Living With Our Past

Solly Nkhi, DA MPL

Gauteng Legislature Caucus

Winston Churchill remarked that a country that forgets its past has no future. Our past has made us who we are: our peculiarities, our achievements, even our failings. It has shaped our languages, our myths and our song; how we eat, play and worship. Its memory is a precious thing that we should cherish, and especially so in Heritage Month.

As a former school teacher, I have always felt a duty to pass on a sense of our past to succeeding generations. Appreciating this, they have a sense of belonging to their community and to their country, an understanding that they are the custodians of something greater than themselves, and a will to preserve what they have inherited and to leave an honourable legacy behind.

Of course, this is not easy. We live in a present-tense culture, where the driving motive is often to have fun, or simply to consume.

And we older people do not always set the best example to them. Gauteng has been the beating heart of our country for over a hundred years, yet we Gauteng residents are frequently disconnected from its past. We often come from afar, and many of us never think of our province as our home. Can we make it a real place of belonging?

I, for one, am proudly of Gauteng. I believe in the marvellous potential it holds. But I know that for people to love and cherish something, it must be worthy of being loved and cherished.

Fortunately, we can take inspiration from experiences elsewhere. The city of Palermo in Sicily was long known as a haunt for the mafia. In the early 1990s, it had been deliberately run down (mafia linked politicians ensured that infrastructure decayed to provide contracts to mafia-linked businesses). Schools functioned poorly, and were under-resourced as a result of corruption, providing little meaningful direction for young people. Its cultural heritage – its monuments, and centuries-old buildings – were closed up, hidden behind chaotic building schemes, or literally covered in trash. The Opera House had closed in the 1970s for “urgent repairs”, and remained that way into the 1990s.

The consequence was an urban experience described by the phrase “the sack of Palermo” – a reference to the fate of a city when a victorious army would loot, vandalise and plunder it. In Palermo, though, it was done by bad and corrupt governance, crime and a collapsed sense of civic pride. “Palermo”, said one commentator, “was a city that didn’t love itself.”

Yet Palermo had a distinguished history: it is around 2 700 years old. It had once been renowned for its architectural beauty, for its culture, and had been a major crossroads for the cultures of the Mediterranean. This was seized upon by a remarkable and energetic mayor, Leoluca Orlando.

Mayor Orlando understood that to shake off the mafia and revitalise Palermo, a shift of mindset was needed. People had to think in terms of the city belonging to them, and rather than to no-one in particular.

Part of his plan was to use the city’s heritage as a lever. The municipal government began seriously to renovate, restore and beautify the city. This involved expanding open spaces, renovating public buildings and incentivising private owners to do the same. Venues for cultural activities – music, theatre, art, museums – were made available and people encouraged to patronise them. The goal was to get people to become part of the city – its past, present and future. The historic Opera House finally reopened in 1997, signalling that the tide had turned.

Education was revamped. Among the most interesting initiatives was encouraging schoolchildren to get involved. This imitated a similar initiative in the city of Naples. School groups could adopt a monument, such as a church or a statue. They would research its significance and background, keep it clean and look after it. They even produced brochures and videos about their monuments and conducted tours! Parents were invited to become involved too.

Schoolchildren also assisted in promoting a message of responsibility. One quirky way of doing this was for children to leave mock parking tickets – reading “impolite” – on cars that had been parked illegally.

Palermo is widely recognised as an example of a city turning itself around, using its past to relocate and refine its presence, and to send a message about its future.

If there, why not here? Why not consider something similar, getting young people to adopt a piece of our heritage? Indeed, why not attempt to use this to build bridges across distance and communities – why not team up schools from suburbs and townships to take care of our assets jointly? It is an intriguing thought!

But before we do that, let us spare a thought for how we treat our heritage everyday. Palermo’s upliftment was successful because it was able to instil a sense of ownership and civic responsibility. Can we say that we in Gauteng always demonstrate that? How do we behave on the roads, and how do we dispose of our rubbish…?

Our heritage, ultimately belongs to those who will inherit the future. Let us celebrate and respect it, both for their sake and that of those who went before.

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