Of Heroes and Gyros … which do South Africans love more?
Identifying the essence of the nation has become a hobbyhorse for South Africans.
Like the constant chatter about race and social position, questions such as “who are we?” and “where did we come from?” are everyday fodder.
I half expect that when South Africans take an order at KFC, the ubiquitous fast food chain here, they request the number one with a side of existential void.
Having recently spent the past couple of weeks here, primarily in what is widely considered the poorest province (the Eastern Cape), this is no more apparent than during National Heritage Day.
(Recently) while most citizens of the Rainbow Nation were fast asleep, I mounted my trusted bakkie (South African for pickup) and hit the road on a research expedition.
What I encountered along the way, or at least mostly through the radio, was a revelation that the most serious fights for South African identity are in their early days.
The national radio broadcaster devoted two hours to questions surrounding the need for the observance of heritage and the merits of a national day devoted to the braai.
A braai is at its simplest a South African gathering around roasted meat (thus the “gyro” in the title), when beer is usually passed around in a fraternity that transcends racial barriers. Braaing is a connective ritual that ties together the nation to a far greater degree than the evocation of the national anthem or brandishing of the flag.
I am rather pitiless when it comes to celebrating braaing, as barbecuing animal flesh, and occasionally soy patties, is a by-product of most holidays in the US. At least when it’s warm outside.
But there it was, a discussion about the merits of recognising heritage.
The hosts and guests went back and forth about the merits of this most ephemeral of concepts.
They mentioned how dehumanising it is for Africans (that is, black Africans) not to have their names pronounced properly, or their languages recognised in any meaningful way.
One guest spent several minutes espousing heavily-debunked Afrocentric theories of history to a fawning interviewer.
Several guests, most of who were black, decried what they saw as the unfortunate nature of National Braai Day.
“It does a disservice to our culture, to our history,” one of many historiographers (unattributed as such).
“Why is it so important for South Africans to recognise their heritage and come together?” the host, Khanyi Magubane, voiced without a hint of irony or recognition of the axiom. It would be foolish for me, as a white American male, part of one of the most privileged demographics in the world, to dispute that heritage broadly writ is important.
Five generations removed from any firm cultural identity of my “old country”, heritage is largely an exercise in imagined community for me – that space that Benedict Anderson so articulately stated was “imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign”.
It would be unconscionable moreover for my white American male self to overlook the context so many black South Africans have lived with for years, including during the dark chapter of apartheid.
Back then language and traditional jurisprudence were stifled.
But damage, that is both to my ear canals and to South African society, is incurred with subliminal messaging of this kind.
“Let’s recognise heritage” is at its core “let’s recognise our pride as black Africans”.
As I ruminated on this thought, I traversed the Fish River, or rather drove across a bridge.
There, an early morning baptism was being undertaken – several Xhosa women in elaborate dress and face paint doused each other in the turbid waters, somewhat obscured by a thicket of thorny acacia.
The timing was too coincidental, but far be it from me to interrupt. Especially not to capture a needling photograph; I am not that insensitive.
Heritage and other segments of society
The radio preaching continued.
Fascinating as it was, the opaqueness of the message became maddening. It was not unlike a politician staying on message, and yet the message had become so ambiguous that heritage would be best left to a postmodernist philosopher to revel in (notice how I didn’t say solve).
“South Africans”, which at this point had become a referent for black South Africans, should feel a need to preserve their language and recogniSe cultural activities, including the role of traditional leadership.
What space does that then leave for the other segments of society, namely the coloured, Indian, and (gulp) even white elements?
These were hardly addressed.
In truth, whites have had their heyday. Both their heritage (think Afrikaans in South African schooling) and political status had been unduly exerted upon the majority black population for several decades.
The coloured identity is as difficult for outsiders to unravel as the caste system in India.
South African Indians themselves are almost never mentioned in this discourse.
Not more than an hour into this radio segment I was overtaken by a much larger bakkie. It almost sent me off a cliff as I closed in on East London, but also offered me the chance to stare into the heavens and in the span of ten minutes read not one, but two billboard ads for Heritage Month.
“Home of Heroes”, the Eastern Cape provincial government noted, with pictures of struggle icons like Mandela and Walter Sisulu.
Indeed they were – are – but the need for messaging on racial harmony and togetherness blends not with the stated purpose of redressing past wrongs.
It’s a poor man’s effort at marketing a product that is so multi-dimensional and deeply entrenched in the South African psyche, it’s actually insulting to its (poorly) stated cause.
Calls toward the end of the second hour were acerbic.
Many were coloured gentlemen who supported National Braai Day, not so much because it was disrespectful to the aims of Heritage Day but because the coloured population actually found it to be a day for celebration and togetherness.
This is, indirectly, one of the objectives of Heritage Day we are told.
The defiant guest, a supposed scholar of Afrocentric thought, did a poor job of countering these calls.
“The coloured people are black. They are a little bit mixed of many parts. They, too, have heritage,” he dismissed with the kind of pompous irritation that marks many an aged academic.
At this point, when these discussions more or less seemed to be on hiatus for the five minute news update, I parked and ambled into a grocery store off the coastal highway.
It was buzzing – with whites, vacationers all, given that Heritage Day is paid national holiday.
Most of the burly Afrikaaners and well dressed “English” (as English-speaking South Africans are oft referred to here) were dressed and equipped for something like a celebration of the Great Trek or tea with Her Majesty the Queen.
In other words, they were dressed in heritage regalia.
The cashiers – all black – were decked in elaborate outfits, including traditional Xhosa face paint. The contrast was stark.
“You look great,” I gushed. “This is my culture,” my particular matron replied.
The whites were clearly purchasing large amounts of animal flesh for National Braai Day. Or breakfast.
A row of older black women stood outside the shop, staring and chattering at the passing parade of fancy cars and motorcycles.
The petrol station manager came out and spoke to them in English, a language they were clearly less fluent in.
If nothing else from this blasted holiday, they probably thought, at the very least we can get some language sensitivity.
Perhaps they just thought it absurd how capricious the abamlungu are with their spending, their silly outfits, and sillier toys.
The subtext of heritage
Heritage has become a surrogate for the black majority in the country to attempt an earnest conversation with a historically privileged minority (whites) and underprivileged minorities (coloureds, Indians, and other Asians) that reaffirms the value and merit of black Africanness.
It’s a worthwhile aim, given the injustices of apartheid, but it comes off as being ambiguous and ham-handed in practice. It’s as if the idea is that if policymakers could open a cricket match with Zulu stick fighters, unbeknownst to the ticketholders, and yet never refer to it as either stick fighting or cricket by name, all would be harmonious.
Multiculturalism has received a bad rap in the United States.
The right wing used to deride it almost constantly as a sign of moral decay in the country; a dilution of the American assimilationist conceit.
It has received a more positive measure of support in South Africa, but the balancing act is rather difficult because assimilation and unity (even the much lauded African concept of ubuntu) have only recently been experimented with.
A project that is hell-bent on sensitizing whitey to the majesty of Xhosa praise singing, or the eloquence of Sol Plaatjie, may or may not work.
It becomes quite meaningless when disguised as Christmas in September, or whatever national holiday we forget the meaning of almost as soon as we utter its name.
Previously disadvantaged groups must have their stories told, their histories heard. South Africa is a nation of separate lives and separate peoples.
No slick marketing campaign or subliminal messaging will work in this context. It comes off as tacky. Stuck at a traffic signal, or “robot” as they are known here, en route to a village in the Old Transkei, I veered at a sign attached to an electricity pole.
“Vote for your heritage hero, as a means to consolidate our transformation.”
Yes, if only harmony and national identity was as effortless as a text message. If Twitter can ignite revolutions, can’t SMS bring about unification? – Pambazuka News