J. BROOKS SPECTOR puzzles the meanings of heritage and Heritage Day while at a concert, a school assembly, a musical and a film. He did not have a braai, however.
This past week has once again been the stage for the annual South African debate over how Heritage Day should, could, and will be celebrated. And then, just to make things interesting, just how much ire is appropriate to be directed somewhere over all the wink-wink-nudge-nudging that goes on whenever someone calls the day, informally, National Braai Day instead. Inevitably, since this is South Africa, this argument almost instantly takes on racial and ethnic overtones as well, with the braai-meisters, brandishing their tongs and secret basting sauces, being labelled as white South African throwbacks to a far less than glorious past.
Over the past month of September, I have explored several different ways South Africans have embraced – or argued with – the idea of commemorating their heritage or celebrating it. And I have listened as some have argued over whether events celebrating heritage are subliminally racialist by virtue of what is included or excluded.
The South African History Archive explains the holiday’s origins, saying, “Heritage Day is one of the newly created South African public holidays. It is a day in which all are encouraged to celebrate their cultural traditions in the wider context of the great diversity of cultures, beliefs, and traditions that make up the nation of South Africa.”
At least in KwaZulu-Natal, 24 September used to be Shaka’s Day, but after the non-racial Parliament left off that particular holiday from the national holidays list, thereby provoking the ire of the Inkatha Freedom Party, an eventual compromise was to create a holiday “where all South Africans could observe and celebrate their diverse cultural heritage”.
In marking the new holiday, then-President Mandela had declared,
“When our first democratically elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation.”
The braai as the perfect cultural artefact has been pushed in an effort to appeal to the entire country to support a holiday – it was, after all, coming in the late spring/early in the summer period. Even Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu signed on for this, saying,
“There are so many things that are pulling us apart. This has a wonderful potential to bring us all together… We have 11 different official languages but only one word for the wonderful institution of braai: in Xhosa, English, Afrikaans, whatever.”
The rainbow nation that chews on boerewors together is a nation that can’t engage in a civil war – a local variant of the theory that no nation that has McDonalds restaurants on its territory has ever gone to war with another nation similarly accoutred.
Communal celebration is a key element of Heritage Day, recalling, for an American at least, the words of John Adams (a co-drafter of the Declaration of Independence and second president of the new nation) on how best to commemorate the new holiday. Interestingly, he had claimed that 2 July – when the first signatures were affixed to the declaration – was the true, rightful day for commemoration.
Adams had written on 3 July from Philadelphia to his wife, Abigail, at their home in Massachusetts,
“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnised with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
There was no fighting over celebration, or whether a bonfire or fireworks, a braai or some other food was the righteous thing to do, fortunately. There is always time for a hotdog or a hamburger cooked outdoors, though.
So, anyway, here we are, trying to make sense out of this through four very different ways of connecting to South Africa’s heritage. For us it was the film, Krotoa; the stage show, King Kong; a musical tribute at the Market Theatre to Sibongile Khumalo on her 60th birthday, and finally, a Heritage Day celebration by the children at a primary school in Johannesburg. But there was no braai for us, although we might well have gone to one at someone else’s home if we had been invited so that we didn’t have to do all the work.
Krotoa is a recent local film that has won awards at various international film festivals and was shown at local cinemas amid some significant controversy. It is a fictionalised depiction of the earliest years of the Dutch East India Company’s Cape settlement, back when Jan van Riebeeck was the governor of a rather ragtag settlement hugging the coast. The task of that settlement was to be prepared to provide fresh food and water to ships in transit to India and further east. Right from the first, the population was an amalgam of Dutch servants of the VOC, miscellaneous other Europeans, servants and slaves brought from those lands further east, and the indigenous KhoiKhoi inhabitants. Trade for cattle (along with an increasingly vicious cycle of the inevitable stock theft that became a sturdy part of the tragic South African version of the clash of civilisations) was a critically important part of that early Dutch settlement, but things go badly almost from the start of the film.
Enter the precocious, spunky 11-year-old Eva/Krotoa, niece of a local chief. Krotoa has the gift of language learning, as well as the ability to mediate between the VOC settlement and her own people, including an end to the first Dutch-KhoiKhoi conflict. Soon she is indentured to the Van Riebeeck household in order to turn her into a “proper young Dutch lady”, allowing her to grow into the role of interpreter/mediation specialist.
Things get complicated when a visiting French sea captain makes advances and Van Riebeeck himself sexually assaults her as well. Nonetheless, she marries a Danish soldier/doctor at the settlement and her skills make her increasingly valuable to the colony, until Van Riebeeck is recalled and the new governor has little use for her. Then her husband is killed in a skirmish in Madagascar (presumably in a slave-catching operation), and Krotoa has a lonely alcoholic prostitute’s death in early middle age.
The film’s visuals lavish attention upon the landscapes and sea coast vistas of the Cape, and although director Roberta Durrant has her Dutch colonists anachronistically speak Afrikaans even before that language has come into being, there seemed to be great effort to make the whole thing look as realistic as possible. Throughout it all, Crystal-Donna Roberts breathes life into the title character of the film on the screen.
However, despite the sympathetic portrayal of Krotoa, many South African coloured viewers said they were horrified by the work, by its historical inaccuracies, its patronising depictions of the KhoiKhoi, and even the way Krotoa seems to have been depicted as somehow complicit in her own rape. Filmmaker Sylvia Vollenhoven, among others, for example, went public with her anger on social media, saying,
“Deeply traumatised by watching the #Krotoa movie, I’ve been unable to write a response. The rage and anger I feel must be expressed but the shock is too deep to find the right words. The abuse inflicted by this film entrenches the crime against humanity of apartheid.”
Nonetheless, my wife, Ruth, had a rather different view of the film. For her, despite the film’s flaws and sometime stark black and white characterisations of the various people on screen, she saw it as a chance to connect to a near-legendary figure and the first historically recognised KhoiKhoi person, and by being the mother of several children, a potential claimant to the title of progenitor of South Africa’s mixed race communities and population.
Most important of all, the film is largely seen through Krotoa’s eyes, rather than the conquering Dutch colonialists of almost every other artistic evocation of that early time. Seen from that perspective, Krotoa, as Ruth said, “was one of the first real opportunities I have had to connect deeply to our distant heritage and our spiritual forebears. For once it acknowledged our past, and our cultural heritage, so unlike that film, The Gods Must Be Crazy.”
A few days after Krotoa, we attended the opening of the musical drama, King Kong, at the Joburg Theatre. A production of the Fugard Theatre of Cape Town, this version of the iconic South African musical is a thoroughgoing reworking of the 1959 show that rocked South Africa. With composer Todd Matshikiza’s legendary music (Back of the Moon, just for starters) and lyrics by Pat Williams and book by Harry Bloom, the work has been restaged with additional musical material and new arrangements – and directed with a shot at an international tour. This would follow the hopes of the original producers who took it to Britain but were unable to get it to the US, although some of its cast – luminaries such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Abdullah Ibrahim – got there anyway.
Over the years, the story of the drama and the fact that it represented a high water mark of black/white collaboration and co-operation has turned it into a metaphor for the could’ve/should’ve beens of mid-20th century South Africa. While the show’s name seemingly speaks to an epic film about a very large ape that gets taken to New York City without his permission, in fact the show is based on the true, tragic life of Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamini, a pro boxer who kills his former girlfriend, the Sophiatown shebeen queen, Joyce. Distraught at the disasters now overwhelming his life, following his conviction for murder, while in prison on a work gang, he drowns himself in the waters of a dam.
While the current production has some staging problems (with much of the action set so far back on the enormous stage rather than the tight confines of the Fugard) and dramatic anachronisms such as a black judge in 1958, the singing of the leads and the choreography of Gregory Maqoma are the real standouts in this production.
And like Krotoa, King Kong can provide the opportunity to a vivid pathway for embracing the country’s heritage – this time both in dramatic and musical terms as well as the real-life, true story of how black and white South Africans could work together on a project that, if the prevailing orthodoxy had been accepted by all, should not have happened. While I had my qualms about the theatrical values, my wife, again, eagerly embraced its hold on her musical imagination, allowing her “to remember that somewhat romanticised world of her childhood and its music”, even if she never actually had a chance to see the original production. Heritage on display yet again.
On the actual Heritage Day, we went to see singer Sibongile Khumalo in a birthday concert – her 60th – at the Market Theatre. This evening was part of a three-day celebration of the life’s work of one of the country’s true divas. Throughout her career, Khumalo has performed and recorded jazz standards, traditional songs, operas such as Mzilikazi Khumalo’s Princess Magogo and his oratorio, Ushaka, and the hard-to-define vocal/choral work by Philip Miller, Rewind, and much more. But this concert allowed her to showcase the talents of three younger singers – Nomfundo Xaluva, Lindiwe Maxolo and Mimi Mtshali – and then, only at the end of the evening, join in for some of her well-known repertoire. The audience had other musical legends in attendance, but most important, it was a chance to revel in the country’s musical heritage, even as one of the nation’s most lauded singers passed the baton on to a newer generation.
Two days before that, I had attended a Heritage Day assembly at the school where my wife teaches. (For the record, it is a Gauteng public school, most definitely not a private school.) Hundreds of primary school children filled the school’s auditorium – every one of them dressed in somebody’s idea of what their national dress might be – from Chinese collared jackets to African beads and Xhosa hats. The children performed the Pata Pata, played “Mbube” on recorders and ukuleles, and then they were treated to a speech by South African musical legend, Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse.
He didn’t lecture – they get enough of that in their classes already. Instead, he talked movingly about his own struggle to return to school late in life to finish his high school education and then begin university studies. It was a lesson in how to encourage the next generation to seize the opportunity to gain a high quality education, something he had not had when he was younger. And just to put everyone in the celebratory mood, he played and sang his greatest hit, Burnout, a song that even had teachers and parents dancing in spite of their need to set the example of discipline.
Four very different ways to celebrate and embrace Heritage Day and the ideas contained in it. Several years ago, reviewing a rare performance of Ushaka, in tandem with a conversation with Pieter-Dirk Uys about heritage and history, I had written, “History, and its interpretations, remains crucial to South Africa’s cultural life. Just as the roiling dispute about the Rhodes statue is not an argument over the aesthetics of a big lump of bronze, Mzilikazi Khumalo’s Ushaka and Pieter-Dirk Uys’ stage comedy have a historical core to them that gives them their energy, but also puts them in play for governments and people alike.” The challenges remain for South Africa to figure out ways to embrace the entirety of the country’s heritage – and to let everyone come to appreciate this tangled, difficult history, even if they want to do it while cooking out of doors. DM
Photo: A South African flag is waved on top of a building as thousands of supporters of South Africa’s national soccer team Bafana Bafana celebrate on the streets of Sandton during a parade of their team in Johannesburg June 9, 2010. REUTERS/Christian Charisius
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