Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

The braai or shisa nyama is not heritage

By Unéné Gregory

We brand our beautiful country as a rainbow nation, one with people of various backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities. We are a country unlike any other and one of the days to acknowledge our diversity and actively learn about one another is Heritage Day. Formerly celebrated only in KwaZulu-Natal as King Shaka day our new democratic government saw the potential of establishing a nationwide day to celebrate our background as a nation and embrace the various aspects that make us who we are and so King Shaka day became national Heritage Day.

Heritage Day means various things to various people. Central to the various ways we have celebrated Heritage Day since its inception has been acknowledging our past as a nation and celebrating our present and future.

However, I feel we have lost the plot as of late. We have, in essence, degraded a day meant to remind us of who we are and where we come from to merely charring meat over an open fire with a round of drinks. How did Heritage Day become national braai day? When did we as a nation decide that our background and various cultures are less important than the “art” of scorching meat?

Now before I get crucified by all the carnivores, avid braaiers, and all those that enjoy the braai process, hear me out. I hail from a generation branded as the “Model C” kids. I have had the opportunity of attending “white schools” and meeting people of various ethnicities. I have come to realise that the more integrated we become the more important it becomes for us to remember, celebrate and share our diversity in all its forms. As George Orwell said. “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

Heritage Day is not merely donning traditional attire or playing traditional music: it’s about remembering and embracing who we are, and definitely not just about braaing. For you see the braai, BBQ or shisa nyama is no one’s heritage. The sole action belongs to no particular nation but to humankind as a whole. And in my opinion, it does not warrant a special day to itself.

Our heritage, however, our nation’s past, present, future and its composition, belongs to us as South Africans – and that deserves more than just one day of remembrance and celebration.

In African tradition, as most of us are familiar, stories were usually shared and passed down from one generation to another around a fire where the clan, the family, gathered. If we are really hell bent on encompassing the braai, let it merely be a space and platform for us to share stories and celebrate who we are as a people.

If it takes 19 years for us as a nation to deem cooking of meat over an open fire more important than who we are, what else will we lose the further into democracy we go? First Heritage Day gets demoted, next Women’s Day gets the boot and before we know it Youth Day and Freedom Day are forgotten. It might seem like an exaggeration on my part, like the crazy mutterings from a braai hater, probably vegetarian some might think. We as a nation would never let that happen. Right?

Our differences give us our diversity, such as me, a young Swati woman with a classically “white” surname. As we celebrate Heritage Day we need to also bear in mind that those differences and uniqueness we now celebrate were at some point the basis for segregation and oppression. As painful as this might be for some people, this too forms part of our heritage as a country and should be remembered.

Heritage Day is also about celebrating how far we have come as a country and embracing who we are as a people as we move forward into shaping a better future for ourselves – and is worth celebrating.

Unéné Gregory is a 2012 Mandela Rhodes Scholar and is currently completing her master’s degree in electrical engineering within the niche area of assistive technology.

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