Getting beyond the braai

For most South Africans, I suspect, Heritage Day is best summed up by its alternative name, ‘Braai Day’. While I am all for this great unifying institution which crosses the diverse cultures of our country, as opposed to the often polarising rhetoric and the posturing of politicians across our ideological spectrum, I wonder: What, after all, does ‘heritage’ mean?

Surely it should refer to culture –the many cultures that exist in our country, and the mixing of cultural traditions that are embodied as hope and promise in our national motto, anthem and flag. It should also refer to the many histories that are (all too often haphazardly and unevenly) woven into the grand narrative tapestry that should create for us all a common story. Heritage should celebrate the coming together of many identities into a common South Africa identity.

So many ‘shoulds’, so few realised in the last 21 years.

Certainly we have a lot in common – Constitution, Bill of Rights, functioning democracy and the rule of law. But notice how even these things are so often used to defend the interests of sectors and groups and when such interests are not satisfied they get regarded as ‘outside impositions’ to be cast aside. We see this in the rhetoric of political parties, economic, cultural and social interest groups whenever their interests are blocked by these very institutions.

Similarly, note how history has remained a rugby ball kicked around to serve particular interests. As a child I remember how school history text-books were literally ‘whited out’ to serve and defend apartheid ideology. Despite valiant attempts to rectify the lies and evasions of what has been called the political mythology of apartheid, there remains a temptation to gloss over our past. A few years ago, talking to group of very intelligent undergraduate students, I was horrified to discover that none had heard of Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness movement of the 1970s.

Another disturbing strategy is to remove (literally) symbols of our past. Instead of facing the past and acknowledging the terrible moral complexity of figures like Cecil Rhodes, Paul Kruger or Shaka, we prefer to erase them from the picture or mythologise them.

This is unhelpful. Our obsession with current issues of social and economic redress, vital as they are, and with creating a sanitised national myth, fails to see how such erasure can be taken as an attempt to erase cultures and communities to whom these figures remain significant. This does not create a common heritage but stresses division and creates resentment.

For Heritage Day to get beyond the annual braai day, we need real dialogue and the willingness to face the moral complexities of our histories and identities. No matter our backgrounds we need to see Rhodes as both monster and visionary, and Biko as a ‘struggle giant’ and independent voice calling for liberation. We should neither obscure nor remove the complexity of history and identity. Deny complexity and the great idea that is Heritage Day becomes meaningless.   

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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