Often when engaging in matters relating to the creative fields, we mention the phrase “arts, culture and heritage (ACH)” without paying much attention to the “heritage” part of the phrase. In a sense, the “H” in the abbreviation has become redundant and somewhat of an ornament in our everyday parlance, superficially incorporated into our jargon and lists of catchphrases. This is surprising because heritage and the awareness of it, to me, is at the very core of many, if not all, forms of artistic expression. By implication, in being at the core of artistic expression, it becomes central in shaping our culture and identity.
In this regard, the National Arts Council (NAC) finds itself in a strong position to leverage off and collaborate with its sister organisations towards incorporating support for heritage initiatives into certain areas of fulfilling its own mandate. Along with the NAC, other implementing agencies of the Department of Arts and Culture, such as the National Heritage Council (NHC), the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) and Business Arts South Africa (BASA), are in place to adopt collaborative and holistic approaches to socioeconomic development, nation building and social cohesion.
An example of this can be seen in the recent creation of the Development Agency Forum, which includes the NAC, the NHC, the NFVF and BASA. Not only has this forum already identified a few projects for collaboration, its creation serves as a means of opening dialogue in the heritage sector in order to identify efficient methods of preserving our heritage. This, in turn, will contribute towards mainstreaming the heritage sector into the broader economy and opening a path of growth for employment. Another example is the NAC’s involvement in supporting 19 writers to develop manuscripts in indigenous languages.
But conceptualising ‘heritage’ and the broader economic development imperative that underlies enhancing the heritage sector can only be served practically and appropriately from the grass-roots level up. As the primary drivers of what it means to be South African, the youth should play a critical role in identifying the most salient features of our heritage that need to be preserved and celebrated.
But for South Africa’s large youth population to begin appreciating their heritage, they need to be educated accordingly and made aware of the benefits of staying true to themselves and their past. This in the context of a globalised world where culture, especially youth culture, has by and large become generic and homogenised in favour of the developed world, which has had the means over centuries to impose dominant artistic and cultural modes and, in essence, the celebration of a certain eurocentric or Western type of heritage.
It is for this reason the NAC adopted the message “know thyself and you will never sway” this Heritage Month. As an agency mandated to support and develop arts and culture in South Africa, and by implication preserve and uphold the country’s heritage, our central role is to develop people, especially the youth. It is also our responsibility to foster a sense of respect for our dignity as Africans, as well as restore and uplift our people, through artistic expression in recognition of our past struggles, from centuries of exploitation and oppression. It is therefore in our best interest, in looking ahead towards the future of South Africa, to inculcate a sense of belonging and the spirit of togetherness among our youth, as it is only through belonging and togetherness that their susceptibility to negative influences will be diminished.
As an advocate for arts education, the NAC constantly strives towards finding innovative, cross-disciplinary and intersectional solutions that integrate the arts into practical methods of instruction. To this end, the NAC is currently in the process of exploring an exciting partnership with an NGO which consists of a team of visual artists, mathematicians, historians, architects and writers to develop teacher’s guides for training and learner workbooks. The tremendous impact of this kind of innovative approach to arts and education will only truly be realised in generations to come, where we’ll see the young children of today grow up to be creative, holistic thinkers in whatever professions or vocations they find themselves in.
A more meaningful acknowledgement of heritage in our discourse and efforts would certainly go a long way towards establishing a distinct South African identity. Constant monitoring and evaluation of our programmes and initiatives will in time render a body of knowledge on which more in depth research can be undertaken to create a clearer picture of the potential the heritage sector, and South African heritage in general, have for our country’s development and advancement.