Why our heritage matters, now more than ever - African Fashion International
In September, we celebrate our country’s rich and diverse heritage, in order to help heal the divisions of the past and to promote national unity and cultural harmony.
Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, Motsepe Foundation, African fashion International, African creatives, ubuntu, mentorship programme, impact of covid-19, South African heritage, African culture, Heritage Day, heritage month
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Why our heritage matters, now more than ever

Dedani

One of the simplest but most important ways to give effect to the ubuntu principle is mentoring. Mentoring is, after all, simply those of us who have travelled a bit further down the road helping those who are in the early stages of their journey.

The last eighteen months of Covid and lockdowns have been hard for all South Africans and for everyone in the world.  But the hardest hit have been the poor and the marginalized. Despite our efforts, we have not  managed to protect them enough. In South Africa, our already high unemployment rate has climbed even further, and job losses have fallen heavily on women and youth.  Even before Covid, there was growing recognition of the need to reshape economies in order to put people and the planet first. 

The new economies we need will not be attained primarily by tweaking existing  economic policy levers: these matter, yes, but in South Africa, and elsewhere, it is the more intangible dimensions of economic performance that currently constrain growth and prosperity.

I am thinking of factors like trust, cohesion, a shared sense of identity and purpose. Economic growth does not necessarily foster these, and without these, sustained growth is not possible. 

During this month, we celebrate our country’s rich and diverse heritage, in order to help heal the divisions of the past and to promote national unity and cultural harmony. It is  a good time to ask, then: what parts of our South African and African heritage are the most important right now? How can we use this heritage to get to a new economy and society, one where a dignified, free life is available to everyone?  

I’d like to touch on some dimensions of our heritage that I think are important, not only for our own prosperity, but as models that the world may need to draw on right now. 

The concept of ubuntu resonates, I believe, with all South Africans. It means we help each other, it means ‘I am because you are’ and ‘you are because I am.’ The emphasis on inter-dependency, with each other but also with the natural ecosystem that gives us life and, indeed, sustains our economies, is an important counterpoint to the unconstrained individualism that has often characterized Western approaches to economies. 

One of the simplest but most important ways to give effect to the ubuntu principle is mentoring. Mentoring is, after all, simply those of us who have travelled a bit further down the road helping those who are in the early stages of their journey.

In the work of the Motsepe Foundation and African Fashion  International, we see, again and again, the need for mentoring, perhaps especially in enabling women and youth to find their feet in the business world, and we will be looking to introduce further initiatives in this space in the next year.  

But mentoring need not be a formal process, and I urge all of us to share our knowledge and experience generously.

A second, newer part of our heritage is the founding document of our democracy, the Constitution. It is my conviction that the Constitution, with its progressive focus on dignity and equality for everyone, offers guidance not only to our political and legal system, but can also help us navigate change at an individual institutional level. In periods such as the present one, it is vital that we remind ourselves of the kind of citizenship our Constitution enjoins us to aspire to.

Our country and our continent has a rich cultural heritage, and African artists and designers are doing exciting, important, internationally recognized work that is often dialogue between the present and the past, the modern and the traditional, the colonial and the post-colonial.

This work is important because it can give us nuanced, intriguing senses of who we are and how we belong, and this in turn builds the bonds a society needs. It is important that we support the arts, that we support local African fashion, that we look to our own stylistic heritage rather than always to a globalized consumer culture.

Finally, as the world pursues more  sustainable modes of production and consumption, our African heritage can offer important models.

The global fashion industry, for example, remains a highly unsustainable one, but is in the process of change. African fashion and clothing traditions provide important alternative materials, technologies and attitudes that can help in this journey.  Natural fibres such as bamboo, hemp, bark and raffia can be locally sourced and it is imperative that Africa and African people lead in their sustainable production. I was recently in Cameroon, and I visited a historic kingdom that dates back around 600 years ago. The museum that has been established in its place showcased some of their garments, including a shirt that was made from bark cloth. Walking around the museum it was fascinating to see the extent to which they lived in harmony with nature. 

Indigenous communities like the kingdom in Cameroon emphasise that the idea of living without generating waste and living without inflicting harm on others or the environment is possible. 

We think of heritage as what we bring with us from the past. But there is another sense too, namely that right now we are creating what will be the heritage for coming generations. This is a daunting notion, expressed powerfully by President Mandela, speaking on Robben Island in 1997, when he  urged us to ensure that “future generations of South Africans can claim the heritage of a nation that has eradicated the legacy of grinding poverty that our generation inherited for most of its people; the heritage of a nation that has deracialised all spheres of social life and secured the dignity of all its diverse communities.”

We have only partly met Madiba’s challenge, and we dare not waste further time in responding fully to what is required of us as citizens of this country.

By Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe
Founder and CEO
African Fashion International