South Africa’s Heritage Day, celebrated on 24 September annually, is a remarkable occasion that has transcended its national boundaries to become a symbol of unity and cultural diversity across the African continent. Heritage is the collective memory of a people, encompassing their traditions, customs, languages, art, and historical narratives. It is the essence of what makes a community unique, reflecting the experiences, struggles, and triumphs that have shaped it over time. South Africa itself is a tapestry of diverse cultures and ethnicities, with each group contributing to the nation’s unique identity. Therefore, South Africa’s Heritage Day serves as a potent reminder of the country’s journey towards reconciliation and unity.
For many, Heritage Day serves as a reminder of the journey towards reconciliation and unity that South Africa undertook after the dark days of apartheid. But for some, like me, this day represents a convergence point of personal and political journeys that began with the exploration of African countries through the pages of the Heinemann African Writers Series. In my 2020 semi-autobiographical book, “Sound and Fury: The Chronicles of Healing”, I have reflected on how my politicisation through this literary series introduced me to African countries and weaved together my personal experiences with a broader narrative of African unity. South Africa’s Heritage Day now embodies the ideals of pan-Africanism as we do have millions of immigrants of African origin who use this day (and the entire month, as September is celebrated as our Heritage Month) to celebrate their indigenous traditions and heritage with South Africans. By the way, this speaks to one of our foreign policy principles: deepening people-to-people contact.
The Heinemann African Writers Series, a collection of literature featuring works by African authors, played a pivotal role in my journey towards understanding the complexities and diversities of the African continent. These books delved into the histories, cultures, and social issues of various African countries, offering readers a window into a world far removed from their own. The writings of Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, and many others exposed me to the rich tapestry of African experiences.
For me, reading these African narratives was more than just an intellectual exercise; it was a political awakening. Through these novels, short stories, and plays, I became acutely aware of the struggles faced by different African nations under colonialism and apartheid. These literary works served as a bridge between my own understanding of politics and the broader narrative of African liberation and unity.
The African Writers Series ignited my interest in African politics and history. It was through these pages that I learned about the pan-African movement, which sought to unite African nations under a common identity, free from the shackles of colonialism and apartheid. The ideals of pan-Africanism, championed by figures like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and Frantz Fanon, resonated deeply with me as I followed the struggles of African characters in these novels. The vision of a united Africa, where people from different nations stood together in solidarity, became my own aspiration.
One may imagine the excitement when I was offered a job as a Publisher/Commissioning Editor by Heinemann Publishers in Johannesburg on 1 August 1994. We had just taken a decision to close down Learn & Teach Publications, an anti-apartheid publishing company that produced the regular magazine, Learn & Teach, and booklets for COSATU’s affiliates. I joined it on 1 August 1988 and managed to rise to become the Editor-in-Chief and Executive Director in 1994, embarking on a self-sustainability drive as foreign donors indicated post the 1994 democratic elections, they were to redirect their donor funding to the government from where we were to solicit our funding. Unfortunately, government took longer to develop the mechanism for funding and all of us as alternative media had to cease to exist by July 1994 – the only publication to survive from the independent progressive media stable was the then Weekly Mail which has since metamorphosed into the Mail & Guardian.
So, getting a call for a job offer from Heinemann Publishers was a pleasant and extremely humbling. The company had disinvested from South Africa in support of the international isolation of the apartheid country, so it was returning as an investor following its democratisation. I was with the company for six years – four of which as their Publishing Director.
Excuse me for my digression. Back to the subject of this weekend, Heritage Day – a celebration of the nation’s diverse cultural heritage – now holds a special place in my heart. It has evolved to encompass not only the celebration of South African cultures but also the broader narrative of pan-Africanism. It serves as a platform for cultural exchange, acknowledgment of shared histories, celebration of linguistic diversity, and the promotion of African fashion and cuisine — all elements that resonate with the ideals of pan-Africanism.
As I join in the festivities of South Africa’s Heritage Day, I cannot help but reflect on how my personal journey, politicised through the Heinemann African Writers Series, has converged with the broader narrative of African unity. South Africa, with its rich history of overcoming apartheid and embracing diversity, is the embodiment of the pan-African ideals that first captured my imagination through the pages of those books.
While our Heritage Day provides a promising platform for pan-Africanism, there are challenges that need to be addressed to further strengthen this movement.
We need to truly embrace pan-Africanism, South Africa’s Heritage Day should be inclusive of all African cultures and diaspora communities. It should not only celebrate the country’s indigenous cultures but also create space for other African nations to participate and share their heritage.
We have to be mindful that pan-Africanism can only thrive with a well-informed populace. South Africa should prioritise educational initiatives that teach its citizens and the wider African community about the history, struggles and achievements of the pan-African movement.
Traditional attire is a significant part of African heritage, and it reflects the cultural diversity of the continent. South Africa’s Heritage Day encourages people to don their traditional clothing, promoting pride in one’s cultural identity. This celebration of African fashion can be extended to other African nations, fostering a sense of unity through a shared appreciation of the continent’s rich sartorial traditions.
Food is a universal language that transcends borders and brings people together. Our Heritage Day is an opportunity to showcase the nation’s culinary heritage, from Cape Malay cuisine to Zulu dishes. The appreciation of diverse African cuisines can serve as a reminder that our shared love for food can help us overcome differences and connect on a deeper level. Let me congratulate Moyagabo Anna Seemola of Pheli Wines – a wholly black woman-owned wine brand – for consistently organising a wine tasting event that encompassing appetising indigenous cuisine for this weekend.
Beyond cultural celebrations, economic cooperation is a crucial aspect of pan-Africanism. As South Africa we have to embark on a concerted awareness campaign to promote the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) among the business community. This subject is eloquently covered in my latest book, De/constructing brand Africa: A Practitioner’s Perspective.
The success of pan-Africanism hinges on the commitment of African leaders to prioritise the interests of the continent as a whole. South Africa should continue playing a leadership role by advocating for stronger political and diplomatic ties among African nations, addressing conflicts, and promoting peace and stability.
I strong advocate for our Heritage Day to be more than just a national holiday; it has to be seen as a powerful tool for fostering a pan-African identity rooted in shared heritage, values and aspirations. My own journey from the pages of the Heinemann African Writers Series to the celebrations of our Heritage Day exemplifies the transformative power of literature and culture in shaping political consciousness.
As we celebrate this day, it is a moment to reflect on how literature, culture and history can bind us together in a shared narrative of African unity. It is a testament to the resilience of African nations and their ability to overcome adversity, embrace diversity, and work toward a brighter, more united future.
Let’s use this day as a powerful tool for fostering a pan-African identity rooted in shared heritage, values and aspirations. As the continent faces new challenges and opportunities in the 21st century, the need for unity and cooperation among African nations has never been more critical. South Africa, with its history of overcoming apartheid and embracing diversity, stands as an example of what can be achieved when a nation comes together in pursuit of a common goal.
Happy Heritage Day weekend to all.
Saul Molobi (FCIM)
Group Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Tel: +27 11 483 1019
Mobile: +27 83 635 7773