28 September 2017

Interrogating the meaning of Heritage Day

Heritage Day offers an opportunity for reflection both in the way which we remember and commemorate the past but also in the way we choose to activate and cultivate historical memory.

Originally excluded from the list of public holidays presented to parliament in 1995, the 24th of September would come to be celebrated as Heritage Day. While Heritage Day was established through the Public Holidays Bill presented to the South African Parliament, the day was formerly celebrated as Shaka day in KwaZulu-Natal as a way of commemorating the legendary Zulu leader, Shaka. The idea behind dedicating a day to celebrate our diverse and shared heritage was to unite the ‘rainbow nation' of South Africa in the spirit of reconciliation and the fostering of democracy. In a similar vein, another commercial initiative called Braai4Heritage was launched in 2007 and called on South Africans to start celebrating their commonalities on the 24th of September through the act of having a barbeque (braai). 

Through the years since 2007, Heritage Day has additionally become known as ‘Braai Day' which in itself is problematic given South Africa's tumultuous past and the question if the celebration of a ‘Braai Day is appropriate in a post-apartheid democracy given its negative connotations. Perhaps what we should ask ourselves is what is the cultural significance of Heritage Day or has it lost its meaning already and if so, what could we do to remember and recover both our diverse and shared heritage. In his book, Fighting for Redemption, Mike Norton succinctly described South Africa's current predicament by saying, "When we reject our origins, we become the product of whatever soil that we find ourselves planted; the colours of our leaves change as we consume borrowed nutrients with borrowed roots and, like a tree, we grow." Cognizant of the contestations around the meaning of Heritage Day, it is nevertheless imperative to debate and to interrogate its different meanings as that builds a robust and civically involved society.