On September 24 we will once again celebrate Heritage Day in South Africa. This is a day on which South Africans across the spectrum are encouraged to celebrate their culture and the diversity of their beliefs and traditions.
Although the vision of this day resonates with me, in reality I experience it as incredibly superficial. Some of us will merely sleep in, grateful to the Republic for a mid-week break. Others will join their friends for a lekker braai, posting selfies with #Braai4Heritage all over social media. While others, more enthusiastic about the day’s intent, will dress up in traditional outfits and join some gathering at a stadium.
For a day, we will dance and sing amid the blooming jasmines of spring and enjoy being part of the beautiful rainbow nation. Then September 25 will arrive and we will pass each other in the corridors, our minds and hearts no richer in understanding that allows us to truly connect with each other’s diversity.
When we talk about embracing each other’s diversity, it is so easy to theorise about it without truly examining what our innate reactions say about where we stand on the matter.
A few weeks ago, I caught a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg. As I descended on the escalator, I saw a large group of people occupying most of the seats near my boarding gate. Suddenly, my heart started beating rapidly. Should I message my partner and family to send love in case this was my last day on earth? Before I could even finish the thought, I dropped my head in shame. The group that morning was comprised of Muslim men wearing Dishdashas (robes) and women wrapped in Hijabs (veils). One look, and my first emotion was fear. How could someone who prides herself in embracing diversity have had that thought?
Consciously, I know that being Muslim does not mean one plans on bombing planes. Yet in that moment, my brain revealed that I unconsciously held some assumptions about Muslims based on gross generalisations mainly influenced by subliminal messages through media coverage. This reminded me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk about “the danger of a single story”. If most of what you keep hearing about a group is that they are terrorists and you do not make an effort to experience alternative realities of that group – their humanity – then no matter how “good” you are as a person, you will inevitably fall into the dangerous habit of ascribing to them a single story.
So beyond the celebratory national gatherings of Heritage Day, I would like to challenge each and every one of us to seriously examine which groups or traditions we are least familiar with, and ask ourselves why. Once one has figured that out, then a bigger question looms: do you want to step up to being an active citizen and truly embrace diversity within South Africa? If the answer is yes, then we need to be proactive in making personal, regular, and genuine efforts to engage with the cultures and traditions we are least familiar with, and the effort needs to come from all sides. We also need to read more about the different cultures and religions in our country to help us understand their history, and how our fellow citizens view and experience the world.
Even though I have had Muslim colleagues and have been in public spaces where Muslim people were in the majority, my interactions have never actually been with their Muslim-ness, but rather have remained at surface level. My flight incident made me realise that I do not really have close Muslim friends or know much about Islam. And no, this Heritage Day I am not going to “rent a Muslim friend” as that would be disrespectful.
Now that I have realised that I am lacking in my knowledge and understanding of the Muslim religion and traditions, I will begin to be more proactive in broadening my understanding of the faith and interacting with the human beings that extol it. I am also making efforts elsewhere in trying to deepen my understanding of different cultures within my country. I am currently reading Lindi Koorts’ book titled DF Malan and the Rise of Afrikaner Nationalism. It is so instructive to have another lens through which to understand what was driving the Afrikaner people and what eventually led to Apartheid. As Jacob Dlamini commented about the book: “[It is] a history that is understanding but not apologetic, sympathetic but not justificatory.”
In systems thinking theory there is a term called conceptual reality, which refers to what we think about what we see. If we do not continuously challenge what we think about what we see relating to other religions and traditions, then our assumptions remain unchecked and can lead to the oppression of and discrimination against others. Celebrating our heritage is not simply a once a year event where we enjoy a braai or get to play dress up. It takes work and a deliberate intention to truly recognise, understand and appreciate each other both for our differences and commonalities.
Although starting from a place of similarities can help us to engage more meaningfully, sometimes it is only when we feel our differences are acknowledged and celebrated that we can experience true connection. So my challenge this Heritage Day is for each of us to take a leap toward exploring and embracing our differences, because that is where the real potential lies for us to find our common humanity.