Symbolic Annihilation and Inclusiveness: Why Heritage Day needs to do more than a chisa nyama

By Thato Magano (@pothaeto)

If the movement is indeed seeking a unifying medium through which we can come together as a country, why not settle on a more nuanced expression of our culture? Is it perhaps that the concept of braaing does not ask for any more complex work of cultural understanding to be undertaken by all South Africans so that we move forward earnestly as a country?

I have never done anything remarkable to mark heritage day on my calendar. This is due to the fact that I grew up in a family that is not that big on tradition but I also believe I have had no reason to see the day as anything else other than another ’free’ public holiday.

As I’ve gotten older, I have questioned why as a family, we have never really been sentimental about observing holidays of national significance. When I was younger, I considered this to be a strong indicator of how ‘evolved’ we are as a people and also as a family. This was always against the background of ignorance that belies the danger of the single ‘rainbow nation’ narrative that has come to represent all of contemporary South Africa.

Recollections of my history lessons in school include Shaka Day, when the Zulu nation chose to honour and commemorate their King Shaka Zulu. After democracy came, the day was renamed Heritage Day by the South African government in its attempts to create an inclusive country where all South Africans irrespective of their cultural and racial backgrounds were part of this new nation. The aim of Heritage Day was to reflect and celebrate the myriad of languages, cultural practices, traditional clothing, expressions of ubuntu and ways of being as various peoples of South Africa.

Enter National Braai Day in 2005. This campaign, said to be the recognition of the common culinary tradition of South Africa, was later renamed ‘Braai4heritage’ and Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu was appointed its patron.

Since the introduction of the campaign there has been fierce debate about the aim of Heritage Day. A number of articles have been written and debates had about the acceptability of this significant national day being reduced to another commercial holiday where meat and festivities are sought as our means of celebration.

In his article, “Stop telling me how to feel about Heritage Day”, Sipho Hlongwane argues that the “idea of a South African heritage is deeply, deeply flawed. There is no such thing as a South African heritage in the same way that there is no shared South African history. This is the difficulty of the South African journey. It was only in 1994 that we agreed to become a common people, with a shared government and a single sense of purpose. We are only beginning to build a shared sense of community. We are only just starting to build a South African heritage.”

national braai day

On the other side of the debate, ShakaSisulu in “A fired up review of Braai Day” argues that “the reason for calling the day Heritage Day was because when the IFP pushed for Shaka Day to be included in the roster of national holidays, SA’s first crop of democratically elected parliamentarians realised that this yearning of wanting to honour a Zulu founding father and hero was universal – the Sothos, Vendas, the Khoi, the Afrikaans, Somali or Chinese immigrants, in fact, anyone living in South Africa would similarly wish to remember and pay homage to their heroes, their stories, their cultures. Hence Heritage Day. A day for us all.”

And this is where the conversation becomes complex. It is true, as a country, South Africa is still completing a nation-building task and we are still in the throes of defining what its heritage is or can be.

However, the inclusivity argument that is presented by the likes of Sisulu has made me question why it cannot be enough that the collective essence of our heritage can only be reflected by  our common love for a chisa nyama. Surely we can try harder?

In attempting to locate the Braai4Heritage campaign and what it aims to achieve, if one is inclined to follow the essence of the inclusive model referred to by Sisulu, then the campaign presents a challenge to the idea of an inclusive country. It represents a challenge because it obfuscates a complex issue of identity and cultural heritage that contemporary South Africa is struggling to navigate. Very importantly, Braai4Heritage speaks to the ongoing challenge of who determines the agenda and narrative of the South African story.

Heritage Day 3 Heritage Day 2

The campaign, as innocent as it has been alleged to be, is revealing of the degree to which the narrative holders of our history are sensitive to and aware of the intersectional complexities that arise from living in South Africa. This is a country with varied cultural representations and prides itself in reflecting and including each of these representations in some way, shape or form and it seems that the narrative holders, who T.O. Molefe recently called out in bell hooks style as ‘white supremacist capitalist patriachy‘, are not alive, whether intentionally or not, to this.

In exploring these limitations and who sets the narrative, I found the idea of symbolic annihilation to be a perfect metaphor to explore this debate. In her article, “Visibility and Dance: A lesson in Symbolic Annihilation”, Ellie Hutchinson defines it as something that “not only denigrates communities of identity, but works to make members invisible through the explicit lack of representation in all forms of media ranging from film, song, books, news media and visual art.”

South Africa has a constitution that recognises our differences. Our Coat of Arms bears the motto ǃke e: ǀxarra ǁke in the Khoisan and translates to ‘diverse people unite’, which has come to be referred to as ‘Unity in Diversity’. If we are to use our languages as a touchpoint, it is surely something to be proud of – the only country in the world to celebrate as many as eleven national languages.

Hence the suggestion by this campaign to reduce all of this diversity to a single act of standing around a fire and braaing meat betrays that which makes our country interesting, complex and diversified. It reduces us to the lowest common (commercial) denominator of what our heritage can be. As the campaign grows and gets the support of major retailers, the representation of cultural diversity is continually being taken away from national focus and shifting the conversation on the issues.

Dr Mathole Motshekga, founder of the Kara Heritage Institute is of the opinion that it is a bad idea to reduce Heritage Day to such an extent. “Heritage Day is becoming like Christmas Day: we buy clothes, meat and alcohol, then invite friends over for a jolly time. But you can expect that when Africans don’t rise up to define for themselves what their heritage is. Others might fill the vacuum and define it for them.”

The heritage of black South Africans continues to suffer the fate of symbolic annihilation. For many years under the brutal years of apartheid, the majority of the South African population had been reduced to outsiders looking in on their own country and now that political freedom has been attained, they are finally working towards rebuilding this country and its place in the world. As this happens, another form of annihilation has been presented to us. It is less insidious but equally damaging as it seeks to remove the majority of the people of this country from the conscious narrative of what the essence of the country is.

If the movement is indeed seeking a unifying medium through which we can come together as a country, why not settle on a more nuanced expression of our culture? Is it perhaps that the concept of braaing does not ask for any more complex work of cultural understanding to be undertaken by all South Africans so that we move forward earnestly as a nation?

To be truly inclusive and true to the ideals upon which the Republic of South Africa was founded, more of us need to reach out to the other side in order to understand what these differences are that make us unique. And then we can understand how they can be harnessed to create a kaleidoscope of a cultural legacy that is not as reductive as braaing meat.

We need to move the country forward but it cannot happen if we continue to ‘annihilate’ some out of the national discourse of societal identity and capital. South African inclusivity can do better than a chisa nyama.

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