As we celebrate diverse cultural heritage, it is essential to understand the foundation with which it is formed. What and who does it inform? Who does it serve? Who influences it and to what extent? It is also important to understand the potentials and possibilities it could be weaponised. This is essential as it helps us understand the social relations and realities we find ourselves in. While cultural heritage draws from aspects such as oral history, nature, society, indigenous knowledge systems, space, popular memory amongst others, it plays a crucial role in the identity framing and continuity of a people. For public lands, they are often understood as spaces of commonality, familiarity, and celebrated diversity. This notion however, rests on the political and cultural legacies encrypted in those spaces. These legacies infuse and shape the cultural heritage that is passed down generations. But what kind of cultural heritage is being propagated? How does it affect the attitudes, behaviours, and beliefs of the people? Depending on the spatial politics, historical legacies and identities, a society could either observe harmony or tension which consequently influences its growth and prosperity. There is also a correlation between cultural heritage and a society’s ability to overcome the injustices of the past. Although possible, it requires the employment of social cohesion. Over the years fundamentalist movements have emphasized the ideals of cultural heritage, order and the rights and positions of power. What kind of cultural heritage are we upholding?
Cultural heritage is often understood as being political. This is because a political culture of a country helps shape the cultural heritage of the people. Consequently, this may result in cultural heritage pluralities. With its everchanging nature, cultural heritage remains the object and subject of power dichotomies. In its plurality it serves as a medium to convey and interpret power and control. With its broader political and socioeconomic perspectives, we can draw from it to understand and question its relation to politics and social cohesion. Besides cultural heritage, factors such as political control, democracy, xenophobia or other forms of identity politics, social conflict, and social cohesion are all influenced by the political culture of a society. Notwithstanding, the hegemonic cultural imaginaries that disrupt or challenge the representation of others could lead to tension or social cohesion. The dominant forces such as those in power consequently influence the crafting of social beliefs and attitudes, essentially birthing cultural hegemonies, politics of belonging and ideas of being. These cultural beliefs and attitudes often draw on nostalgia, certain attributes, or histories. They have continued to be perpetuated through to the modern day. This begs the question of how politics has influenced the heritage that of people. As a legacy of both tangible and intangible cultural property, cultural heritage can in turn serve as a soft power, invisibly contributing to the status quo.
Consuming tradition to manufacture politics and cultural heritage.
Jean Jackson in 1989 once questioned the possibility of making culture without making enemies. While it is a question drawn from the 1900’s, it still finds itself trapped in opportune moments in African politics. Although culture and politics are indissociably in every society, they present opportunities for understanding the social fabric futures. Politics can be thought of as the formal processes by which groups of people make decisions. It presents a strong relationship with authority and power. As an idealised national entity, national cultural representation denotes the national political domination. This means the cultural representation within a country influences the political dominance. This can be seen in the dominating political parties or leadership styles within African states. This highlights the political cultural heritage within the state. The political powers often draw legitimacy from the nation’s cultural legacy and histories supporting its endorsement. These histories may include involvement in liberation struggles thereby situating the party’s influence and legitimacy. Having been situated in historical legacies, it then puts the dominant front in a position of influence. Having a relationship with power, politics becomes an interesting factor in society.
To understand the political culture within a state we turn to the political leadership exercised. Political leadership involves individuals who have a level of influence and decision-making power within their communities. Through the power they possess they have the ability to shape social dynamics directly or indirectly. Political leadership therefore becomes a contested resource that is either competitively maintained or attained. As a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, leadership invites an analysis into its control from both a passive and direct perspective. Within this piece however, of importance is the passive and/or invisible mode of control. Power essentially has the ability to create and through it, behaviours and attitudes may be influenced. This influence contributes to the hegemonic practices of the nation state or society. Basically, the ideas of those who dominate become the running ideas of those dominated. These hegemonic ideas could either lead to oneness – fostering ubuntu practices or the marginalization or alienation of others. It is therefore not surprising that the traditional rhetoric which includes language, attitude and skills of persuasion used to influence others informs the politics of a nation locally and otherwise. If the dominant political culture exercised by political leaders of a country is one of exclusivity it could translate to viewing the other along marginal lines. The opposite is also true. If the political culture is one of inclusivity with extreme focus in the dismantling of societal constructs along, socioeconomic, and political lines, such as gender segregation, racial politics, or social inequality it could translate to a reality of connectedness. This social connectedness rests on the idea of social cohesion. Social cohesion enjoys everlasting popularity. While a sociopolitical buzzword, it also serves as a ‘concept of convenience’ incorporating notions of inclusion, solidarity, and trust. Its flexible approach allows for the meanderings of sociopolitical and sociocultural actions. Through it the understandings of friendliness, solidarity, humanity, and care are interwoven to influence the continuity and endurance of the people. Cultural heritage that relies heavily on inclusion therefore aids the promising social futures. This differs however from cultural heritage that is informed by exclusion. This often results in dire consequences.
Cultural heritage as a Soft Power
Exclusion contributes to inequality which in turn increases the risks of poverty. This exclusion not only involves individuals, but it may involve a total social grouping. This produces marginality which often rides on the use of fear as a political force. Fear is encrypted into our socialities consciously and unconsciously and activated upon occasion. Political leadership that is informed by exclusion results in, negative cultural beliefs and assumptions and behaviors that may prove hostile to the othered social grouping. If it is one that excludes collective effort and relies on authoritarian beliefs it may present challenges within the exercise of democracy, agency, and freedom. Consequences of this may include altering the law in support of dominant forces. This presents social complexity and tension. Leadership in this instance becomes locked in tradition where a ‘new dawn’ is regarded as deviant. Who is the political cultural heritage serving? Cultural heritage sometimes leans on the power of fear and through fear it controls masses and produces othering. The marginalized body then rests as a social slate on which culture of fear is inscribed therefore proving vulnerability. Additionally, political leadership may indirectly create exclusion by labeling certain social groups as being problematic or the reason for social decline. This creates assumptions which consequently lead to anxiety, doubt, threat and sometimes violence. The way these marginalized bodies are treated points to the social hegemonies actively running. This therefore creates division which ideally leads to a failing society.
What then holds us together?
Although a complex and multifaceted concept, cultural heritage serves as the foundation of a society. Drawing from popular memories and beliefs, it plays a huge role in framing the social identities and futures. Despite this however it is easily influenced by political figures and could either result in shared notions of humanity or hostility. Additionally, it could encourage either social conflict or social cohesion, With the ongoing trends of exclusionary politics or undemocratic instances it begs the attention of the citizen populace to reflect on the political and cultural heritages informing their reality. Is it one that requires redefinition or reincorporation of what it means to be human or to be African? What does it mean to be African? The core of our nature is one than celebrates Ubuntu. It is through these ideals that cultural and socioeconomic growth can be possible. Through social cohesion, society members may be drawn towards a collective effort. This would contribute to social change which begins with each one of us. However, it resides in the willingness to ensure greater daily and frank interaction with diverse fellow others.
Thelma N. Nyarhi is a researcher at the Democracy Development Program (DDP) and writes in her personal capacity.