SIHMA | Scalabrini Institute For Human Mobility In Africa

Heritage Day 2021

Happy Heritage Day!


Heritage Day is celebrated on 24 September every year, to recognize and remember the culturally diverse population in South Africa. This is a day where all South Africans can come together and celebrate the diversity of cultures, identities, ethnicities, and races in the country. In other words, celebrate the diversity that is the heritage of South Africa. Heritage can in this context be defined as “the shared characteristics, traditions, practices, and beliefs that a family, community, or social group passes down from one generation to the next.” [1].

South Africa has a long history of people migrating to the country, which makes the heritage and identity of the South African population especially dynamic and diverse. Bantu speaking populations migrated from Central-West Africa reaching South Africa in the third Century assimilating with and/or displacing the hunter-gatherer Khoe-Sān. The colonial rule in South Africa dates back to the 1650s when Dutch traders established the city of Cape Town, followed by the British taking over. There was also a large movement of people from Europe coming in the second half of the 1900s after the discovery of diamonds and gold. Additionally, tens of thousands of people from the Indian subcontinent were brought to South Africa as slaves in the end of the 1600s and in the latter half of the 1800s and early 1900s over 150 000 people came to South African from across India as indentured labourers [2]. In fact, South Africa has one of the highest number of people of Indian ancestry outside India and the largest population on the African continent [8]. Durban is also arguably the largest Indian city outside India [8]. Many South Africans today are therefore not descendants of the Khoe-Sān or Bantu speaking South Africans, but they are still South African citizens and a part of the country’s heritage [2].

South Africa is a melting pot of cultures and traditions and was named the “Rainbow Nation” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe the country post-apartheid after their first fully democratic election in 1994 [3]. The rainbow was meant to describe the diversity of the South African culture. Within the borders of South Africa there are multiple diverse cultures and religions including the Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Tswana, Ndebele, Afrikaans, Tsonga, Venda, Khoe-Sān, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim people and many more [5].  All these people have different backgrounds and histories, but they are also united by being South African. The heritage and identity of South Africa is therefore a combination of all these different people’s lives. That is why this day can be used to share one’s cultural identity with the rest of the population by wearing clothes, preparing food etc. that represents your heritage, tribe or culture. However, there is a distinct difference between “old” and “new” immigrants in South Africa [2].

Today, recent immigrants account for 4.8% of the total South African population [4]. Globalization and migration are changing the world, countries, and communities we live in by introducing us to new cultures, languages, beliefs and more. Even though migrants often contribute to society and play a role in the building of a nation, there has been little acknowledgement of migrant’s heritage on a national level in South Africa [7]. The country’s history and heritage are full of battles for equality, and for human rights and dignity. This must not be forgotten, but rather be used as a reminder to include new migrants in the country.  Migrants living inside South Africa’s borders today want the same rights as the South African born fought for during apartheid.

“The danger of lapse into racism or other forms of sectarianism is always there. This is a human failing that must be continually countered, particularly in our country where the apartheid system was born, and its evils realized” [6]. We must therefore use this day to remember the past and the mistakes that were made, and not to let history repeat itself. The way migrants are being viewed and received in South Africa are important issues to address, and “an open dialogue where we share experiences, traditions and heritages can be a way to get rid of xenophobia [6].”

As we celebrate Heritage Day, we want to address a few questions regarding migrants living within South Africa’s borders. We had the pleasure of talking with a young man, Pierre [9], from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The following is a retelling of our conversation about his experience and how he identifies with his Congolese heritage and identity as a migrant.

Pierre was born and raised in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC. He decided to migrate to Cape Town back in 2014, at the age of 20. One of his main reasons for wanting to leave the DRC was that there was little space for freedom of speech, with a regime in place not allowing the youth to speak up. This, combined with no jobs available, made him seek a better life elsewhere with more opportunities. He is currently studying to become an engineer and works part-time as a waiter.

Keeping the focus on heritage and identity, we wanted to know more about Pierre ’s relationship with his Congolese culture while being in South Africa. He emphasized that: “in our culture, it is all about the community, not about the individual.” Pierre explained that the community they live in is a big part of their lives. “In South Africa, you can live next to someone and not know their name. In the Congo, you know everyone, and you greet everyone. We call everyone in our mum and dad’s generation as ‘mum’ and ‘dad.’ We give them the same respect as we give our own parents.

The South African culture(s) is constantly changing as we receive new inputs. We therefore asked Pierre if he thought his Congolese culture impacts on the South African melting pot of cultures. “Before I can say what the Congolese culture can contribute with, I need to fully understand the South African culture, and I don’t think I do yet. I don’t live with any South Africans or spend time with anyone.” While Pierre has not had any major xenophobic experiences personally, he is well aware of the problems with xenophobia in the country. “I am not very exposed to locals and I have definitely tried to avoid it. I have never stayed in a township, and I am working in a diverse environment with people from many different nationalities. I would never go into any townships because I know I can get in trouble. They can tell you are not from here.”

Despite some difficulties being a migrant in South Africa, Pierre had a positive view on living in the country. “I miss my family and I miss the vibe of being in a community of belonging and taking care of each other. But luckily, I can still listen to Congolese music and eat Congolese food. But to be honest, I have access to one of the best universities in the world (University of Cape Town - UCT). I wanted to get out of my country because we don’t have any opportunities there. I am happy that South Africa can offer a world class education, and jobs are not as hard to find here as in the Congo. If you work hard, you get paid for it. Even when you do work in the Congo, you can get fired for not doing anything wrong. That cannot happen here because they have laws against it. Us humans like to complain about things that go wrong, but we often forget to be grateful when things go well. I can freely, without any concerns, appreciate and value my Congolese heritage in South Africa, and I do not have to hold back my identity. Ever since I got here 7 years ago, I have had  to renew my documents more than once a year. This is not optimal and can get better, but it is okay. We should be grateful to South Africa for the opportunity to be here.”

Pierre’s future plans give us insight in to how much he appreciates his Congolese heritage and culture. After obtaining an engineering degree, he wants to go back to the Congo and design their cities in a way that supports their community-based culture. One of his reasons for wanting to become an engineer was to improve infrastructure in the Congo and be a part of the development in the country. Overall, Pierre ’s experience as a migrant in South Africa has been positive. His experiences and his contribution as a working member in society can hopefully help change the negative narrative on migration in South Africa and eventually work towards an end to racism and xenophobia.


James Chapman              and                 Victoria Jensen

SIHMA                                                     SIHMA
Project Manager                                      Research and Communications Intern



  9. Note Pierre is a Pseudonym to protect the individual from any potential harm




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