Today is Heritage Day, a public holiday in South Africa, our multi-racial, multi-cultural and muli-coloured nation. On this day, South Africans are encouraged to celebrate their culture and the diversity of their beliefs and traditions, in the wider context of a nation that belongs to all its people. It’s a day that has its origins in the post-1994 flush of the Rainbow Nation that sought to create unity in diversity.
Today it means different things to different South Africans, from dressing in traditional finery to firing up a braai (aka barbeque). Its timing coincides with the start of spring and now that some of the covid-related restrictions have been lifted, and it begins a long weekend, it’s a real feel-good holiday, even if you just stay at home.
It is also known as a National Braai Day in commemoration of the culinary tradition of informal backyard barbecues, known as braais. In September 2007, Archbishop Desmond Tutu celebrated his appointment as patron of South Africa’s Braai Day, affirming it to be a unifying force in a divided country by donning an apron and enthusiastically eating a boerewors roll. (Boerewors is a sausage, popular across Southern Africa made from coarsely minced beef and spices). Here’s the great man busy with the braai.
Desmond Tutu at the braai
Many elements and influences characterise my adopted country and when I decided to write a novel set in South Africa, almost 10 years after I came here, I began by auditioning some new characters. I placed them in different settings and through them, tested out some different themes.
In the piece below, which I originally posted in 2019, the characters represent (some of) the different groups in our diverse country. The novel I was planning eventually became ‘Song of the Sea Goddess’. If you’ve read the book, or even followed the various excerpts I’ve posted this year, maybe you can guess who the three men eventually became.
‘You must call the San Man,’ she whispers. ‘Only he can bring the rain bull.’
‘You must go to the cave which watches over the veld. Go at dusk, light a fire.’ She reaches into the pouch she has beside her and holds out a handful of grey-green herbs. ‘Burn a little of this, and then watch and wait.’
He raises his eyebrows at his two companions.
The old woman holds up a finger. ‘He may not come the first night,’ she shakes her head slowly. ‘He may not come at all.’ She stares intently at each of them. ‘Now go.’
The three men depart.
‘I guess it’s worth a try,’ says the first. He is a tall, robust white man, dressed in shorts and sandals; the hint of an overseas accent.
‘Another winter with no rain; we must do something,’ agrees the second, a brown-skinned man, whose features echo the ancient people that once inhabited this corner of Africa.
The third man, by far the youngest of the three is silent. He too is brown-skinned, a son of the Rainbow Nation, where a multitude of peoples have planted their seeds.
Later, the three trudge silently up to the koppie where the ancient cave paintings are. The air is hot and parched like the veld. The sky turns liquid orange as the sun is swallowed up by the smudge-blue mountains. They light the fire and sprinkle herbs onto the flames. The three settle down to watch and wait.
Now, as the sun sets, let’s gather round the fire and enjoy some of the sights and sounds of ‘National Braai Day’.