Don’t put my heritage over the Coals

By Published On: 1st September 2017

By Mikhail Petersen

On the 24th of September, South Africans will be celebrating Heritage Day. On this day, people across all racial and cultural groups are encouraged to celebrate their cultural diversity within the wider context of a nation that belongs to all its people.

In 2005, a media campaign sought to re-brand and rename this holiday that many have now come to know as National Braai Day. This re-branding undoubtedly made reference to and continues to recognize without disrupting a perception around what is still thought of as only a white South African culinary tradition of braaing (many cultures and ethnicities braai, or BBQ, in one form or another).  Jan Scannell, who spearheaded this campaign known affectionately thanks to savvy marketing as “Jan Braai” announced that the aim of this Braai Day is not to have a mass braai, but instead to have little ones with friends and family.

The attempt made by those behind the rebranding of Heritage Day as National Braai Day –while perhaps well-intentioned (an aside: this is how privilege works) ends up serving to make South Africa forget the history and the origin of why this holiday exists in the first place. It represents the imposition of only white culture – in how Braai Day is conceived and promoted – as a norm; reminiscent of that of colonialism and Apartheid where other cultures and traditions were subjugated. Within this context the rebranding of Heritage Day as Braai Day continues to do more harm than good as the reframing of this day is missing the entire point.

Heritage Day as a public holiday is a means to acknowledge the multitude of racial and cultural groups in South Africa. It’s a day to celebrate these differences that before were constructed to be sites of shame and persecution. It’s a moment of cultural and historical expression.

Former President Nelson Mandela once said that “When our first democratically-elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national holidays, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation”.

This day provides the opportunity for each South African to evaluate their history and heritage. An evaluation that the organisers of Braai Day do not seem to get. Or rather, an understanding of Heritage Day as reductionist, to just having a braai, because the white norm does not have room for understanding the diversity of heritage and expression. Whiteness and white acts become the norm, a further symptom of a colonialist, Apartheid mindset.

White South Africans, on average, have yet to engage with their history of domination and the subjugation of the black majority of South Africa. Instead of doing so, through the example of Braai Day, this community has sought to re-characterise this day by celebrating a cultural tradition in an attempt to impose this particular expression of a cultural norm over the rest. In addition, the downside of white supremacy for white people is that they are often misled into ‘not having a culture’ and so choose to invent expressions of it. Expressions like Braai Day. But this is not true. White cultural expression exists (and it’s not ‘white supremacy either!). It’s just the normalization of whiteness and all its customs that make it the default. Culture is considered something ethnically non-white peoples have.

Jan Scannell’s appeal shows the lack of understanding that many white folk – and, to be honest, many black persons too – , live comfortably in; an ignorance that goes without interrogation and self-critique. Conversations around race, culture, history and belonging are changing quickly, with colonised people at the helm. White folk have yet to come out in numbers to join this important conversation.

The imposition of white cultural norms, in all respects, are all too familiar for colonised people. Think back to the Settlers who came to the most southern tip of Africa as part of a colonising mission; who themselves sought to impose their values and beliefs as the new cultural norm.

Surely, the buck stops here. Somewhat 400 years late.

Mikhail Petersen is a Volunteer for the Sustained Dialogue programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation

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