LIVE BY DESIGN | The evolution of culture: When heritage no longer serves us

Heritage is a vibrant tapestry that weaves together the history, traditions and beliefs of a community. As South Africans mark Heritage Month, we explore the practicality of certain cultural norms in the present day.

During this Heritage long weekend, families across the country will undertake a multitude of activities which celebrate their inherited cultural traditions. From weddings to traditional ceremonies involving the slaughtering of livestock and the burning of incense or impepho to summon ancestors, this weekend offers a wide range of experiences.

In my own family, a special event has brought us together in Durban for a traditional thanksgiving ceremony. However, the weeks leading up to this gathering have been filled with passionate discussions as we navigate differing opinions of how things should be done.

This event is being organised by younger members of our family who have recently entered the job market. Our differences and disagreements stem from cultural norms that may seem unfamiliar to the rest of the family, as well as the amount of money they are willing to spend on this occasion. Additionally, older adults find it challenging to let go of decision-making power – we have egos. And, frankly, some of us think that some of the practices the older generation wants to observe no longer serve them.

Understanding heritage and Heritage Day in South Africa 

To comprehend the multifaceted nature of heritage, we turn to scholarly works that delve into its complexities. Scholars posit that heritage encompasses not only tangible artefacts but also intangible practices such as customs, rituals and languages. Others highlight heritage as an evolving entity that adapts to societal changes while preserving cultural identities.

Heritage acts as a strong support system during moments of both grief and celebration. Traditional practices provide solace and guidance to individuals who are mourning the loss of loved ones. Rituals and ceremonies offer comfort, fostering a sense of belonging within the community. Similarly, during joyous occasions, cultural ceremonies amplify the collective celebration, reinforcing the bonds between individuals.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted cultural activities worldwide, including those in South Africa. Social distancing measures and restrictions on gatherings prevented traditional ceremonies, festivals and performances from taking place. This halt in cultural activities had profound effects on communities, as they were temporarily deprived of an essential element of their identity and a source of pride. The gains that were made during the pandemic in terms of a technological revolution that fostered virtual inclusivity were of huge benefit in a world where families are scattered across the diaspora. But nothing can trump the preciousness of in-person gathering.

One of the disagreements in my family is why we need to pay a slaughtering party for putting down two goats when we can do this as a family without involving outsiders. For us younger adults, this is one way of reducing the costs and shouldn’t have an impact on the purpose of the gathering.

My younger relatives, the organisers, hooked up with uncles who are “professional events participants”, who are now coming up with the most elaborate things they insist we need to observe in order to make this event successful in terms of cultural protocol. These uncles are set on having their way even though they have been noticeably absent during the years when these youngsters were struggling to land jobs. Their insistence, and the implications for cost escalation, is utter madness. However, many families work their way through such disagreements.

When culture no longer serves us: Adaptation in a changing world

In a rapidly evolving world, it becomes imperative to question whether certain cultural practices still serve their intended purpose. Various nations have embraced adaptation to align with shifting societal norms. While heritage is a crucial aspect of individual and collective identities, it is necessary to examine potential conflicts with other principles. Case studies show instances where cultural practices have infringed upon the fundamental rights of certain groups (women, LGBTQIA+ and the poor). Balancing cultural preservation with ensuring equal rights for all remains an ongoing task for South African society.

For example, the recognition of LGBTQIA+ rights has prompted many nations to re-evaluate traditional values and modify cultural practices accordingly. By adapting, societies ensure inclusivity and progress while honouring their heritage.

Heritage Month serves as a reminder of the ever-evolving nature of cultural practices and the importance of critically examining their relevance in contemporary society. As we celebrate our diverse heritage, it is essential to determine which cultural practices still uplift and unite us while also identifying those that hinder progress and social harmony.

One such example is the World Health Organisation’s efforts to discourage clitoral circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation, as a social convention not supported by any religious context. By embracing cultural evolution and challenging harmful practices, we can create a society where heritage becomes a positive force that respects human rights and celebrates the multifaceted identities that make up our global community.

As we navigate the complexities of a diverse society, it is essential to be frank about economic considerations. By understanding the evolving role of cultural practices, we can ensure that heritage continues to enrich our lives as opposed to asking so much of us that we end up poorer.

As for my family, despite the occasional disagreements, this occasion serves as a reminder of the importance of embracing our shared heritage.

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