Heritage is a verb
By Prof Mias de Klerk
With the celebration of Heritage Day, the diverse groups in South African typically celebrate their respective heritages – thinking with nostalgy where they come from, their traditions and what is important to them. Celebrating our respective heritages is a beautiful custom and opportunity, because there is so much to be proud of and deserving conventions that should be conserved for our children and their children. After all, where we come from has a large determining impact on who we are. However, in conserving our past heritages, there is a risk that we consider heritage on a surface level, for instance, equating it only with “braai day”, without recognizing the depth of the meaning of the term ‘heritage.
We all are leaders – leadership is not about a position in an institution, but is about one’s ability and willingness to influence other people towards a goal. This means that we all have the accountability to act and not wait passively for political leaders or CEOs to get things right. We are all leaving a legacy, or a heritage, whether we want to do it or not; even if our legacy is only about being worthy of being forgotten. Legacy is not inherently good – it is a neutral concept, but with consequences that can be constructive or destructive. My legacy might be that I’ve protected my own heritage to the exclusion of others. For some people, it appears to be attractive to find comfort in the heritage of Apartheid and in the exclusive legacies of leaders such as Verwoerd, Voster or Botha. My legacy might be that I use excuses such as “it is my heritage and my culture” when being corrupt or acting without integrity, as a previous president consistently do. But wallowing in destructive legacies or use our heritage for what we do or refrain to do, do not take our beloved country forward. These actions or neglects will spawn more divisions, corruption and carnage. Heritage Day challenges us as leaders to take responsibility to celebrate our various heritages in a constructive and inclusive way and to build a new heritage for futures generations to come.
There is a huge risk that we think heritage is only about the past and forget that heritage is also about the future. What we now regard as our heritage was our ancestors’ daily realities and futures. What they created in the past for their futures and the futures of their children, became the heritage that we now cherish and celebrate. First, my heritage formed me, then I have the ability and obligation to form the future heritage as a steward of my country and its future heritages. As leaders, we need to be acutely aware of the heritage that we are creating for the future. One day, future generations will look back to today and what we’ve created to become their heritage.
Heritage is a verb, it is not a noun or adjective regarding historic practices. We have the responsibility and accountability to create and maintain a heritage that is deeper than surface level or focused just on conserving the memorable and significant practices of the past. Responsibility refers to our obligation to serve the future interests of current generations and generations to come. Responsibility challenges us about the kind of heritage we create regarding acting with integrity, eradicating poverty, mutual respect, tolerance and acceptance of not only our inner circle, but also those who look and act differently from us. We have the responsibility to leave future generations with a desirable heritage, which encompasses a natural environment that can sustain life in the most wonderful and productive ways and that will provide them with the ability and opportunities to saviour the best natural beauties our world can offer and the opportunities to enjoy the beautiful and diverse wildlife that we can appreciate. It is disheartening that much of the responsibility to create the future heritage of South Africans has not been enacted or denied for the past 13 years through plundering, neglect, lack of commitment, reactivity, deprivation, and exclusivity; with a passivity for taking up our accountability to rectify what should be rectified.
Good intentions are not sufficient to create a befitting heritage for future generations. As Augusten Burroughs said, “I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions”. We have the liability to act beyond intentions. As stewards of the future, heritage accountability endows us with a liability to ensure that the interests of future generations are served and will have been considered to have been deserved when future generations look back at what we did today. Accountability demands a commitment and drive to rectify those things, where so required, that diminish the kind of heritage we are creating. We have to consciously construct a better heritage for our nation and our children, one that is characterised by virtues such as ownership and responsibility, inclusivity and understanding, tolerance and acceptance, respect, morality and integrity, empathy and compassion, openness and abundance, sustainable societies, businesses and a sustainable environment, and all those other virtues that will give us hope and our future generations a heritage to cherish and be proud of.
Heritage is a verb regarding the future.