Heritage, memory and identity. It’s no secret – I’m a sentimentalist. I love nothing more than reminiscing about the past, the good stuff, flipping through memory banks, remembering people, events, experiences.
So a national heritage day ought to be a good chance to sit back and think about where I’ve come from, where I’ve been. I loved a story in today’s paper about a woman who leads a 4000-strong group of bulk buyers who stash household goods they’ve secured at bargain basement prices. It reminded me of our mother, who loved nothing better than stopping at 10 stores on a Friday afternoon to get lists of specials. She would never run out of any supply – there was never a moment when one of us had to run next door for a “koppie suiker”. And then in a week of harrowing official interactions over erven, buildings, services or their absence, I’ve been thinking of our father, who was a master artisan, placing row after row of straight lines of bricks throughout a day, who spent hours laying absolutely perfectly sloped sewerage pipes, meticulously plastering manholes, a shitty (sorry) job that he took immense pride in.
It’s difficult to put myself into THE identity box that makes it easy for the rest of society to place me. Certainly, I agree with British sociologist Chetan Bhatt there’s no logic in taking pride in the ethnic or national identity which flows from an accident of birth; worse, how can one deign to have a sense of ethnic or national superiority because of that birth accident? Bhatt challenges us to refuse the “origin myths” that others apply to us and to develop a deeper sense of personhood that is responsive to humanity as a whole “rather than a particular tribe”. “Where are you from?” is the usual form of this, the presumption being that one’s physical or social “origin” determines who one is.
Two years ago at about this time of the year, after a week of drying out in hospital (severe pulmonary edema or fluid on the lungs) I travelled to the Karoo for further recuperation. In a place I had never really visited and had been unable to develop any association with, from which “we” had been excluded by “them”, I felt the strongest sense of connectedness with “our” past, an itinerant Khoi community moving from one century to another. In the barren landscape, wide open plains, rugged mountain ranges. I channeled an ancestor, an earlier version of myself? striding across the.land, enduring the harsh elements, seeking sustenance, stopping in shaded spots to rest, heading into a(n unknown) future. That tenuous moment from a past brought a firm view of my present, a measure of peace and stability at a time of raging fear and trepidation. In a completely “foreign” place, I was at home. But my heritage was never that narrow or one-dimensional.
A year ago at this time, I “shared” and enjoyed Rosh Hashana with a sick orthodox rabbi & a motley collection of other, mainly Jewish, cardiac patients in an ICU ward of a hospital named after a brilliant yet conflicted Afrikaner researcher and surgeon, whose philosophical, social and political struggles ran from his Calvinist roots through his racist leanings to a universalist concern for all who suffered from illness. Many of the nurses on the floor – men and women – were from “my” Eastern Cape province, who, despite sharing the refugee slur cast by an arrogant Western Cape premier, play a huge role in keeping the health sector in Cape Town running effectively. The stories are legion of how nurses who cared for a patient who lost the fight to live, have stood as one with families at funerals and memorial services, regardless of the race or religion or class of the deceased. One of my favourite nurses from the group who cared for us is a Muslim woman – I can’t think of a specific reason I remain fond of her – perhaps her broad smile and warm greeting whenever she saw me is something worthy of storing away in a memory bank – it certainly was reassuring during stressful moments.
Before coming into the hospital last year, I had reached back into my very personal journey and experiences of faith, sharing the Anglican Eucharist in a quiet ceremony around my sick bed at home, with Father Rodger Norman and some loved ones, reciting the Prayer of Humble Access.* While I am a Christian and have many friends who identify as Christian, my heritage also emphatically includes Muslim roots. But there are also as many close to me who identify with another faith or do not espouse any belief in any idea of god, capital letter or not, mono- or polytheistic.
Bhatt is correct. There may not be much value In asserting inconsequential things (even worse to promote myths) about where we’ve come from. That “glorious” political movement conjures up the worst examples of such myth-making. But so is relying on a braaivleis or a sports jersey as singularly reflective of a common journey we’ve all traveled. It is hugely unhelpful not to reflect honestly about our past – individual and corporate.
But, instead of the loaded stereotypical question of “where do we come from?” Bhatt has raised a more important question, which ought to seize the imaginations of South Africans, me included: Where are we going? Where are you going? Where am I going?
* Prayer of Humble Access. We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.