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Ubuntu, the free-market way

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

On Sunday, I had the wonderful privilege of hosting Jan Braai for the Knysna stop on his great Braai4Heritage tour to promote National Braai Day. The generosity of the people of Knysna, and Jan's vision for our shared culture, warmed my heart. A heart I'm not supposed to have, as a free-market capitalist. What gives?

In January, Jan Scannell, whom I only knew online as Jan Braai, world-record-holder and author of the phrase “may the wors be with you”, contacted me with a note that he’d like to come braai with me in Knysna on 17 April.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a reader, media colleague or Twitter fan dropped in for a drink on their way through my beautiful home town, and I certainly wanted to meet the guy who braaied with Desmond Tutu and founded Braai4Heritage. I instantly agreed.

It soon became clear, however, that this was no ordinary meet-up. Jan had planned a 40-day tour of South Africa, visiting 40 iconic locations and heritage sites, to hold 40 braais. I would be one of the 40 hosts. It would be on TV, and in Getaway magazine.

This presented an interesting set of problems. I’m a freelance writer. Among the reasons is that I suck at organising anything longer than an interview, and corporate or government bureaucracy gives me hives.

Although I’ve chosen to make Knysna my home, and I dearly love this little woodcutting town with its enchanting forests and woodwork heritage and the iconic sandstone heads at the entrance to the river estuary, I’ve only lived here a very brief while. I have not yet driven my car into the lagoon, so I could hardly claim to call myself a local.

What happened next was nothing short of astonishing. Starting with Reneé de Bruyn, a neighbour, friend and devoted Daily Maverick reader, a network of companies and friends pulled together to help. She works at the town’s famous Mitchell’s Brewery, and promptly arranged to have beer on tap supplied. Any day with free beer is a good day.

To braai with, a bakkie load of frighteningly expensive wood – offcuts from the local furniture industry that is at the heart of Knysna’s history – was provided by Kluyts & Co. More than that, they introduced me to their factory manager, Martin Lucas, who knows every trail in Knysna’s vast forests, and played a big part in the story Knysna’s great elephants. Reneé’s husband, Stefan, a former goldsmith who now runs a master diver training outfit cleverly named Hippo Dive Campus, made his trademark potbread on the braai. He tells great stories about the wrecks of the Paquita and Emu, and his work protecting the famed Knysna seahorse, hippocampus (get it?) capensis. The Van Rensburgs, arguably the best butchers on the Garden Route, came from nearby George with superb meat and enough of it to feed us all twice over.

Tables, umbrellas, glasses and all the other annoying paraphernalia of putting together a party were delivered, for free, by Plates & Things. Salads arrived from Cornutti’s – with free wine which I hadn’t even asked for – and East Head Café. Both offered logistical help, including staff to help me carry stuff. The braai on which all of Knysna braais turned up from the local Nissan dealership. A great many friends and guests pitched in with food preparation, setup and cleanup.

Perhaps the most startling example came from Sue Landers, of the Oystercatcher, the restaurant of the Knysna Oyster Company which cultivates oysters in the lagoon.

Knysna had to compete with great locations, such as the edge of Kimberley’s Big Hole, the cliffs above Augrabies, and the top of Spion Kop. We have the Heads, so I wasn’t too worried. But we also had to compete with a marvellous array of local South African food. So when the oyster supplier ran out of stock, I had a crisis. I went to Sue.

“Sue, I have a crisis,” I said. She asked me how she could make it go away.

“I need 200 oysters, by Sunday.”

“Sure, we can do that.”

“And I want them for free, please. We’re going to braai them with Jan Braai.”

“Okay. Need to know how to braai them?”

“Yes, please.”

I had to insist on wearing a Knysna Oyster Company t-shirt, to give her some thanks for her generous help. I nearly cried.

The point of all this is not only that these people have earned a little publicity. It is that the entire braai, from oysters to beer to meat to the things you eat them with, came together like a dream. It did not cost me or Jan Braai a cent. Other than obtaining the required permissions in case we caused public riots or forest fires, it did not require support, promotion or organisation from the local authorities. I couldn’t even convince the people whose bakkie I borrowed (thanks, Phillip and Sanchia O’Riordan) that I probably ought to pay for the diesel.

This got me to thinking. I have a reputation as a hardcore free-market capitalist. I believe self-interest is the primary motivator for human action, and that governments shouldn’t interfere with free economic choices of individuals. I believe that this will result in the most prosperous and most just society for everyone.

How does this outpouring of voluntarism and generosity taint my apparent image as a cold-hearted industrialist who enslaves and exterminates people for profit (see the comments on last week’s column)?

The answer is that it doesn’t. The success of Knysna’s Braai4Heritage event underlined for me an important reason why I have so much faith in people to act freely on their own account, instead of having to be coerced into caring about their society by rules and regulations and restrictions.

The notion of contributing to your community – the “pay it forward” principle, if you like – is not mutually exclusive with a strict free-market philosophy. In fact, self-interest motivates people to do exactly that. The ability to exercise our individual human rights does not impose on us “responsibilities”. It does, however, depend on strong social relations. The better they work in our local communities, the better-off its individual members become.

That’s why so many of us contribute time or money to charities dear to our hearts. Making a profit is entirely dependent on your ability to provide for the needs and wants of someone else. Serving others is a fundamental prerequisite of working for your own self-interest.

Ultimately, I think, it does not matter whether you self-identify as a free-market capitalist or a philanthropist or a left-wing socialist. Ultimately, the need for strong social bonds is why people are generous with their time and treasure, as they demonstrated so graciously on Sunday in a town where I now truly feel at home.

This ties in very neatly with the ultimate aim of the day. It wasn’t just to eat braaied oysters and drink free beer. The aim was to promote Heritage Day (24 September) as National Braai Day.

Photo: Ivo Vegter (left) with Jan Braai, tasting freshly-braaied Knysna oysters at The Heads.

Jan Braai spoke to me about “Koninginnedag” (Queen’s Day) in Holland. Being Dutch by birth, I’m well familiar with it. It is an unashamed celebration of national heritage. Flags fly from every house, parties are held in every square, and a celebratory madness overtakes the entire country. It does not need government to organise it, nor does it require official rallies, nor do people feel obliged to “do something” out of a sense of civic duty. It just happens spontaneously in towns, cities and local communities, because free people join together to celebrate what they have in common.

This is the vision Jan says he has for National Braai Day: South Africans of every walk of life, all its different cultures, spontaneously gathering to enjoy their common love for cooking food over an open fire. We all do it, whether we’re black, brown or white. We all braai, whether our ancestors are buried in Africa’s soil, or whether we’re new immigrants who fell in love with South Africa’s landscape and people and promise.

Standing around a fire, talking about our history, experiences, beliefs, sports and the weather, is ultimately a powerful force of friendship, bonding and reconciliation. Our individual desire to build a better, more prosperous, more trusting society is demonstrated in the marvellous way that 40 different communities, in 40 different places, over the course of 40 days, pulled together to each put on a great feast for Jan Braai and the National Braai Day campaign.

On Sunday, unbeknownst to the TV crew and the Braai4Heritage team, two friends of mine who had fallen out many months ago stood next to each other, armed with knives. They did not stab each other in the eye. They were preparing oysters for the braai. They hugged. This made me very happy. Also, the oysters were delicious.

This is a small-scale demonstration of what National Braai Day can do nationwide. Whether it involves staff getting together for a company-sponsored braai, restaurants arranging braais on the pavement out front, clubs or associations setting up gatherings in our public places, or a church providing a braai for those who rarely enjoy a square meal, celebrating National Braai Day on Heritage Day each 24th of September has the potential to bring South Africans together in a grand, spontaneous celebration of all the things that make 50 million very different individuals one great nation.

For that vision, I salute Jan Braai.

I don’t know where you plan to be on 24 September, Jan, but I do know that I’ll be braaiing with a great many people from all walks of life, from all over Knysna. I now also know that one way or another, this will all happen, not because the government said we should be patriotic, or our teachers instruct us that it is our responsibility to celebrate our heritage, but because of the endless generosity of individuals, motivated by their own private reasons. For me, it will be a symbol of how individuals work together for a common goal. For others, it will be a celebration of altruism. For some, it will be a celebration of our natural splendour or history. For most, an affirmation of our united future. For none, of course, will it just be excellent excuse to sit in the sun, eating meat and drinking beer. We’re not that shallow.

Whatever the motivation, I know one thing. If you’re not here you’ll be missing a splendid day in a truly generous little town. But I’ll know that wherever you are in South Africa, you’ll be with friends, because a lot of people will be making that grand vision of yours a reality. DM


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