Heritage virgins come of age


We set out to celebrate, commemorate and mark key news figures and moments, writes Sunday Times editor MONDLI MAKHANYA, but it was only a billion meetings later that we realised how much these memorials meant to how many people.

Earlier this year a colleague and I headed down to the Eastern Cape for a "summit" with stakeholders in our Eastern Cape heritage project. These included family members, community representatives, government officials and church elders. We spent half a day in a meeting that definitely ranks as one of my most memorable experiences of 2007.

Context first: we had been working on our national heritage project since late 2005 and had hoped to have installed our 40 memorials by the end of 2006, our centenary year.

The aim of the project had been simple: as part of our centenary celebrations, we wanted to thank South Africa for having nurtured the Sunday Times into this fit and vibrant 100-year-old. The best way to do this, we surmised, was to celebrate, commemorate and mark key news figures, events and moments that had shaped the Sunday Times Century.

The erection of 40 site-specific memorials was to be the start of a 100-year commitment by the Sunday Times to play a role in the heritage space.

Being "heritage virgins" (a term coined by the project's makhulu honcho, Charlotte Bauer), we were soon to learn that great ideas, fine intentions and oodles of energy do not a heritage project make. Welcome to the world of consultation!

Many of those touched by the memorials - the "stakeholders" - wanted full ownership of the project. A billion meetings were held with the stakeholders before we could move. It slowed us down immensely and frustrated our efforts to finish everything within in our centenary year (as this goes to press, we are still putting up memorials).

But, man, did it teach us something about our democracy, our culture and society. This public insistence on ownership filled us with pride as we realised how much the memorials we had chosen meant to how many people.

Which is why my colleague and I were in the Eastern Cape that day. Consultations had been held before, and this meeting - called by the province's Arts and Culture Department - was to finally seal the project.

The attendees, who had come from different parts of the province and represented diverse constituencies, spoke their minds. They spoke passionately about the people and events we were to remember through those memorials.

These were no longer just stories from history books and oral lore. They became real - lived through the voices, the gestures and the eyes of the people I sat with in that room

By the time we walked out of there we had been taught a lesson in the meaning of heritage - and in real democracy.

South Africa is a country of deep meanings, enriched by a collective experience that we, as a baby nation, are largely just not tapping into. Our history has ensured that we caused suffering to one another, that when we celebrated we did so separately, laughed separately, played separately, and valued our experiences differently.

And, I'm afraid. our present experience shows that we are doing very little to ensure that we take ownership of our collective experience so as to use it to forge a common South Africanness to ensure that our bitterness at our past is translated into positive energy.

On that day, in that room in King William's Town, I took ownership of the likes of Prophetess Nontetha, and the brave men and women who fell at Bulhoek. These were no longer just stories from history books and oral lore. They became real - lived through the voices, the gestures and the eyes of the people I sat with in that room.

The triumphs of the great boxer, Happyboy Mgxaji, and the painter George Pemba were brought to life as the eyes of my meeting companions lit up and their speech became animated.

This is what our Heritage Project is about: the lived experience of South Africans.