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Celebrating diversity to create a unified Unisa

Unisa joined the South African government to observe 24 September as National Heritage Day. Organised annually by the university’s Department of Leadership and Transformation (DLT), the event took place on Microsoft Teams on 23 September 2021 and speakers presented in all official languages to underscore the importance of sharing cultural wealth.

Even though DLT themed this event Excavating, reclaiming, restoring and celebrating our heritage as an annual norm, it still supports the Complex pasts: Diverse futures as the 2021 World Heritage Day theme and The AU year of the arts, culture and heritage: Levers for building the Africa we want declared by the African Union in the same year.

This is also in line with Aspiration 5 of the Africa Union Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want, which envisions "an Africa with a strong cultural identity, common heritage, shared values and ethics".

The four main objectives of this event were to

  • recognise the role of cultural and heritage institutions in preserving our heritage and educating our nation about South Africa’s rich heritage.
  • promote access to South Africa’s cultural and heritage institutions.
  • create a platform for communities to showcase different aspects of South Africa's diverse heritage.
  • ensure that heritage landscapes of all cultural groups are not suppressed and threatened, but celebrated.

Photo: 2019 Unisa Heritage Day

Photo: 2019 Unisa Heritage Day

The university commemorated this day to deal with cultural stereotyping and to promote living heritage by focusing on cultural tradition, oral history, performance, ritual, popular memory, skills and techniques, indigenous knowledge systems and the holistic approach to nature, society and social relationships.

Mooting the idea of a Unisa cultural village

Speaking after the event in an interview, Thomas Maita Sengani, a retired Associate Professor in the Department of African Languages at Unisa, shared with the audience practical ways in which people can work together to understand different cultures.

"In the long run," Sengani said, "Unisa should think of establishing a cultural village where a number of activities could be performed such as selling attire, food/drinks, narrations of the history of the ethnic groups, songs, dancing, poetry and drama."

According to Sengani, such a cultural village should not belong to the academic discipline of African Languages only. Other disciplines should come on board. He said that anthropologists, ethnologists, religious scholars, sociologists, environmentalists, historians, lawyers, medical practitioners, mathematicians, economists, geographers – all members of the institution – should contribute to its structure and functions. "Researchers should meet here, and discussions should take place here," he said.

Sengani suggested that the cultural village, like most heritage sites, should have guides who take tourists around the place narrating about the area and its history. He said: "A cultural village of this magnitude could assist in developing more of the economic component of African languages."

Another point Sengani made was that communication classes in African languages would be taught in the cultural village, lecturers would alternate in running activities and Unisa Radio would broadcast there. He said: "Heritage would be experienced every day and Heritage Day would be the culmination of everything else."

2019 Unisa Heritage Day

Basotho etiquette

Discussing the Sesotho culture, Unisa’s Prof Lineo Rose Johnson said: "Basotho talk and walk slowly (rea tebuka) because we display beauty and relaxation in our mannerisms and etiquette. We are peace-loving people. However, critics believe Basotho are fighters and like fighting. This misconception arose at the mine-hostels during the factional fighting era. When provoked, hostel-dwellers reacted fiercely to protect themselves, but never without reason."

Prof Lineo Johnson showcased Basotho traditional attires in her presentation

Johnson said perceptions are created that Basotho are behind the "zama-zama" (illegal mining) syndicate phenomenon in old, unused mines. "Yet they are not the only people participating in illegal mining," she said. “I advise educators to decolonise this myth. This requires researchers from the university to explore this phenomenon because, in essence, Africans are accessing African minerals as a livelihood to sustain their families. Colonisers have mining rights for life… what about Africans?"

Concluding her presentation, Johnson said: "I am a Mosotho – not a Sotho. We are the Basotho – not Sothos. Basotho come from Lesotho and QwaQwa. We are the Basotho nation, not the Sotho nation. Our language is called Sesotho, not South Sotho. We are proud Basotho."

This year’s Heritage Day highlighted the essence of diversity echoing the unified message that we are one, and together, as people, we can create a socially cohesive university. 

* By Lesego Chiloane-Ravhudzulo, Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2021/09/29