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All good South Africans should support National Braai Day

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

Guess what I did on Heritage Day? I went to Pick ’n Pay, bought some meat and had a braai with my friends at a house in The North. And we saw that it was good.

I’m sorry if it seems like I’m letting the side down, but I don’t get what the hand-wringing over Heritage Day is all about.

It appears some are concerned that the National Braai Day or Braai4Heritage shindig is going to co-opt Heritage Day and make us all collectively forget where we came from. Some make it sound like we’re being bullied into thinking that the only suitably South African thing to do on Heritage Day is a braai – as if we’re being shamed out of eating our own cultural dishes, or doing whatever activities we choose to see as being a celebration of our heritage. Both arguments are silly.

There’s not much point in arguing over Heritage Day if we don’t even agree on what is being haggled over to begin with. What is the “heritage” that Heritage Day lauds? South Africans can’t be said to have a single, linear viewpoint on history. For many, South Africa can’t even be thought of as a single country in the proper meaning of the phrase. We all have our particular strand of history that we consider to be true and fair reflection of the past. Unfortunately, those strands and versions tend to collide painfully, now that we have to share a common space. Ask any Zulu how the battle of Blood River went, and see if they agree with an Afrikaner version of that day. The same applies to the battles of Sandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, though perhaps the South Africans of English extraction may not defend their worldview with quite as much enthusiasm as a son or daughter of the Boers. (Allow me my KwaZulu-Natal bias.) I could mention many other historic occasions that almost cause us to come to blows over whose heritage has a greater claim to legitimacy.

This is how it is in countries that have a melting pot of cultures, tribes and nations.

To make it worse, not only do we seem not to have a single idea of what heritage, we also don’t quite know what Heritage Day is supposed to achieve. Politicians believe it’s all about them and their bad speeches. If we were to be perfectly honest, for most of us, the meaning doesn’t go much deeper than a free holiday.

Is Heritage Day supposed to be about each separate culture group celebrating its roots in its own way, or is this about forging a common heritage as a single people (South Africans), and thus about the future? These questions need answers.

Personally, I love the idea of National Braai Day because it strikes the middle road between past and present perfectly. If you’re doing it properly, you’re bringing people together to celebrate friendship and comradeship across the artificial divides that once defined the South African experience.

A couple of weeks ago, I met some of the organisers of National Braai Day. They were horribly mortified by the controversy they had inadvertently caused. For them, it was about uniting all South Africans around one thing on which we all agree (which appears to be a deep and passionate love for red meat).

If we agree that South Africans need to forge a common heritage going into future, then ideas like National Braai Day need our support, because that is ultimately what they are trying to forge.

Nobody is going to forget their heritage because they had a braai on 24 September instead of going to listen to some local MEC rabbit on at Ellis Park about “The Struggle Era”. Lest you forget, in certain parts of the country, Heritage Day is still called Shaka Day. In fact, Heritage Day exists because the Inkatha Freedom Party made a bit of a stink when the Public Holidays Act was put before Parliament, and 24 September wasn’t on the list. As a compromise, 24 September was included and named Heritage Day.

If anybody has a claim that 24 September was appropriated, it is the Zulu people. See how it makes you feel knowing that when you’re getting all self-righteous about Heritage Day, you really are fighting for the memory of Shaka Zulu.

Since Shaka Day became known as Heritage Day throughout the country, did we Zulu people suddenly come down with collective amnesia, and forgot the man who created our nation? No.

Does the existence of National Braai Day mean that we’re all going to forget where we came from, and what sacrifices were made, battles fought and blood spilt so we could enjoy a united country? No.

Does National Braai Day mean you absolutely have to eat boerewors roll, lamb chops and sosaties on 24 September? I think you’re getting the gist of this…

By worrying too much about Heritage Day and what it should be called and how it should be commemorated, we risk turning it into a meaningless fetish, defended for reasons we aren’t sure of against people whose motives we don’t really know.  Slutwalk Johannesburg was held on 24 September – are we going to give the organisers grief for daring to sully Heritage Day with their march?

Now, if you don’t mind awfully, I believe there are some leftover braai steaks in the fridge. Many of my own ancestors perished of cardiovascular complications, often associated with the overconsumption of red meat? What better way is to acknowledge my own, personal heritage? DM


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