Ever since the controversy began about Braai Day replacing Heritage Day in South Africa started, I have been trying to understand why anyone would not see the point of Heritage Day.
The celebration of Heritage Day is one of our young democracy’s negotiated settlement agreements. Before democracy, people in Kwazulu-Natal celebrated the 24th of September as Shaka Day, in commemoration of the great king Shaka Zulu. At the dawn of democracy there was an effort to incorporate all the different holidays and celebrations of all South Africans but Shaka Day was omitted.
The IFP protested and as a compromise, it was agreed that the holiday be kept but renamed as Heritage Day.
This would be a day in which all South Africans could celebrate their culture and traditions and would be yet another celebration of the country’s diversity.
Then, some years ago, one Jan Scannell decided that it was time to rebrand Heritage Day into Braai Day. His argument was that the braai was a common factor among all South Africans irrespective of colour, culture or ethnicity. He even managed to convince Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, to become a patron of his campaign.
Corporate South Africa, jumped on the bandwagon, with companies like Pick n Pay and many others driving their September advertising campaigns with the Braai Day slogan.
All this had me at a loss for words as South Africa, more than any other country, needs a day in which the many cultures, especially those outside of English and Afrikaans culture are recognised and represented. To suggest that we should rather be united under the braai was, to my mind, missing the point completely.
It was only recently, as I listened to my daughter singing the nursery rhyme “Ring a ring o roses” that it dawned on me. Here was a half Pedi, half Xhosa, South African child in 2014 singing a song about the Bubonic plague which happened in Europe in the 1300s.
The nursery rhyme is a historical recording of events that happened in the Bubonic plague. It outlines exactly, what happened – people sneezed and the resultant effect was that people fell down and died. It is just one of many examples of European and English culture and heritage that has survived and continues to thrive for decades in South Africa.
There are millions of children and adult books, films, art and music documenting, reflecting on and recording the culture and heritage of English and European people in South Africa and the world.
It should therefore not be a surprise when people from such cultures in South Africa don’t see the point behind Heritage Day. If your heritage is celebrated every day then you won’t see a need to dedicate a day to acknowledge and celebrate heritage.
This however is not the case for the cultures and heritage of black, coloured and Indian people of South Africa. How often in corporate South Africa, can people from all backgrounds be seen in their traditional garb on a normal working day?
It is only around Heritage Day that employees can be seen dressed in their saris (Indian traditional wear) or umbaco (Xhosa traditional wear). For one day, people can stand up and be proud and say I am Indian, I am Xhosa, I am Khoisan. This is a very important act of acknowledging people’s identity and heritage as it is possible to spend years in the same office with someone without knowing them.
English and European culture is so pervasive in South African society that if you ask the average South African child who Jan van Riebeeck or Winston Churchill was they will have a ready answer. Ask the same child who Shaka Zulu or Nongqawuse was and most will not be able to answer. These are two important icons in Zulu and Xhosa culture and they should be common knowledge if our history and heritage is represented equally.
Heritage Day still remains an important day to remember, reflect on and at the very least discuss how far we have come in documenting, recording and celebrating our different cultures and heritage.
In calling it Braai Day, we move away from this important act of acknowledging people’s identity and heritage.
As things stand, African languages are disappearing as fewer and fewer children can speak them properly. South African children from all races and backgrounds, have higher exposure to English and Afrikaans than any of the other nine official languages. That’s because most of the teaching, even in so called “black” schools takes place in English, as we have not yet developed maths, physical science and accounting in African languages.
Most parents either send, or desire to send, their children to schools where English is the main language of tuition because they believe that this will give their children better prospects in life.
In South Africa, it is near impossible to either proceed to tertiary education or get a job if you cannot speak English, unless of course you speak Afrikaans.
The disappearing of languages is also another loss of heritage and culture as most heritage resides deeply in language.
Even when an attempt was made to preserve these languages and introduce their importance in tertiary institutions there was uproar. In 2012, Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande suggested that all university students must pass one African language course as a graduation requirement.
In my view this was a great suggestion and would bode well for increasing the social cohesion among the different language groups. It would finally make sure that the languages spoken by the majority of South Africans were not relegated to history books.
Currently the average black child speaks English or Afrikaans or both as well as at least one or two African languages. The introduction of African languages as a compulsory subject at university would hopefully ensure that all schools finally introduced African languages from a young age so that students are not suddenly confronted by the need to learn it at university level.
Unfortunately, this may never happen as the plan disappeared after the controversy its suggestion raised.
We cannot continue to claim to live in a united country when only one language, culture and heritage is prioritised at the expense of others. The heritage of all South Africans needs to be acknowledged and celebrated every day and Heritage Day continues to be a great reminder of this.
l Ngoasheng is a writer, social commentator and entrepreneur based in Cape Town.