By Duane Jethro The 24th of September marked Heritage Day in South Africa. Inaugurated in 1996, the state figured this public holiday would afford South Africans the opportunity to critically reflect on the post-apartheid nation’s rich cultural heritage and diversity. Responding to this implicit appeal, on the 24th of September 2005, the Mzansi Braai Institute initiated the idea of reframing Heritage Day as being a celebration of the braai, or barbeque.
Using the braai as a focal point for National Heritage Day, as project pioneer and ‘braai tong master’ Jan Scannel (aka Jan Braai) pointed out, was to highlight its significance as a cultural media that “reaches beyond culture, beyond language, beyond politics, beyond religion”. Heritage Day was a perfect opportunity to promote such an initiative Scannell asserted, because “it doesn’t have any baggage”, and the braai served as the most inclusive platform for facilitating the broader reflection on cultural heritage and national identity. Premised on the affirmation of a tradition that brought the nation together around a common fire, the National Braai Day initiative was about “establishing a collective heritage for South Africa”. Indeed, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, patron of the National Braai day initiative concurred with Scannel’s appraisal. He stated that the braai is “one thing that can unite us irrespective of all of the things that are trying to tear us apart”. After all, “what is more South African than shisa nyama [braaing]?”
Unsurprisingly, the concept quickly ignited public interest. A large proportion of South Africans would already ordinarily have used the vacation to indulge in the popular local pastime of roasting and consuming meat products. Yet from the outset the recasting of Heritage Day as national braai day has sparked controversy, with critics raising concerns about whether such a leisure activity could adequately address the weight of the complex contours of the South African past, or was it merely reductive, as the South African Heritage Council once argued. A probing, yet comical reflection on the logical implications of the venture were drawn out in the parody news item on Hayibol. It ran with the headline “Young South Africans Despair as their Country Symbolized by a Chop”, in reference to the local use of the word chop as imbecile.
Lightheartedness aside, these critiques pointed to the features of post-apartheid public commemoration and the dynamics of popular memory in practice. They raised the question of how, and in what ways, South Africans be empowered to think about the past, and how these forms of popular recollection could enable a collective consciousness that paid heed to the rich and but also awkward turns that marked the nation’s history. They endeared questions such as, when South Africans gathered around their braai fires yesterday, chewing on boerewors rolls and sipping Castle Lager would they recall the smell Maki Skosana’s roasting flesh when she was brutally necklaced in 1985? Did South Africans and foreign tourists who flocked to the township of Gugulethu to indulge in the African cuisine served at the popular Mzolis Place remember the sound of the stone cracking open Amy Biehl’s skull when a mob fatally assaulted her in the same area in 1993?
These distasteful, difficult features of the South African past that indelibly mark post-apartheid collective heritage are easily obscured in the haze of smoke and beer of National Braai Day. As a platform that enabled South Africans to celebrate a popular past time in a way that, over the last few years, has been figured to promote civil duty through charity and so on, braai day certainly dishes up an easily palatable serving of social cohesion that is meritorious. But as a vehicle for creating and sustaining bonds that speak to the deeper bilious flavours of South African heritage can, however, be difficult to swallow.
Duane Jethro is a Phd candidate at the Anthropology department of the VU University Amsterdam. His research in South Africa forms part of the NWO project Heritage Dynamics. Previously for standplaatswereld he wrote various blogs about football, violence and cultural heritage.