How are you celebrating Heritage Day today? Have we lost the essence of what this day was really meant to be about?
For the last couple of years, there’s been a debate raging over how we as South Africans should celebrate Heritage Day. For many, it’s an opportunity to partake of that widespread South African tradition, the braai, ukhosa, or chisa nyama, but for others this seems like a cop out. For these South Africans, honouring this public holiday by slapping some meat on the braai is the equivalent to celebrating Christmas by wrapping some tinsel around a tree. It lacks substance, depth, and meaning.
But how do we as South Africans celebrate a joint ‘Heritage Day’ when our heritage can look so widely different depending on our cultural upbringing?
Maybe we should start by going back to the roots of this public holiday. Did you know that today, 24 September, was formerly celebrated as Shaka Day in Kwa-Zulu, in memory of the legendary King Shaka Zulu?
Initially, the proposed Public Holidays Bill presented to the new Parliament of South Africa omitted Shaka Day, but it was later decided to make this day National Heritage Day where all South Africans could celebrate the diversity of cultures, beliefs and traditions that make up our country. So even from its inception this public holiday was a topic of contention.
In an address marking Heritage Day in 1996, former President Nelson Mandela stated:
“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 Heritage Day ‘pot’ was stirred even further though when in 2007, Jan Scannell (or Jan Braai, as he’s come to be known) came up with the idea to create a Heritage Day initiative that would unite all South Africans in a common cultural activity – the act of cooking meat over an open fire. And ‘Braai Day’ was introduced as a way in which all South Africans could celebrate Heritage Day together.
This idea has grown in popularity to the extent that many people now refer to Heritage Day as Braai Day. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu has given his endorsement by becoming the National Braai Day patron.
He was quoted saying, “… what Jan Scannell had in mind with the Braai Day initiative… is nurturing and embracing a common South African culture, which is shared across all races and genders. Not one South African person can tell you that they have never witnessed a braai. Even in rural areas they light a fire and put their meat on it to cook.” (The Times, 12/09/2008)
This debate is likely to simmer on for years to come, but perhaps it’s not so much about what we do on this day but about how we behave towards our fellow South Africans during the other 364 days of the year. Are we interested in learning about other cultures? Asking questions and listening to the stories of how other South Africans celebrate their heritage? Maybe if we did this, when Heritage Day rolled around we’d have a more diverse group of friends around our braai to celebrate it with.
What do you think?