University of Pretoria: ‘Culture and nature are good for our health’ – LeadUP panel discusses how natural heritage influences social well-being

As part of the University of Pretoria’s (UP) observance of Heritage Month this September, a group of experts and University alumni recently got together to discuss how our natural heritage and work and home environments influence the social well-being of society.

This latest instalment of the LeadUP: Alumni Thought Leadership series of virtual events was moderated by UP’s Dean of Humanities, Professor Vasu Reddy, and featured various health and heritage academics; a representative from the national Department of Sport, Arts and Culture; as well as Curator of the Manie van der Schijff Botanical Gardens Jason Sampson.

Addressing attendees, UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe noted that history, heritage, culture, memory, social well-being and identity are inexorably linked, and are critical to developing the South Africa and the Africa that we want. “Without them, we cannot be a cohesive society or a successful continent,” he said. “Among other heritage assets, we have fantastic museums. The Javett Art Centre at UP is dedicated to culture, heritage, preservation, conservation and promoting Africa’s identities, and to bringing African identities to the world and the world’s art to Africa.”

Professor Karen Harris, Head of the Historical and Heritage Studies Department and Director of UP Archives, indicated that natural and cultural heritage are linked, and emphasised the importance of protecting both. “[As such], UP initiated and launched Galleries/Gardens, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM), a first on the African continent, where we bring together our various heritage resources,” she said.

She added that a holistic approach to health and well-being involves looking at all facets of a human being. “Evidence has proven that with COVID-19 and people being in isolation, it has become imperative that medical people look at alternative ways to deal with people’s stress. Social prescribing is [a way to do this], where people are asked to depart from their normal routine and do something that is good for their holistic being by connecting with nature or cultural heritage.”

Dr Nontembeko Bila, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, elaborated on this point, saying that heritage sites such as parks are places that encourage social interaction. “Our heritage is our inheritance and it must be saved for future generations,” she added. “Heritage promotes a sense of ownership and belonging.”

“Our natural heritage provides us with natural resources that we need to be able to live our lives; some of these resources are food items and clothing that express who we are as South Africans,” said Maano Muhadi, Deputy Director of Heritage Policy, Research and Development at the national Department of Sport, Arts and Culture. “Government takes natural heritage seriously; natural heritage is intertwined with cultural heritage. It has taken various stands to say that it needs the help of the people in assisting to preserve heritage site such as parks, museums, etc.”

Professor Tivani Phosa Mashamba-Thompson, Deputy Dean of Research and Postgraduate Studies in the Faculty of Health Sciences, indicated that culture and heritage appear to be prominent in Sustainable Development Goal 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities. “There is a link between health and heritage. From a health perspective, most medication is synthesised from plants. Also, the forest provides species with what is needed to maintain our ecosystem. Culture and nature are good for our health. There is not much difference between natural heritage and cultural heritage. It is important to teach our communities about the importance of our natural and cultural heritages, and about preserving them for the future.”