South Africa Celebrates Heritage Day

September 25, 2010 21:430 comments

By Reno O’Hara

Thousands of people gathered at Moses Mabhida Stadium on Friday morning, September 24th 2010, for the main national Heritage Day event. They were entertained by various artists and thousands of members of the Nazareth Baptist Church, popularly known as the Shembe Church, were seated on the stadium field while other people occupied the stadium seats. September 24th, or Heritage Day, is one of South Africa’s public holidays that signifies the recognition of South African cultures that are both tangible and difficult to pin down such as creative expression, historical inheritance, language, the type of food South Africans eat as well as the land in which they live. Essentially it is about celebrating the unique land, which is South Africa. As former South African president, Nelson Mandela said, “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.”

What makes this day even more significant is that, in South Africa alone, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has declared six world heritage sites:

•             The Cape Floral Region: The Fynbos region of the Western and Eastern Cape has been awarded one of the world’s 18 biodiversity hotspots because of the huge diversity and density of Fynbos species that can be found in a relatively small area of 553 000 hectares, representing 20% of Africa’s flora.

•             Robben Island: This world famous heritage site received world heritage status because of its historical significance. This island has been used over the past five centuries as prison, a military base and a hospital. It is also the prison were Nelson Mandela was imprisoned before becoming South Africa’s president in 1994.

•             The Greater St Lucia Wetland: The geographic diversity of the wetlands and the interaction with the climatic elements has lead to its exceptional species diversity. Here you can find a variety of landforms such as coral reefs, sandy beaches, swamps, coastal dunes, lake systems, and extensive read and papyrus wetlands. This world heritage site consists of 13 protected areas and is 234 566 hectares.

•             Ukhahlamba Drakensberg: The magnificent geographic features and the large concentration of rock paintings (the largest of Africa, south of the Sahara which was made by the San people over 4 000 years) led to the Drakensberg becoming a world heritage site.

•             Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape: Situated on the northern border of South Africa, joining Zimbabwe and Botswana, Mapungubwe was the largest kingdom on the subcontinent before it was abandoned in the 14th century. The surviving palace sites, settlement area and two earlier capital sites sketches a beautiful picture of the development of social and political structures over the period of 400 years.

•             Cradle of Humankind: The Fossil Hominid sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans and Kromdraai and other surrounding areas have produced abundant scientific information with regards to evolution of humans over the past 3.5 million years. The landscape provides many features of the prehistoric period.

Heritage day has a rich background. In KwaZulu-Natal, one of South Africa’s provinces, the 24th of September was known as Shaka Day, in commemoration of the Zulu King, Shaka. Shaka was the legendary Zulu King who played an important role in uniting disparate Zulu clans into a cohesive nation. The Public Holidays Bill presented to the Parliament of South Africa at the time did not have the 24th of September included on the list of proposed public holidays. As a result of this exclusion, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), a South African political party with a large Zulu membership, objected to the bill. Parliament and the IFP reached a compromise and the day was given its present title and seen as a public holiday.  Since then, South Africans have celebrated Heritage Day by remembering the cultural heritage of the many cultures that make up the population of South Africa. Various events are staged throughout the country to commemorate this day.

But with a nation so diverse, hence the phrase “Rainbow Nation”, Heritage Day has evolved to something even bigger in order to accommodate every South African. One such development is the “Braai Day” event. Hence 24th of September 2010 also saw many South Africans firing up their braai grills to celebrate Heritage Day. This is in acknowledging the fact that, while citizens may be divided by race, language, region or religion, most share a love for braaing. According to a non-profit organisation, Braai4Heritage, Heritage Day is about much more than just meat-and-meets, it is an acknowledgement and appreciation of South Africans’ differences. “The braai stands out as one of our unique cultural heritage gems as it is a deep-rooted tradition in South Africa that cuts across all demographic groups,” explains Braai4Heritage, on their website. The Braai4Heritage initiative aims to create social cohesion by encouraging all South Africans to actively celebrate the country’s national heritage annually, simply by having a braai. On their website, the organisation explains that the cooking of food on an open fire is an international phenomenon, but to braai is a truly unique South African past time that penetrates racial, cultural, religious and social boundaries.

This after a media campaign in 2005 that sought to “re-brand” the holiday (Heritage Day) as National Braai Day in recognition of the South African culinary tradition of holding informal backyard barbecues, or braais. On September 5, 2007, Archbishop Desmond Tutu celebrated his appointment as patron of South Africa’s Barbecue (Braai) Day, affirming it to be a unifying force in a divided country (by donning an apron and tucking into a boerewors sausage). At the end of 2007 National Braai Day changed its name to Braai4Heritage and the initiative received the endorsement of South Africa’s National Heritage Council (NHC).

However, there seems to be mixed reactions on the decision to make Heritage Day synonymous with Braai Day. One such reaction is that Braai Day must be scrapped because it serves “narrow white commercial interests”, the Azanian Youth Organisation (Azayo) said on Thursday 23rd, 2010- a day before Heritage Day. Azayo went on to say “This (braai day) is largely perpetrated by the white section of the South African society which is opportunistically using this national day of importance as a braai day.” Azayo also said it was further disappointed that other sections of society, like the black middle class, were “blindly” following the trend of celebrating Braai Day on National Heritage Day. The organisation called on Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana to act against Braai Day, which “seeks to undermine the country’s heritage”. Head of the Braai4Heritage initiative, Jan Scannell, also known as Jan Braai, was not immediately available for comment. He was quoted on as saying: “Braai4Heritage supports and encourages the celebration of the rich and diverse heritage of South Africa on 24 September each year. The traditional gathering place in Africa to celebrate is around the fire.”

(Some sections adapted from: braai4heritage & buanews)

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