I have a love-hate relationship with Heritage Day. Beyond the warm and fuzzy feelings of seeing people in different and beautiful outfits representing their heritage — our diversity as the rainbow nation — it’s also a point of tension and possibly pain. In the wake of a cultural appropriation incident a few months ago, Heritage Day came with a few anxieties at my school: what are the white people going to wear? Could white people wear shweshwe outfits on the day? How should black people respond to white people who wear African symbols? Is it appropriation or appreciation? Like we’ve seen with Heritage Day becoming National Braai Day for others, the day is contested and this highlights who is on the margins and who is at the centre.
I was stunned when many of the white girls and staff members at school wore rugby T-shirts as an expression of their heritage. At the risk of centering whiteness, I’m not going to interrogate that decision but it doesn’t go unnoticed that when white people have to contend with their heritage, rugby is the symbol that is associated with whiteness and white people. In spite of white people’s efforts of denying their heritage, they defer to a symbol that is rugby rather than dealing with what it means to have slavery, colonialism, white supremacy and apartheid in the history books and contend with it in our daily lives.
This year was the first year (as an adult) I bothered to make an effort by “dressing up” for Heritage Day. Notice the use of dressing up; because that is what Heritage Day is largely about: dressing up. We put on our cultural costumes as an expression of our history and after Heritage Day we discard those costumes until the next year. On Friday I wore umbhaco to school. It was a very deliberate expression which came as a result of reflecting on my blackness at a time where the year started with Penny Sparrows and numerous other racist incidents making it into the news. Beyond the newsworthiness of racism I also teach in a school with microagressions where subliminal racism exists (some might argue there’s no such thing as subliminal racism; it’s just racism). Teaching at a school with a heritage steeped in colonialism, where people who looked like me were not part of the planning and vision of the school in 1888, there’s still a sense that blackness and expressions of Africa are on the margins and whiteness is at the centre. This is not a blind fault of the school but a consequence of slavery, colonialism, apartheid and the overarching theme of white supremacy that we are all faced with in the rainbow nation.
I wore umbhaco after a few days of wearing African print skirts and jewellery that is typically seen as African. I received many compliments from my students and colleagues. The compliments were not unusual as I am often complimented at work when I wear African prints. Clothes are a cultural expression for all of us and for some dressing down is a culture and for others dressing up is part of that expression. This distinction is the reason we have clothes we deem as professional and unprofessional. This is the reason why Madiba shirts are a thing because as an international statesman, Nelson Mandela eschewed the shirt and tie for something more comfortable and “colourful” as his style trademark. So when people compliment me or mostly comment on my clothes, it’s in relation to the cultural value we place on clothes. So when I started wearing African clothes last week and people noticed, the subtext I had to grapple with was that the clothes I was wearing are not mainstream. If I’m wearing African clothes I’m making a statement rather than simply wearing clothes to cover my body.
As a Xhosa person, I grew up with the language of amaqaba and amagqoboka. My mother taught me the distinction when she would tell me stories about missionaries and colonialism which distorted and erased the precolonial culture of black people. Amaqaba were the black people who had rejected the teachings of the missionaries and continued to wear imbola (ochre) on their faces. The women were known as ooqhiyankulu because they styled their doeks by layering many doeks while more modern of expressions of hairstyles and hats were being adopted by those who had embraced the style missionaries and colonialists had come with: amagqoboka. These were the people who wholeheartedly (and possibly blindly) embraced the Englishness that became associated with the missionaries and the schools that were being established for black people. This distinction has had many iterations over the decades with the African elite and we now have “coconuts”: white on the inside and black on the outside. These are black people who have assimilated into whiteness often to the point where they are also mono-lingual English speakers like many white people in South Africa.
In light of all these observations around identity politics, race, heritage and expressions of culture, I am drawn into Steve Biko’s words about integration. Because integration was the great promise of 1994 where black and white would unite and we would have a new South African identity. But this has not happened. Instead what Biko questioned is what we have in South Africa at the moment:
If by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behaviour set up by and maintained by whites, then YES I am against it. I am against the superior-inferior white-black stratification that makes the white a perpetual teacher and the black a perpetual pupil (and a poor one at that). I am against the intellectual arrogance of white people that makes them believe that white leadership is sine qua non in this country and that whites are divinely appointed pace-setters in progress. I am against the fact that a settler minority should impose an entire system of values on an indigenous people.
Biko was not the first to point out these problems. Fanon raises similar arguments in Black skins, White masks (“The fact of blackness”)and The wretched of the earth in the chapters “The pitfalls of National Consciousness” and “On national culture” where questions of national identity are central to a nation in the wake of colonialism and in South Africa’s example, apartheid. Fanon begins “On national culture” with Sekou Toure’s words “In order to achieve real action, you must yourself be a living part of Africa and her thought; you must be an element of that popular energy which is entirely called forth for the freeing, the progress and happiness of Africa.”
Beyond the warm and fuzzy feelings I experienced on Friday when I saw black and brown people wearing expressions and symbols which have been deemed as other for centuries, I saw the reality that is South Africa. The irony of Heritage Day is that in a black majority country on a black continent led by a black government, black people are given one day to perform their heritage and display it at stadiums. Surely there is something wrong with this picture. There is something wrong about black people being the cultural minority in the country of their birth where we defer to what is professional and normal in relation to 1652 and 1820 and 1948 and all these historical and cultural moments which said that blackness is inferior and whiteness is superior.