In marking South Africa’s first Heritage Day on 24 September 1996, then President Nelson Mandela said “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.” Fast forward to 2011 and it would seem that our heritage and diversity are the source of discord rather than providing the ties that bind South Africans. One only has to look at many online news websites and Twitter debates to see that our differences are profound and difficult to paper over. Our State motto “Unity in Diversity” is nothing but a philosophy, which has no bearing on everyday life in South Africa.
Once South Africa had finally achieved political emancipation for all, we were made to look past our mix of cultures, our race and our diversity – all in the name of reconciliation and “nation building”. The divisions which defined apartheid had to be locked away like a shameful secret. Instead of Heritage Month being used as a time in which we celebrate our cultures and have conversations about our dark past to find solutions for the treacherous road ahead, Heritage Day has been popularly hijacked and reduced to “National Braai Day”.
Nine provinces, 11 official languages and a plethora of cultures locally and from around the world – and our heritage comes down to a braai. I love to braai as much as (maybe even more than) the next South African, but I weep when a celebration of our diversity has been relegated to a few chops and steaks on the Weber and beers in hand.
Braais bring people together, which is what I presume to be a pillar of nation building. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, patron of National Braai Day, said “we have 11 official languages but only one word for this wonderful institution: braai…” He went on further to say that “it has a fantastic potential to bind us together”. The idea of South Africans standing around a fire, breaking bread together and sharing stories of our heritage and culture is wonderful, but in a fractured society that is not the case. Building a better South Africa means properly acknowledging and celebrating holidays like Heritage Day.
A friend said that “I don’t think I see braai day taking the place of Heritage Day; if anything it is part of it”. I feel that braai day has superseded Heritage Day and, like our other public holidays such as Youth Day and Womens’ Day, is steeped in history but dishonoured by the lack of understanding and respect. While there are official functions to commemorate our public holidays, not many people pay attention to these – perhaps because all these entail are a rally and speech by the President.
We should be free to celebrate Heritage Day as we see it fit, but we should not forget what the holiday is really about. Heritage Month should be about building bridges, understanding different cultures and learning about different South African traditions. If we’re willing to let this holiday go up flames, what else are we willing to compromise on? DM