South Africans participate in a Heritage Day carnival in the city of Pretoria. James Oatway/Reuters

How ‘Heritage day’ was first known as ‘Shaka Day’ before 1996.

In  KwaZulu-Natal, 24 September was known as Shaka Day, in commemoration of the Zulu King, Shaka, on the presumed date of his death in 1828. Shaka was the Zulu King who played an important role in uniting disparate Zulu clans into a cohesive nation. Each year people gather at King Shaka’s grave to honour him on this day. The Public Holidays Bill presented to the new democratic Parliament of South Africa in 1995 did not have 24 September included on the list of proposed public holidays. As a result of this exclusion, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), a South African political party with a large Zulu membership, objected to the bill. Parliament and the IFP reached a compromise and the day was given its present title and seen as a public holiday.

Zulu Monarch, His Majesty King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, KwaDukuza Mayor Ricardo Mthembu and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi during the annual King Shaka Commemoration Day held on Saturday in KwaDukuza – 2013

King Shaka’s death

Shaka kaSenzangakhona, Zulu king and founder of the Zulu empire, was murdered by his two half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana at kwaDukuza in 1828—one date given is September 24. Dingane assumed the throne after the assassination.


Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini ( C ) leads hundreds of traditionally clad Zulus at the launch of ” Zulu 200 “,a countdown programme towards 2016 when the Zulu Nation will celebrate 200 years since it’s formation by Zulu King Shaka, Saturday, 29 September 2012. The celebrations held at Durban’s King Shaka International Airport attracted hundreds of people dressed in traditional regalia and formed part of Heritage Month. Picture: SAPA stringer

Heritage Day is a South African public holiday celebrated on 24 September, one of the newly created South African public holidays. It is a day in which all are encouraged to celebrate their cultural traditions in the wider context of the great diversity of cultures, beliefs, and traditions that make up the nation of South Africa. The question of National or Cultural heritage is, however, not without its complications. 

In a country of eleven different official languages and a turbulent recent political past, one is obliged to ask, for instance, whose heritage it is that South Africans are being called to celebrate. Another point of contention is that in a former settler colony such as South Africa, one person’s heritage is another person’s trauma

In an address marking Heritage Day in 1996, former President Nelson Mandela stated:

“When our first democratically-elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation.”

As alluded to above, the ostensibly simple notion of a day for South Africans to celebrate their shared heritage quickly became complicated when people began to think about what that heritage was. Clearly the cultural roots of a Nama farmer are quite different from the cultural roots of a descendent of Lithuanian Jews – and yet each has equally the same right to call themselves “South African.” In the wake of decades of segregation, state-sanctioned racism, and unbridled violence, the logic behind celebrating a unifying national heritage was simple; the way to actually go about celebrating it, however, was not.  

South Africans participate in a Heritage Day carnival in the city of Pretoria. James Oatway/Reuters

Eventually, in the vein of celebrating shared culture rather than focusing on cultural divisions, it was an initiative by Jan Scannell (otherwise known as ‘Jan Braai’), Braai4Heritage, that called upon all South Africans to celebrate their common roots by having a braai (barbeque) on Heritage day. The idea has had some high profile supporters, the most notable being Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who in 2007 was made the National Spokesperson for “Braai Day.”

After snubbing the idea in 2007 as trivializing, the National Heritage Council endorsed it in 2008. Tutu was quoted as saying in an interview: “We’re going to have this wonderful thing on the 24th of this month… when we all gather round one fire…It’s a fantastic thing, a very simple idea. Irrespective of your politics, of your culture, of your race, of your whatever, hierdie ding doen ons saam [‘we do this thing together’]… just South Africans doing one thing together, and recognizing that we are a fantastic nation.”

Regardless of the debates and issues bundled up in the celebration of South African heritage with a braai, it is safe to assume that most working South Africans are at least grateful for a day off work.

Sources:
– Heritage day, Braai Day or Shaka Day: Whose Heritage is it Anyway?: SAHistory Online
– The Assassination of Shaka Zulu (September 24, 1828): ThoughtCo.
– Heritage Day (South Africa): Wikipedia

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