Heritage Day is one of the newly created South African public holidays. It is a day in which all are encouraged to celebrate their cultural traditions in the wider context of the great diversity of cultures, beliefs, and traditions that make up the nation of South Africa. The question of National or Cultural heritage is, however, not without its complications.
In a country of eleven different official languages and a turbulent recent political past, one is obliged to ask, for instance, whose heritage it is that South Africans are being called to celebrate. Another point of contention is that in a former settler colony such as South Africa, one person’s heritage is another person’s trauma. For example, whilst for some, the Great Trek represents a monumental feat of bravery and endurance, for others it represents the invasion and dominion of the land by a foreign and dangerous enemy. It is worth remembering that these issues are hardly unique to South Africa. The United States experiences similar ambivalence in the commemoration of Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day, which for some represents a fitting tribute to a noble explorer, and to others represents nothing short of the glorification of an arch imperialist with scant regard for non-European life. Another example might be the commemoration of contentious political figures such as Cecil John Rhodes, whom for some is imagined as a great moderniser and venture capitalist, and for others a monstrous barbarian. The criss-crossing of various heritages and the mixed feelings they generate goes some way to explaining why Heritage Day in South Africa is not as straightforward as it might first appear. To read more about what ‘culture,’ ‘heritage’ and identity’ mean in South Africa, please refer to our article ‘Defining culture, heritage and identity.’
History of Heritage Day
In KwaZulu-Natal, 24 September has been observed as ‘Shaka’s Day,’ in commemoration of the legendary Zulu king, King Shaka Zulu. When the proposed Public Holidays Bill before the New South African Parliament omitted Shaka Day, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), a South African political party with a large Zulu membership, objected to the bill. A compromise was reached when it was decided to create a day where all South Africans could observe and celebrate their diverse cultural heritage.
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.”
As alluded to above, the ostensibly simple notion of a day for South Africans to celebrate their shared heritage quickly became complicated when people began to think about what that heritage was. Clearly the cultural roots of a Nama farmer are quite different from the cultural roots of a descendent of Lithuanian Jews – and yet each has equally the same right to call themselves “South African.” In the wake of decades of segregation, state-sanctioned racism, and unbridled violence, the logic behind celebrating a unifying national heritage was simple; the way to actually go about celebrating it, however, was not.
Eventually, in the vein of celebrating shared culture rather than focusing on cultural divisions, it was an initiative by Jan Scannell (otherwise known as ‘Jan Braai’), Braai4Heritage, that called upon all South Africans to celebrate their common roots by having a braai (barbeque) on Heritage day. The idea has had some high profile supporters, the most notable being Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who in 2007 was made the National Spokesperson for “Braai Day.”
After snubbing the idea in 2007 as trivializing, the National Heritage Council endorsed it in 2008. Tutu was quoted as saying in an interview: “We’re going to have this wonderful thing on the 24th of this month… when we all gather round one fire…It’s a fantastic thing, a very simple idea. Irrespective of your politics, of your culture, of your race, of your whatever, hierdie ding doen ons saam [‘we do this thing together’]… just South Africans doing one thing together, and recognizing that we are a fantastic nation.”
Regardless of the debates and issues bundled up in the celebration of South African heritage with a braai, it is safe to assume that most working South Africans are at least grateful for a day off work.