What the U.S. can learn from South Africa’s Heritage Day

JudyAnn Bigby

On September 24th, South Africa celebrated Heritage Day, a day in which all South Africans are encouraged to celebrate their cultural traditions while recognizing the diversity of cultures, beliefs, and traditions that together make up the whole of South Africa. Heritage Day is a recent holiday, having been established on the same day that KwaZulu-Natal had long celebrated Shaka’s Day, honoring the legendary King Shaka Zulu. The democratically elected government acknowledged that South Africa, with eleven official languages, is a country of many cultures and human experiences, and to move forward as a unified nation it was important to recognize and celebrate that diversity.

Like South Africa, the United States is a country of great diversity reflecting the many different ways that different peoples came to live in the United States and the Native Americans (the first owners of America) who also have a rich diversity of cultures and experiences. The United States does not have a heritage day holiday, but given the current debate about immigrants in the U.S. perhaps it’s time to find a way to celebrate the many U.S. cultures and acknowledge this as a strength, rather than focusing on cultural divisions.

Celebrating the many cultural experiences of a society does not mean that the history and legacies of the many different aspects of culture should be ignored, but rather it provides an opportunity for acknowledging the intersections of various heritages and the mixed feelings they generate depending on different individuals’ perspectives.

In an address marking Heritage Day in 1996, former President Nelson Mandela stated “When our first democratically-elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation.” I read Nelson Mandela’s quote and it brings to mind the U.S. motto “Out of many, one.” Both the U.S. and South Africa are a tribute to the richness that comes from people and to individuals who bring their love of country, their passion for making things better, and their many resources together to make a contribution to everyone’s experience.

Happy Heritage Day, South Africa.