Celebrating Our Living Heritage

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement and success have no meaning.” – Benjamin Franklin

The signs of the seasons changing are evident everywhere in the city I call home. The Cape landscape of open fields and roadsides announce the arrival of spring with explosions of white and brightly coloured flowers. I have come to anticipate and expect the seasonal floral carpet spreading delight year after year – a showcase of new growth, the reward for resilience having survived the more difficult preceding intervals, in this case winter and drought. At the same time, I am reminded, that as the Southern Hemisphere rejoices in the return of spring, the Northern Hemisphere prepares for the onset of autumn. Without autumn and winter, spring and summer have no real significance.

Our lives too have their seasons, albeit not quite as unvarying in timing and occurrence. Times of learning and new growth inevitably lead to a blossoming, then maturing which may give way to decline or inertia and lack of progress. Fortunately, we have more control over how long these seasons will last and whether we make the most of the season we find ourselves in. I am conscious today that some of my greatest growth in life has come not during the new beginning but before it, not only preceding it but stimulating it. Through facing and wrestling with struggle, we find a better solution or perhaps forge a new and different path.

While our landscape celebrates the arrival of spring with nature’s diverse beauty, September also hosts another important celebration for South Africans. The decision to include Heritage Day into the National Calendar was not without struggle. A political compromise was reached, creating a day for all South Africans to observe and celebrate our diverse cultural heritage, because of the belief that this rich and varied cultural heritage would help build our new nation. In taking the time to do some further research on what heritage means to us in South Africa today, I was led to the following profound explanation of living heritage.

“Living heritage is the foundation of all communities and an essential source of identity and continuity. Aspects of living heritage include cultural tradition, oral history, performance, ritual, popular memory, skills and techniques, indigenous knowledge system and the holistic approach to nature, society and social relationships. In South Africa the term Intangible Cultural Heritage is used interchangeably with the term Living Heritage. Living heritage plays an important role in promoting cultural diversity, social cohesion, reconciliation, peace and economic development. In every community there are living human treasures who possess a high degree of knowledge, skills and history pertaining to different aspects of diverse living heritage. It is therefore important for South Africans to reclaim, restore and preserve these various aspects of living heritage to accelerate the use of living heritage to address challenges communities are facing today.” [Source: Department of Arts and Culture]

From an international perspective, UNESCO has also noted how intangible cultural heritage acts as a bridge between traditional and contemporary cultural values. Cultural heritage is seen as the living expression of oral traditions, craft and artistic skills, social or ritual customs, knowledge and know-how handed down by previous generations. It is clear then that living heritage is a creative force that binds generations and strengthens communities.

I am inspired by these descriptions of heritage and the clear connection of culture to skills and knowledge. What an exciting opportunity it presents to each of us to consider the role we play in conserving, managing, protecting and also sharing our heritage, both tangible and intangible, so that our present and future generations might benefit from and find delight in the treasure represented.

How inspiring it is to consider that in every struggle and every challenge is an opportunity to acquire new knowledge and skills which build on an existing foundation and enable improvement, achievement and success, not just for ourselves, but for our communities and our nation. We are living human treasures then making rich deposits into the heritage account of our nations, connected by our shared desire to see our diverse heritage reclaimed, celebrated and preserved.