David Moseley

Jan Braai fans the flames

2013-10-09 08:45

Last month opinionistas and thought leaders (my favourite term for those that sit on their bums all day) charged into the Heritage Day versus Braai Day debate Blitz-first.

Twitter was burning with comments like, "Do white people really want to do it... Transform Heritage Day to National Braai Day? That's just so wrong."

Or, "Shaka Day becoming Braai Day must be bemoaned. With callousness comes amnesia."

The ANC's former chief whip Mathole Motshekga, quoted on the M&G Online, feels that Heritage Day should allow for more sombre reflection, noting that, "Heritage Day is becoming like Christmas day: we buy clothes, meat and alcohol, then invite friends over for a jolly good time."

At the Daily Maverick Shaka Sisulu wrote, "At best, it's a naive attempt to unite us all. Assuming that we all like meat, or can afford it, and wish to call it a braai... Perhaps Braai Day is no more than a commercial ploy to get us buying and eating more meat - the licence for a consumerist orgy that will leave everyone, especially supermarket owners, glowing."

Ocean advocate and environmentalist Lewis Pugh, while quite rightly suggesting that national parks should open their doors to all on Heritage Day, lost the plot somewhat when the topic turned to Braai Day: "Heritage Day was hijacked. In the media (social and otherwise) it was taken over by Jan Braai. It was branded by the big retailers, the beer brewers, the wood merchants."
 
And Chester Missing, the strangely influential puppet, raged, "Woolworths, etc, must totally and utterly reject this k*k. If your heritage involved slavery, then at least have the modesty not to rebrand everyone's culture with your own word for burning meat."

Chester, of course, forgets that Shaka, the man who was originally celebrated on 24 September, was prone to the odd bout of forceful conquest and, while perhaps no slaver, was certainly no angel.
 
The effort put into Braai Day

Notably absent from the Braai Day mudslinging was any comment from the day's originator Jan Scannell, otherwise known as Jan Braai. During a casual dinner conversation he admitted that the criticism hurt, and that it forced him to think long and hard about the effort he'd put into the day.

Now I must admit that I know Scannell. Not well. We're not friends. Just acquaintances. We did a cycle race together last year and that's it. But I felt for him on Heritage Day because I believe him to be sincere in his efforts to unite the nation. I believe in his philosophy behind Braai Day and his genuine concern for all South Africans.

Anyone who has stumbled across his travel and cookery show on KykNet will know that this is not a man prone to bombast and theatrics. His mellow delivery is worlds away from Jamie Oliver's hyperactive camera mugging or Nigella Lawson's finger-licking faux sauciness. What you see of Scannell on TV is what you get, understated authenticity.

It's with this in mind that critics should look at his Braai Day vision. All Scannell wants is for South Africans to put aside their differences for one day and share in something that all people can do. That is, light a fire and enjoy each other's company. He's not trying to steal your heritage from under your bed, or make light of the struggle or erase South Africa’s past. He's not telling you to forget your roots or where you came from.

For Scannell, Heritage Day is about celebrating South Africa and South Africaness. "The Braai Day concept really is about trying to unite the nation," says Scannell. "I thought it was pretty obvious that we could do with something like that right now."

Critics have said that Scannell is hijacking Heritage Day and degrading the memory of national forefathers and struggle heroes. "There is no forceful takeover of anything. This line of argument, per definition, is wrong," says Scannell. "On the contrary, it's enhancing the day to its true potential in helping groups of friends and families to actually get together. Gather your family, light a fire, sit around the fire and discuss all those matters of greater and lesser consequence. How is this possibly out of line with the true intentions of the day?"

Braai Day degrading?

Others say Braai Day is degrading to our nation. "Heritage Day only started in 1995. I don't think anyone really believes government will change the name to National Braai Day. This is a nickname of affection. The point is surely not what we call a day but whether we are actively celebrating South African heritage."

Scannell tells me that most scientists agree that the controlled use of fire and cooking meat on a fire originated in Africa. Some of the oldest signs of this has been dug up and excavated in South Africa at Maropeng, the Cradle of Humankind. "This was a pivotal point in human development," he notes. "To say that braaiing is a Western or European concept is a massive compliment to them, but it's wrong. Making fires and cooking food on the open flame is very South African, one of the oldest parts of our heritage."

Supermarkets did not cunningly dream up Braai Day and no one is forcing anyone to buy boerewors or any other braai products on the day. "I'm the one who has actively approached the supermarket groups over the last seven years and asked all of them to jump on the bandwagon. I am delighted by the way in which they embrace the concept.

"Ideally, I'd like to see them all distributing food so that all 50 million people in South African can braai and eat on the day. We always have to hear how bad public holidays are for the economy. Here we have a public holiday that unites the nation in celebrating being South African, and various sectors of the economy get a massive boost. This is fantastic."

Since his concept began, Scannell has been targeted with the same arguments. "The criticism hasn't evolved and the argument hasn't developed. Every year it's the same thing. What are the critics' actual problems? This is what I'd still like to understand. Surely there can be no harm in millions of South Africans actively celebrating being South African instead of treating it with apathy, like any other public holiday."

Scannell maintains that the idea behind the day is not about the physical act of grilling a chop. He reiterates that he wants to unite the nation, noting that fire is something that people have always been drawn to. "People naturally gravitate towards the flame. You don't go stand in a dark corner," argues Scannell. "There is light, heat, protection and food around a fire."

"Braaiing is not chops and wors on a grid, with a potato salad on the side. Braaiing is anything where there is a fire lit and food being cooked on or in it," he adds. "People try to give a braai some narrow meaning. But my definition of braaiing is simply not that narrow.

"Look at Thokoza Park in Soweto on a Saturday and Sunday or look at the sidewalks of the main road running trough Nongoma (where King Goodwill Zwelithini's palace sits). It's full of people braaiing. A mielie in its husk being cooked in the coals under a tree next to the road in rural Eastern Cape, that is braaiing."

One common trait

Scannell wants all South Africans to be proud of their country. His grand idea is for a nation that can hold at least one common trait close to their hearts. South Africa is a country of many races, tribes, beliefs and origins, so defining a singular national heritage that we can all celebrate is virtually impossible. The braai, and the act of celebrating together around a fire, is Scannell's attempt to get people of all types together.

"You're braaiing on Braai Day because you love this current South Africa, and you want this South Africa to succeed and be awesome.
 
"If you celebrate Braai Day instead of the act of just braaiing you're feeling inclusive of the nation. You're celebrating being south African. It is our heritage. It's not our only heritage, nor is it our most important heritage, but it is our common heritage.

"Braai Day actively calls on you to celebrate your heritage. There's nothing in there that says don't celebrate whatever else you define as being your heritage on Heritage Day. It gives millions and millions of South Africans the opportunity to get involved in celebrating the day. Isn't it better to be doing something, anything, rather than being apathetic towards the day?"

As a final thought, Scannell muses on the dietary habits of the great Shaka. "I'm pretty sure he didn't eat takeaways or cook his meat in a microwave. In fact, I'm almost certain he ate meat cooked on an open flame."

- Follow @david_moseley on Twitter.

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