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What we should also be celebrating on Heritage Day
Author: Nico Koopman
Published: 23/09/2020

September is Heritage Month with festivities reaching a crescendo on Heritage Day (24 September). In an opinion piece for Daily Maverick, Prof Nico Koopman (Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel) writes that South Africans should also celebrate their hybridity on this national day.

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Nico Koopman*

Hybridity is part of the rich heritage of South Africans that should also be celebrated on Heritage Day (24 Sept).  Originating in the contexts of different plant species and different ethnic groups, the word literally means mixture and referred, amongst others, to the so-called mixing of ethnic groups.

I'm particularly interested in the constructive use of the notion of hybridity in the social sciences. Hybridity challenges certainties and essentialisms, the idea that groups have intrinsic, natural, biological differences which make them what they are. Essentialists view differences that are human-made as inherent differences given by nature. Hybridity also encourages us to listen to various voices instead of lending our ears to just one voice. It carries the notion of liminality, which refers to an in-between state during which old certain, clearly defined identities are re-negotiated and the door is opened for the new, imaginative and surprising.

We use the notion of hybridity almost playfully and practically, always asking what if, always imagining something new. Hybridity, it seems to me, does not advance a type of mixing that dissolves the entities that mix, and that brings forth a totally new uniform entity. It does not destroy particularity, but rather emphasises a mingling, exposure to the other, dialogue with the other, interaction with the other, participation in the life of the other, hospitality to the other, learning from the other. This exposure does not leave you unchanged because you have internalised something of the other.

But hybridity is more than that. It is also a moral lifestyle and moral commitment, i.e. it is an ethic of interaction and communing with the other, of exposure to and participation in the life of the other, of porous boundaries that helps osmosis to take place between people, of vulnerable openness to the other, of life on the thresholds and margins, an ethic of life in liminal and uncertain in-between spaces, of life of openness to many voices and many lenses. An ethic of hybridity impacts positively on the way in which we define our humanness and our life together.

In a country where it's so easy to label people and put them in different boxes, hybridity helps us to journey from minimalist descriptions of ourselves and others to maximalist descriptions, from threatened descriptions to free descriptions, from anxious descriptions to joyful descriptions, from mono-descriptions to multi-descriptions, from exclusive descriptions to inclusive descriptions, from selfish descriptions to self-transcending descriptions, and, therefore, from unjust to just descriptions, from dehumanising to humanising descriptions, from oppressive to liberating descriptions.

Hybridity entails that I am a heterosexual person, but through my participation in the life of LGBTIQA+ beloved, I also wear their lenses. I am heterosexual but I am also more.

I am a male, but because of my interaction with females I also willing to listen to them. I am male, but I am also more than male.

I am described as Black, “Coloured", Brown, Khoi, Griqua, Hessequa, Outeniqua, but I am also more than that. My life together with my fellow South Africans be they Xhosa, White and Indian, etc. does not leave me unchanged. I also live with their lenses. I am “Coloured", but also more.

I am South African, but through my life in solidarity with people from other African countries, I am also more than South African. I am African, but through my communion with people from other continents I am also more than African.

This ethic of hybridity might also help us to move to higher levels of peace amongst the religions of the world. The relatively high levels of peace amongst people from different religions in South Africa might be attributed to the hybridic interaction, collaboration, and life together of these people in our neighbourhoods and communities over centuries. I am Christian, but through my interaction with my brothers and sisters from other religious and secular beliefs, I am also more than Christian.

A lifestyle and ethic of hybridity might enable us to have a greater understanding for people who differ from us in so many ways and might also assist us in overcoming the alienations and injustices that are expressed, amongst others, in homophobia and misogyny, racism and xenophobia, ageism and classism, ableism and ecocide.

As we celebrate our rich heritage, let's also find joy in our hybridic living and the participation in each other's lives because by doing so, we build social cohesion, social solidarity, social compassion that paves the way for a life together as envisaged in that core of our common heritage, the South African Constitution, i.e. a life of dignity, healing, justice, freedom, and equality for all.

*Prof Nico Koopman is Vice-Rector for Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel at Stellenbosch University.

Sources consulted

Bhabha, HK. The location of culture (London: Routledge, 1994)

Pieterse, JN. Globalization and culture: global mélange (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004)

Koopman, N. Towards a pedagogy of hybridity, reconciliation and justice, in B Leibowitz (ed.), Higher education for the public good. Views from the South (Stellenbosch: SunPress/Stoke on Trent, UK/Sterling, USA: Trentham Books, 2012), p.151 – 163.