Chop or change? Braai Day satisfies an appetite for denial
Heritage Day was a time to reflect on our history - or you could simply stuff meat into your face
So, which one was it? Heritage or braai? Did you reflect on the series of accidents – noble, sordid and banal – that resulted in your extremely coincidental birth, or did you chew on a chop?
Given the constraints of continental drift, you wouldn’t think that people could be both Balkanised and polarised. Yet somehow Heritage Day and its opportunistic little remora, Braai Day, manage to do both.
The schism is complicated but essentially seems to boil down to one’s appetite to reflect on history, or at least those stories, inherited from loved or respected storytellers, that have been enshrined as history. Some South Africans want to do it. Others don’t. For the former, Heritage Day is a perfect opportunity. For the latter, there are chops.
I understand the objections to Braai Day. I share some of them myself. I’m not suggesting that everyone who does Braai Day is in denial, but if I didn’t want to discuss certain basic historical realities, stuffing my mouth full of meat would be an excellent start.
I disagree, however, with those who insist that Braai Day is an inappropriate way to mark our South African-ness.
For starters, consider how Jan Scannell, aka Jan Braai, has taken the subtle complexities of the politics, history and psychology of the day and literally incinerated them for profit in a cloud of meat-scented, a-historical smoke. You don’t have to like it but let’s be honest: the decision to unilaterally staple Braai Day onto a fragile agreement to respect each other is as South African as sunny skies, historical revisionism and corporate exploitation.
Then there’s the braai itself, an almost perfect metaphor for large swathes of SA life.
First up, men and women are segregated: men stay outside in the sun in order to do the very important work of preparing one-fifth of the meal while women disappear inside to do the much less important task of preparing the other four-fifths while making sure the children are fed.
People with fantastically undemanding jobs are given impressive titles. For example, if you are able to stand upright for an hour and move your wrist every so often, you can be a “braai master”. Or a member of parliament.
Some people peer at Facebook now and then. Some skim through magazines. Nobody reads a book. Bringing a book to braai is as preposterous as Sadtu allowing an inspector into a school.
Talk around the fire is boisterous, joyfully uninformed, and consists almost entirely of predictions and pronouncements. This talk is billed as conversation, but in fact it is a series of small sermons. (Columnists are especially insufferable in this regard ... )
Soon, however, the talk circles towards one inevitable conversational drain: whether the braai master is doing his job properly. Everybody has a very strong opinion on how the meat should be cooked – there are real worries that the chicken is going to be raw, which might lead to stomach upsets or emigration – but nobody volunteers to do the cooking themselves, because it’s tedious and you have to read the Constitution, which, although a very short book, is still a book.
I’m being facetious, of course. Being able to stand upright is not condition of employment for MPs, mostly because that would require a spine. But I do think that Braai Day isn’t the worst representation of a day that, by its very nature, requires us to mould it into our personal and entirely subjective experience of being South African.
Still, I’ll understand if you reject Braai Day as a nasty little piece of corporate gaslighting and stick to the original name and ideals of September 24. And why wouldn’t you, when Heritage Day sums us up even better than Braai Day?
On this day, we believe that there are easy solutions to the Gordian knot of shared but contested history. We argue with each other over ideas cooked up by politicians. We celebrate our local heritage, lauding our local customs, before thanking a Middle-Eastern god and settling down to inject American culture straight into our eyeballs.
But on this day we also reveal something else that binds us together as South Africans: a touching, often inspiring ability to present an ideal version of ourselves.
On this day, we tell ourselves that we stand at the end of a long line of people who ultimately did the best they could and that therefore we, despite our failings, are the product of all that benevolence and hard work and hope. On this day, we don’t consider our births an accident. Instead, we trace a golden thread back through history, making sense of it all; making sense of ourselves.
Perhaps it’s a fantasy. But as fantasies go, it’s a lovely one. And at least you don’t have to get smoke in your eyes.