Reconstructing the rainbow nation

What is heritage and identity? In South Africa it seems we are struggling to find our identity and sense of belonging and connectedness. It feels as if we hate ourselves and each other. What can we do?

Questions of heritage and identity are not as straightforward as they might first appear. I think we need to start by acknowledging that in a country like South Africa, there is not one heritage, or an easily delineated set of distinct identities.

The cultures, languages and heritages of South Africa are multiple, diverse, and dynamic.

Intersectional issues of gender, ethnicity and race further complicate the matter of identity and make it highly implausible to categorise the different people contained within South Africa’s borders.

This is especially true in relation to the segregationist policies of the apartheid era which attempted to divide and conquer the majority of the country’s population by emphasising a fundamental inability for the different races to mix and placing them within a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority, psycho-socio-political scars that have not healed as yet.

South Africa has inherited a legacy of indigenous livelihoods (especially the Khoi and the San) as well as Bantu immigration; slavery; colonisation; different settler groups; and liberation movements.

These histories have all had a dramatic impact on the make up of South Africa’s population. Yet somehow through the interchange of cultures and sharing of cultural influences in the age of globalisation, there remains an interwoven phenomena which can identifiably be termed “South African”.


Like “heritage” and “identity”, “culture” is a term that causes much confusion and is often misused.

Traditionally it has been used to refer to the ways of life of a specific group of people, including various ways of behaving, belief systems, values, customs, dress, personal decoration, social relationships, religion, symbols and codes.

The pitfalls of the term are however, considerable. For instance, it is not unusual for European visitors to South Africa or Africa at large, to innocently enquire into the nature of “African culture”.

Such an enquiry clearly makes little sense, for the Xhosa, Zulu, Pedi, Dinka, Himba, Berber, Arab, and so forth all represent vastly different modes of practice and have little in common except for the relative geographic proximity.

While it is simplistic to state that culture simply does not exist, as claimed by certain postmodern intellectuals, it remains difficult to reach a consensus about what the term really denotes. Is there such a thing as “White culture” or “Coloured culture” for instance?

There are many definitions of culture and thus it is almost impossible to decide which is best.

In South Africa, because of our history, defining race and culture is a more contentious issue here than elsewhere. This is mainly due to the policies of the apartheid government that sought to distinguish and segregate the country according to rigid definitions of race between 1948 and 1991.

For this reason, subsequent attempts to define the people of South Africa may easily carry an unpleasant connotation of racist categorisation from the past.


South Africa has been famously referred to as the “rainbow nation” because it is made up of so many diverse cultures and religions.

Contained within South Africa’s borders are Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Tswana, Ndebele, Khoisan, Hindu, Muslim, and Afrikaner people to name but a few. All of these people are united by calling South Africa home, and therefore their lives all contribute to forming a part of the country’s heritage, identity and culture.

Understanding that South Africa is composed of all these various influences is essential for helping South Africans to understand and respect each other and to learn from each other’s cultural practises. This is part of the healing that democracy had been hoped to bring after culture was used to divide South Africans in the past.


People often speak of “personal heritage” – those things from the past that are distinctly one’s own – whereas “collective heritage” are those things from the past that belong to groups of people with whom we identify in some way.

Collective heritage is important for two reasons.

First, a shared heritage provides us with a common past, and this gives us a sense of identity and belonging.

Second, a shared heritage is like an abundant mine from which we may select and emphasise the good that we choose to cherish and to celebrate with others.

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These two aspects of collective heritage are closely related because both tie us to other human beings, often forging strong human bonds.

The main difference is that the first – knowledge of our common past – plays a significant role in understanding ourselves, and shaping our destiny. This aspect of heritage helps us to see what we are and why we are what we are.

The second aspect of heritage – the ability to choose and cherish what we value in our history – enables us to take pride and satisfaction in who we are; it also points to our possible futures: what we want to be, and where we want to go.

But who are “we”? In South Africa that is a big question.

How can so many people who have been on so many different roads call themselves one people?

Primarily, we need to step back and see the whole of which we are all a part.

We must cultivate a new way of thinking about both history and heritage, try to see the past in terms that are affirmative and tinged with sympathy and understanding, and adopt a view about both the past and the present that is much broader than is the “common view” (usually limited to that of one group or another).

If we can better understand and empathise with those from whom we have been historically divided, if we can develop greater appreciation of their part of our national heritage, if we can find it in ourselves to extend greater consideration and tolerance towards all members of this society, then this concept of a “national heritage” – comprising our many distinct cultural heritages – can lead us closer to Nelson Mandela’s and Desmond Tutu’s cherished dream of a rainbow nation.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774