Reflections on Heritage Day in South Africa

As I scrolled through posts on social media about the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), I noticed that she wore her iconic white beaded collar in the majority of the images. Apparently, it’s a favourite in her collection of neckpieces, and came from South Africa, where it is made and worn by the Xhosa, Ndebele, and Sotho people. RBG’s neckpieces were her signature, a deliberate move to add something feminine to the judicial robe designed for men. I’m not sure how she acquired her South African piece, but I imagine that she wore it with full awareness of its cultural significance.

It led me to think about my beaded collar that I have worn on formal occasions overseas as a symbol of my South African identity. I have similarly worn Indian saris and jewellery or had henna painted on my hands and feet when attending an Indian wedding. I grew up in a family where different religions, languages, and traditions came together harmoniously in our home and neighbourhood, in spite of living in a country that systematically divided its citizens into boxes, dictating where they could live and go to school, and who they could love and marry.

The issue of a collective identity was so fundamental to South Africa as a country trying to shed its apartheid legacy, that 24 September was chosen as Heritage Day to recognise the tangible and intangible traditions, customs, languages, and food of its diverse population. In announcing the holiday in 1996, then-president Nelson Mandela acknowledged the profound power that our rich and varied cultural heritage had to help build a new nation.

In recent years, the holiday has been promoted as National Braai (or barbecue) Day. While cooking food over a fire is probably a universal practice, I’m not sure that it is quintessentially South African, nor that it can speak to the richness of the different legacies that encompass hairstyles, music, dance, clothing, art, and eleven official languages. Coming together around a fire is perhaps the least offensive way of celebrating, and avoids the likelihood of being accused of cultural appropriation, but I think that we should be making more of an effort to learn from and understand each other.

Cultural appropriation is the co-option of elements from another culture for one’s own purposes or profit, without acknowledgment or respect. Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University and the author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, or other symbols, is usually perpetrated by someone from a dominant culture who is able to use it without the racism that arises when it is used by the original culture. An example would be celebrities in the West wearing the bhindi, an important cultural symbol and religious emblem used by Hindu women in South Asia.

Beadwork as a way of adorning our bodies is a global practice that goes back thousands of years.

Archaeological excavations have found evidence that ancient civilisations made holes in shells and seeds, and later stones or bones, to string them in some way to decorate their bodies with necklaces and earrings. Glass beads, thought to have been used since at least the 9th century, have been found all over southern Africa, pointing to the cross-pollination of trade. Murano beads were popular as a form of currency as early as the 14th century and glass beads were imported into South Africa in large quantities by the British from Venice.

The beaded lace collars associated most often with the Xhosa people are used to convey different social meanings, created through the use of colour and pattern to mark gender, marital status, and social rank. They have diverse roots, influenced by the lace collars from Europe, that in turn borrowed from the neckpieces worn in Ancient Egypt. Indigenous people in Southern Africa adapted their handwork to include the imported glass beads while the embroidery and crochet work done by white Afrikaner women also incorporated the use of beads. As colonial divide-and-rule policies and later apartheid legislation increasingly separated people along ethnic and artificial racial lines, the interaction and integration of cultural practices were severely limited.

I think that when we engage with another person and their culture in an attempt to better understand them and their practices from a sincere point of view, it is possible that it will lead to a place beyond the stories of two different cultures — perhaps to a fusion of ideas that may result in a new way of expression, a new story, and the acceptance of different ways of thinking. Embracing different cultural practices with respect for the beauty and process, and understanding why the original culture took part in it, helps us realise that we are not so far apart and encourages us to discover the essence of universality that we all have within us.