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Explore the true meaning of Heritage day for South Africans with Crossings Travel

Every year when Heritage Day rolls around I’m forced to wonder what on earth it actually means. If you’re not from SA, Heritage Day is a public holiday celebrated on 24 September every year.

Like many of our public holidays, Heritage Day has only been officially celebrated since the late 90’s but was informally celebrated before that by many South Africans. Before it became “Heritage Day” it was “Shaka Day” in remembrance of the great and terrifying Zulu king who united the Zulu nation. Another example of re-branding memorial days is the changing of “Sharpeville Day” into “Human Rights Day” (In 1960 on 21 March, 69 people were killed by police when they opened fire on a group of a few thousand protestors in Sharpeville who marching against the Pass Laws). Then there is “Soweto Day” which became “Youth Day” (On 16 June 1976 police shot and killed more than 170 school kids in Soweto who were protesting the use of Afrikaans as the only medium of instruction in schools).

You may be wondering why would Mandela’s government make these changes to important memorial days which had been vital to the protest history of the ANC (African National Congress) and other anti-Apartheid groups? There were, in fact, many luminaries in the liberation movement who were angered by the name changes but Mandela and others felt that while these days needed to be remembered they needed to also become a shared memory to contribute to building a unified nation.

Since people who had celebrated these memorial days had previously had to do so without official sanction, it was an important affirmation to now be able to take time off work without fear of being dismissed as being political. The name change was not aimed at those who celebrated the specific memorial on that day, but rather at drawing in a wider South African community who previously not have participated but now could share in a previously divisive history.

Sharpeville Day which, while celebrated by most parties in the liberation movement, was seen as ‘belonging’ to the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) for it was mainly their members who organized the campaign and were killed in 1960. Human Rights Day became a way of thanking the PAC for their contribution in SA’s history while at the same time drawing the attention of all South African’s to this day in history for all of us to share – to affirm the value of Human Rights.

Soweto Day similarly was the ANC’s but all South African’s are now invited to remember the contribution that young people made in sacrificing their lives for our freedom. Youth Day doesn’t supplant Soweto Day, it includes it.

December 16 was an official public holiday during Apartheid. It was called Day of the Vow (or Day of the Covenant), an Afrikaner nationalist commemoration of the Battle of Blood River when a band of outnumbered Voortrekkers defeated a massive Zulu army. It remained a public holiday in the new South Africa but was rebranded Day of Reconciliation.  Despite the Afrikaners being viewed as central to the oppressive Apartheid state, their public holiday would remain just as the Afrikaner remains Рnot as the tribe but as one of many tribes.

All of this speaks to what heritage means, but the story of Heritage Day itself is the most pointed of all these stories.

When the newly elected parliament was sorting out public holidays in the middle 90’s, 24 September hadn’t been proposed in the first draft list, which made the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) very cross. The IFP is a conservative Zulu nationalist party which, back in the day, was deeply complicit with the Apartheid Regime, lending legitimacy to the policy of “separate but equal” and participating in terrible atrocities against the liberation movements. I witnessed first hand their betrayal and its consequences when I was a youngster in Natal. The IFP has never fully come clean about their Apartheid era activities and co-operation with state-sponsored violence. In the end, they were given ‘their’ day too, but the day was rebranded “Heritage Day” and I like to think it was a way of subtly asking the IFP to consider its dubious past, to think about its heritage, even as all South African’s are invited to share in our diverse and colorful shared Heritage.

So that’s how come we have this holiday, but don’t ask me what we’re supposed to do on this day! I think we all struggle with this. And it doesn’t help that there is plenty of ammunition for cynicism:

The office party on a Friday before, everyone in cos-play; dressed up in kilts, animal skins, and what-have-you, parading a mostly fictionalized pot-pouri of fossilized cultural artifacts hoping the drinks get brought out early.

The white parents who visit their domestic worker’s shack so their adopted kid doesn’t “forget where he comes from”.

The culture watch-dog groups expressing concern about the erosion of society’s moral fabric and calling for a return to ‘traditional values’ which are invariably their own group’s version of selectively resurrected history.

And so on…

On the other hand, some noble effort has been made to find expressions of community spirit that are common to all South African cultures. One of these follows in the South African tradition of changing the names of important things by re-branding Heritage Day as “National Braai Day”. Pretty much every culture in SA has a long history of burning animals for grub and consuming large quantities of alcohol under the blazing sun in front of a fire. I’m encouraged by the fact that despite their best efforts, the business community has been unable to entirely usurp this idea for commercial purposes – or at least not yet.

So I’m being a bit cynical about heritage Day, but you’ll find me next Monday turning a few worsies (little sausages) on the coals and drinking a lager. And since heritage in its best sense is all about storytelling and connection, I love the opportunity a braai affords me to listen to the stories of the people I love and the strangers who get invited into our homes along the way. Tall tales, true tales, long tales and short tales, it doesn’t matter. Heritage is about listening to one another – I can drink to that.