Heritage Day: Reflecting on What Matters

I have been told that I am overreacting when I express criticism of how we celebrate Heritage Day (September 24th in South Africa). I truly love the concept of Heritage Day. Knowing how the currents of history have influenced the space in which we find ourselves provides invaluable insight into who we are, both as individuals and as a nation. It is not the concept I have a problem with. It is the way we celebrate it.


The day is often referred to as ‘braai day’ (barbecue, if you are not South African), and common practice is to dress up in clothes that reflect your heritage. Now there is something wonderfully communal and unifying about the braai, and traditional outfits reflect something important about culture, so I do not object to them per se. But I remain concerned that by celebrating only in these ways, we have reduced entire cultures to costumes and what it means to be South African to a spicy sausage. If what you wear or eat reflects something meaningful about who you are, I fully endorse it. But if you are merely playing dress-up and presenting a stereotype of yourself and your people, I have to question the validity of the exercise.

So what should we be doing? I think the very name ‘Heritage Day’ requires us to reflect on where we have come from, how our past has shaped us and how we want to forge our identities going forward.

We avoid introspection for a number of reasons. First, self-reflection is an intrinsically uncomfortable process. Heritage is always tainted by heartache and suffering. That is the nature of life. Either we refuse to acknowledge that our foreparents were instrumental in causing great suffering and we are beneficiaries of fruits harvested in blood, or we struggle to see that although our pasts have been moulded by injustice, the future is still ours to claim. Being helpless victims of history is easier than being active participants in creating it. Maybe we are afraid that if we look too deeply at the thing, we will feel compelled to actually do something. And suddenly that sausage is looking decidedly more appealing.

Second, I think South Africans have only begun to master the art of self-reflection. Various political parties over the years have trained us – sometimes deliberately and sometimes not – to be reliant on them, and not to think for ourselves. After all, what government actually wants a people who think critically? People or groups in positions of power seldom try to make themselves obsolete. A good example would be the public response to the Limpopo textbook crisis in 2012, where teaching in schools effectively stopped because the government-issued textbooks failed to arrive. I was horrified by how willing people were to (justly) blame the government for not delivering textbooks and completely disregard the greater concern: the fact that not a single member of school management decided to be proactive, or even to acknowledge that meaningful teaching and learning can happen despite the lack of textbooks. Many South Africans struggle to engage in reflection on their circumstances that moves beyond trying to ascertain who to blame for them.

So where does that leave me?  I am a white South African, who has inherited a position of influence and power, facilitated by my whiteness. The question remains: how do I leverage that for the good of my country? Learning an African language is high up on my agenda and I am making slow progress. Working my way into having a voice that is influential in driving social change through education is also a priority. More than being white, I am Christian. Like my whiteness, that is a heritage that has caused a great deal of suffering, not only in Africa, but the world over. The question for me is this: how do I live a life of love that demonstrates the reality of God’s grace? How do I handle the question of hypocrisy, which is the insurmountable barrier to faith for so many?

I love the idea of Heritage Day. I want to leave my son with a heritage that he can be proud to reflect on, but I also want to leave him with the understanding that heritage is more than a retrospective navel-gazing exercise. It needs to be powerfully proactive. History’s tides can be influenced by people who are willing to engage in the prickly art of self-reflection. I wish everybody could find the courage to respond in a meaningful way to Heritage Day. Their lives would be so much richer and entire communities would improve. But if that is too much to ask, I suppose that there are worse things than celebrating it with a couple of beers and a lamb chop.

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