When I was a kid I grew up knowing last week’s public holiday to be “Shaka Day”.
It was awesome, having a whole day named after me. Of course as time passed it got a little less awesome – for one thing, the day was renamed to an infinitely less sexy name – Heritage Day. And the other, well, it’s not so cool celebrating the day our greatest nation-builder was killed.
Isn’t it telling how many of our public days mark the death of our people?
Lately I celebrate the day of another nation-builder – Madiba – with a lot more verve. I suppose that’s because in the past five years my fellow Cheesekids and I have invested a lot into making the day what it’s now professed to be about – service.
But it wasn’t always that way. Remember when it was a 46664 party? Sure it was to raise funds for a good cause – HIV/AIDS and whatnot – by let’s be real, it was also a moerse party with the world’s finest for those of us who could afford or could hustle the tickets.
Now, it’s a day where everyone gets stuck in – proudly doing something by themselves. I remember how in the first year of Mandela Day almost everyone I knew was stuck wondering “what can I do?” Hence Cheesekids’ own Mandela Day excesses. But this year, almost everyone was going on about their “own project”.
It’s uncanny how the identity of a day can shift so dramatically, in such a short space of time, and yet the change seems so subtle – it’s still about Mandela after all, isn’t it?
In the same time I’ve witnessed a similar shift in Heritage Day’s identity. The campaign to rebrand Heritage Day “Braai Day” has been some years in the offing and is clearly bearing fruit. Nearly every retailer or media outlet refers to Braai Day in some shape or form. It’s as given as birthday cake, or Christmas lunch.
But there’s trouble in Braai paradise. Some of us, particularly us clever blacks, are revolting against the name. Indeed as the great Braai Day vs. Heritage Day debate has proven, we find this new identity revolting.
I particularly find it grating and not just because it moves us further and further away from Shaka Day, but precisely because it’s not the day’s name. To me there are few things worse than someone unilaterally insinuating a new name onto someone, or something that belongs to everyone.
The reason for calling today Heritage Day was because when the IFP pushed for Shaka Day to be included in the roster of national holidays, SA’s first corp of democratically elected parliamentarians realised that this yearning of wanting to honour a Zulu founding father and hero was universal – the Sothos, Vendas, the Khoi, the Afrikaans, Somali or Chinese immigrants, in fact, anyone living in South Africa would similarly wish to remember and pay homage to their heroes, their stories, their cultures. Hence Heritage Day. A day for us all.
So the Braai Day movement feels to me like someone calling me “Charlie” simply because they like my hats. Or worse, “Fatty”, because I happen to love beef.
At best, it’s a naive attempt to unite us all. Assuming that we all like meat, or can afford it, and wish to call it a braai. But let’s follow this logic – why not call it Xhela day, as all the meat has to be slaughtered, and that itself is more in keeping with many African cultures? In fact, even our Muslim and Jewish citizens’ culinary preference places emphasis on the how the meat they eat is felled.
I think it’s simply that those of us who typically decide the national discourse and dream up campaigns, be they to save the world, save Rhinos or sell iPhones, rarely have insight into any lifestyle bar their own. And don’t seem to care to develop this.
So it could be that Braai Day is just evidence of that condescending Anglo-Saxon imperialist attitude that usurps and converts all it comes across to suit its own superiority-tinged interests. Isn’t it?
A more radical black than I was on out on Twitter reminding everyone just how much fun agents of the Apartheid state had at braais; whilst torturing or blowing someone up. “I imagine Steve Biko’s killers rushing home for a braai”, he said menacingly.
Look, perhaps it’s not that serious. Perhaps Braai Day is no more than a commercial ploy to get us buying and eating more meat – the license for a consumerist orgy that will leave everyone, especially supermarket owners, glowing. Maybe. But we don’t call Christmas “Present Day”, just as much as the American, those masters of commercialism, don’t call Thanksgiving “Turkey Day”.
We could also take the view that reforming Heritage Day Braai Day is indicative of a bland sense of heritage in the originators. Perhaps we should rather feel for them, and sympathise with them for having such a pitifully shallow heritage so as to want to reduce everyone else’s to a braai.
Or we could adopt my view that the clever blacks are not doing their part to shape the identity of a free South Africa.
For eons, the identity of all South Africans was dictated by a small elite. One that would decide that if someone’s name was too difficult to pronounce it would simply change to “Petrus” in his passbook.
And yet when black people finally find their political freedom and the ability to dream up ways of affirming and expressing themselves, they sit by and let a small marketing elite determine how their national days should be commemorated.
How many of us with means, or even in public office, have sought to define how South Africans behave on this day? Have we thought of the big idea that the day will revolve around just as Mandela Day has, or indeed even this Braai Day?
There is a myriad of ways to potentially mark such a day – how about a tour of heritage sites from the caves of humanity’s dawn to Lilliesleaf; or each of us mapping a route of our parents’ parents and their parents; or learning the language or another national group – imagine if we started the day with mass classes across the country; or committing to joining the next Ramadaan fast or Diwali festival or come eat ulusu at an unveiling ceremony; or cooking nothing but your home food to go with your braai, imagine if you were starring in an episode of Come Dine with Me and the theme was cultural dishes – how would you fare?
Hey, how about a massive bash and your entrance fee is the stamp you got at any museum you visited that day?
What of just deepening our understanding of the past that shaped us, from whence our heritages come, after all “past is prologue”?
In closing, let me tell you of a recent trip I took to a world heritage site that more tourists go to than South Africans – Robben Island. On the tour there, the bus at some stage stops outside a strange prison – it is a fenced-off house. This was the prison built to hold one man in isolation for nearly a decade. His name was Robert Sobukwe.
When the tour guide asked if anyone on the bus had ever heard of him, only my hand went up. The tour guide then explained that Sobukwe’s isolation, and the law that precipitated it – the Robert Sobukwe Clause – were intended to keep him and his ideas of pan-Africanism away from everyone. Better that he die forgotten and that his name slips from the annals of history. When I looked around and saw that no one else knew his story, I knew then that the Apartheid regime’s objectives had been achieved. They had killed Sobukwe’s memory.
As I looked around this week, and saw so few people talking, thinking or even discussing the other great son of the soil, who inspired this day, emperor Shaka, I realised that the same was happening with him – and all the other great African men and women in whom we can find reason to be proud.
“They” are killing the memory of “our” people. Except this time, batho baka, “they” are us.
Let’s catch a wake up, my brothers and sisters. Let’s have a chop. And catch a wake up. DM