The phone hissed and popped in my ear. On the other end of the patchy cell tower signal was a frustrated man. Jan Scannell, also known as Jan Braai, the guy who had the splendid idea of bringing South Africans together around a braai. The only problem was he'd decided to do it on Heritage Day, which he promptly albeit informally renamed National Braai Day. And he made it stick with the help of oblivious braai lovers, meat-and-beer-selling corporate sponsors, prominent patrons such as Desmond Tutu, and a truly awful braai day “anthem” performed by Die Heuwels Fantasties, JR, HHP and the Soweto Gospel Choir.
I just wanted to bring South Africans together, Jan said, ruefully. But now I'm thinking of moving it to another day because it's becoming divisive in a way I didn't intend, he added.
Fast forward a few years later and National Braai Day is still on September 24, Heritage Day. I guess Jan changed his mind. And every year since, without fail, South Africans on radio and TV talk shows, social media, in newspaper columns and, yes, even around braais have remained divided.
Struggle against forgetting
I was going to let this year's event in exactly a week's time go by without comment from me. Because what more is there to say that hasn't been said? I was. But lately something's lit a fire under me. Speaking to school kids, particularly black school kids, over the past couple of years and seeing their confusion about the past and present reminded that the struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, as a character in Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting put it.
Kundera wrote this in reference to Soviet-era communism, where power was centralised in the state. But it's an observation for the ages.
In South Africa today, with our racial and gendered history and government-regulated market economy, power is vested in what feminist activist bell hooks describes as the white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. She speaks about it as a single unit because that is how it acts on those under its oppressive cosh—on blacks, the asset-less, women and those with non-conforming sexualities. At times an element may be less prominent, but the three are interlocked and gird the lived realities of us all.
To speak truth to this power, which asserts itself in insidious ways, requires waging a struggle against its attempts to overwrite memory, often with our tacit or silent consent.
What's at stake?
With National Braai Day, Jan Braai appears to have conjured all of the white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy's powers to overrun and overpower the original intentions of commemorating the day. Originally, the day was proposed by the IFP to remember Shaka kaSenzangakhona, but an unfounded fear that granting an official national day to commemorate a Zulu hero might suborn “tribalism” resulted in a consensus compromise. The day would be called Heritage Day, for all South Africans to remember their heroes, histories and cultures.
But Jan, acting in obliviousness to the day's origins, rapped on the doors of supermarket chains, abattoirs and breweries, and convinced them to join his campaign to turn Heritage Day into National Braai Day. Of course sensing the opportunity to use a national day to spur consumerism and their own profitability, like they do on Christmas, Valentine's Day and Easter, these corporations said yes, and dedicated resources to the cause.
They also spent oodles in advertising, marketing and other forms of communication that upheld the idea that braaing is gendered, with the division of labour such that men stand around the fire drinking beer and cooking meat while women make salad and drink 'pink drinks' in the kitchen. Instead of resisting this patriarchal notion that housework such as cooking is for women, braaing as marketed reinforces it by designating making a fire and tanning chops a “man's job” and banishes women to the kitchen.
That, by the way, isn't the heritage of cooking around a fire I and many other black South Africans grew up with. Many of us grew up seeing our mothers, aunts and grandmothers fetch the firewood and kindling with which they made an open fire and cooked. That was gendered, too. But this history and the contribution of these women to the institution of braaing was nonetheless erased from the public imagining by the marketing juggernaut of the white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, which respects neither the histories of black folk nor the contributions of women.
Braai me a river
I felt sorry for Jan that day as we spoke on the phone. His distress over how divisive the day had become sounded genuine. And it sounded, too, like his intentions with it were pure. But you know what they say paves the road to hell. The combination of his disregard, or at best ignorance, of the history of Heritage Day and his entitlement to unilaterally and unquestioningly impose on it have marred what otherwise might have been a half-decent idea.
But my feelings have since turned to antipathy for him and National Braai Day. He has heard the criticism, shrugged and ignored it for no reason other than the fact that it was expedient and beneficial to him to do so. Thanks to his persisting despite the criticism, he now has a TV show on kykNET, has penned two books and is currently on an eight-day nationwide braai tour, sponsored, surprise-surprise, by a beef supplier whose board and management is comprised almost entirely of white men.
This tells me his actions were less about uniting a divided nation around the fire and more about his own individual prosperity. That's fine, too, I guess. But he should not pretend the day is about unity when, in fact, it is the white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy's day of sponsored forgetting.
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