The complexities of heritage and 'Braai Day' in South Africa

Published Sep 24, 2022


By Unathi Funde

The definition of heritage has always been somewhat ambiguous and has come to describe everything from material, tangible objects, such as buildings, monuments, and memorials, to the ethereal and intangible such as songs, festivals, languages, and, more recently, food.

The most basic definition of heritage, however, is an inheritance of both tangible and intangible goods from the past, preserved in the present and passed on to societies in the future. Heritage is supposed to be ‘something’ we share in the most profound depths of our sociality, where the most essential meanings lie, those that cement and even create collective life.

At the heart of heritage is the search for who we are, or rather, who we are supposed to be. The purpose of heritage in this regard can be seen to be about creating a shared past meant to unify and bond individuals into stable, concrete, and cohesive units - the nation.

The essence of a nation is the psychological bond that joins a people and differentiates it, in the subconscious conviction of its members, from all other people in a most vital way. The differentiation from all other people requires a level of homogeneity, whether in terms of language, religion, ethnicity, or culture. Of course, this psychological bond is linked to a particular territory to which members of a nation feel deep loyalty and a sense of ownership.

It has been argued that the application of heritage, as a concept outside of the local, familial, and individual context, happened after the emergence of the nation as an idea and an entity. The availability of a distinguishable and precise shared heritage of members of a nation fuelled feelings of togetherness and helped legitimate the nation as an entity.

Post-1994, heritage in South Africa has been coloured by a particular narrative; in this new discourse, SA is framed as a 'rainbow' or 'multicultural' nation, one characterised by 'diversity', having endured and survived the conflict and violence of apartheid and its predecessor racial systems; and having engaged in successive forms of resistance, SA’s 'diverse' people, still characterised by separate and discrete ethnicities, have been placed on a path of achieving 'reconciliation' as the basis for the new 'rainbow nation’.

This would ultimately lead to a production of heritage centred around these themes. The post-1994 heritage narrative has been an attempt at nation-building around the idea of unity in diversity. The idea of a multicultural nation is paradoxical when the requirements of the nation as an entity have been and still seem to be homogeneous. There are few nations in the world founded on an idea. A look at many of the nations in the world today would illustrate largely homogeneous nations, whether by ethnicity, religion, culture and or language.

The braai as heritage emerges in the post-1994 narrative of unity in diversity with a petition to change Heritage Day into ‘Braai Day’, the petition would ultimately fail, but the braai as heritage would become cemented in the national consciousness.The ubiquity of the braai in SA lends it a significant weight within the realm of heritage. Despite race, religion, culture, or gender, everyone enjoys the braai.

The South African braai presents itself as being innocuous, which in a country so fragmented and traumatised by its past leads to constant contestation in heritage production despite the master narrative of unity in diversity. But is the braai that benign? Is it a distinguishable and precisely shared heritage?

What exactly are we supposed to inherit and preserve from the braai, and what is there about the braai that is so unique that it should distinguish South Africans as a people and a nation from all other people and nations in a vital way? The technique of cooking meat over a fire or hot coals is not particularly unique and has been in existence since man mastered fire. Many will argue that it’s the atmosphere of the braai that makes it so unique but are unable to describe precisely what that atmosphere is.

Can the braai bind South Africans so closely together when there is a sizeable population of South Africans that do not eat meat? This is a non-negotiable ingredient of the braai for many. And what about those South Africans who, considering the rising cost of meat and food in general, may, in all likelihood, forgo the braai this Heritage Day? This raises a final question: should a shared national heritage be commercialised to the extent that the braai as heritage has been in SA?

The braai as heritage is an attempt at crafting the requirement of homogeneity in nations in a post-apartheid or post-colonial, multi-cultural nation. In our attempt to craft a unifying shared heritage post-apartheid, we should be careful not to pick simplistic heritage to avoid the contestations that undoubtedly result from a multi-cultural, multi-religious, multilingual, and multi-ethnic society like ours.

To pick the simplistic over the complicated will not satisfy SA’s post-apartheid heritage needs. An embrace of the complexity of SA’s past will result in more meaningful productions of heritage in a democratic SA.

Unathi Funde is a Master’s student in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria. She is a Mellon Scholar in the Critical Food Studies Project and her research focuses on the historical placement and masculinization of the braai in South Africa.