We allowed our heritage to be hijacked by braai day

Most of South Africa’s public holidays are carefully thought through and meant to create opportunities for us to commemorate or celebrate important events and issues in our complex society. That South Africa has more public holidays than most countries in the world is probably an indication of this complexity.

I am not going to discuss the religious public holidays which should be controversial in a secular society, which we are supposed to be, but maybe that is a topic for another discussion.

Of course, it is in the nature of a capitalist society, which is what we are (sorry South African Communist Party), that people will seek to make money out of any opportunity and public holidays offer such an opportunity. So, National Women’s Day becomes less about the important event on 9 August 1956 when 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings to protest against pass laws, and more about facials and pampering women.

In the same way Heritage Day, which we celebrate next Saturday, 24 September, has become known in some quarters as national braai day as part of the commercialisation of what is meant to be an important commemoration of who and what we are as a nation.

I used to get angry at this blatant commercialisation until I asked myself a simple question: What am I doing about it?

In the same way, when people complain about the commercialisation of National Women’s Day, I ask them what they are doing to celebrate the day in the pure form that was intended.

We are very good at complaining in South Africa but we are often not good at providing solutions or, when we come up with viable solutions, we do not implement too well.

For instance, at the moment everybody is upset with the President and wants him to resign for a variety of reasons, but I have yet to hear how this could be done in a practical manner, bearing in mind all the complexities in our society. But this column is not meant to be about serious matters of state. It is about more important stuff: our identity.

One of the things that make South Africa so beautiful, apart from its natural beauty, is the fact that we have such a diverse population with influences from around the continent and the world. Within this context it is difficult to find anyone who has only been exposed to any one influence. Many of us have revelled in being exposed to many of the influences that are available in our society. All of these influence shape who and what we are.

Yet most of us do not do enough to explore the history and origins of these influences, whether they are based on religion, culture, race, geography or any other factor. When we explore them probably, we often realise how similar we are despite attempts to make us think that we are all so different.

Heritage Day gives us the opportunity to explore the influences on our society and their roots, but also the things that make up our different identities, including music and food. And this brings us back to braai day. (Note that I do not use capital letters so as not to give it any significance).

There are many people like me who do not support braai day, because we feel it is a perversion of what is meant to be a celebration of our heritage. Those who support braai day argue that it is a part of our heritage and they are probably right.

The solution is not to complain about it but to either embrace it or do something that is bigger and better and more in line with what the day is meant to celebrate. And this is where our propensity for complaints without offering solutions becomes an issue.

We cannot say that braai day should stop. It has become an established brand over the past few years and that is why, mistakenly, some people associate 24 September only with it and not with Heritage Day.

Those of us who feel strongly about our heritage should accept the challenge thrown down by national braai day and find ways to reclaim our space. We need to create opportunities for us to celebrate our heritage and our identities in creative ways, ways that will also grab the attention of the public and encourage them to do the same.

Where are the festivals, big and small, the seminars and symposiums, the heritage walks, the heritage quizzes, the opportunities for people to explore their heritage and identity together with others?

There is just not much of a buzz created around our heritage in the same way as around braai day. I don’t know who should take responsibility for this. In South Africa we like to blame government when things go wrong, but we often don’t take responsibility ourselves.

So before you start complaining about national braai day, ask yourself what you are doing about it or what you can possible do about it. And then just do it, to paraphrase a famous sportswear brand.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 17 September 2016