor and indigenous peoples of this land – is essential if these holidays are to have the meanings of nationhood and heritage they are intended to have.


Tendai Marima profileTendai Marima is freelance journalist and researcher. Follow her on Twitter