Simon Williamson

My own Braai Day

2013-09-20 07:44

Simon Williamson

A few years ago I was on holiday in Sweden around Christmas time. While on a tour which involved showing us how the sea had frozen but our boat could smash it up - of course I had flashbacks to Leonardo DiCaprio's ice moustache in Titanic - our guide started singing some Swedish Christmas folks songs, and virtually everyone on the boat joined in.

While Sweden may have produced Abba and Ace of Base, your average Swede sings as if their tails were collectively trodden on. And as children scattered energetically in some sort of co-ordinated jig around the boat, the cacophony of singing - I use the term in its loosest sense - was a reminder to me that I haven’t really had much equivalent experience.

As a white English speaking South Africa who grew up in Durban and the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, I didn’t experience all that much "culture" per se, outside the generally shared historical exploitation of other people and expropriation without compensation of their land.

Of course, it wasn’t me directly, but the fact that I grew up with the constant aroma of roasting red meat in the garden was in no small chance because my ancestors decided Durban was a superior place to live than Croydon, as they expanded the empire from which they now select cricket players.

Not much culture to cling to

I'm not sure how long British culture remained strong in the English-speaking parts of the country, but I didn't hear God Save The Queens until my first Pride rally, and I thought a Yorkshire pudding was actually pudding until I went to the UK for the first time, whereupon I discovered it is something designed to hold gravy.
A white English speaking South African my age - 29 and a whole - doesn’t really have all that much culture to cling to outside the South African past time of braaing, unless he or she really chooses the whole royal family, roast beef, indentured workers, concentration camps, room-temperature beer thing to look fondly back on.
Which is why some of us South Africans do braai on Heritage Day, and call it Braai Day (although for the record there are plenty of people who do braai on Heritage/Braai day and celebrate their immense heritage to a demonstrable degree). In fact, as Business Day columnist Sipho Hlongwane reminds us, it's the rest of us that stole Shaka Day and renamed it so we could all take off work. Who is renaming whose stuff now?
This is not to say that anyone should or shouldn’t take Heritage Day more or less seriously than they wish. But leave me alone with my flames.
Quite frankly, outside the Proteas World Cup knockout record and Sugarman, there’s been very little as consistent in some of our lives as meat cooked on open flame. This is not to reduce Heritage Day for everyone, but is a personal decision to merely admit some of us don’t have all that much that we care about, and we’re really paying tribute to the things we like about our own "culture" by doing it. Granted, over the course of a year this day’s activity may not stand out alongside all the other braais, but that doesn’t mean the appreciation of it is non-existent.

Celebrate your heritage

So go and celebrate your own heritage, however you like. Mine will be appreciated through my own cultural norms - eating meat and whining about potholes - as I don’t really appreciate a fair part of what my forefathers and foremothers did (in spite of the glorious gift of European rail!), nor do I have any leftover songs, dances or all that many traditions from them I feel particularly passionate about, outside football and complaining.
That little pang of jealousy I felt when I saw the Swedes rocking the boat? It was sated when I realised I grew up (culturally!) being able to go outside most days of the year.

- Simon Williamson is based in Atlanta in the USA, where it remains warm enough throughout the year to braai as often as he wants, even though the Americans don’t know what the word means. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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