How heritage got roasted

Posted on September 28, 2014


September 24 was a public holiday in South Africa: Heritage Day. And carnivore commercialism seemed largely to have claimed it.  For many — if not most — South Africans who could afford it, this was a day to indulge in and enjoy shisa nyama, the ubiquitous braai.

In fact, Heritage Day has now been redubbed National Braai Day, with calls to “unite around fires, share our heritage and wave our flag on 24 September every year”. The implication being that South Africa’s heritage comprises wors (sausage), pap (stiff porridge) and chops with a can or two of some well known lager in an atmosphere of nationalistic fervour.

This seems to be encouraged by the fact that politicians, several pundits and the labour movement provided us her, yet again, with that vague admonition to “celebrate unity in diversity” along with that rather shopworn concept of the “rainbow nation”. Publicity for the day also seemed to comprise a mixture of contradictions and commercialism with more than a dash of convenient amnesia along with a pinch or two of hypocrisy.

There was even a local newspaper that proclaimed for Heritage Day: “The rainbow nation becomes the boerewors nation.” This is pure commercialism dressed up as an exercise in patriotism. For me it brought to mind that famous quote: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”.

However, a day off work — for those lucky enough to have a job — is always cause for celebration. And, the weather being fine, also cause for many to haul out the charcoal, the mielies (corn) and the meat.

In fact, that is what many people in other parts of the world, notably in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States, also do. So this being a hardly unique experience, perhaps we should wave the flags of those countries as well.

Basically, heritage should not be dumbed down to grilled meat, fish and veg and to the insistence that while we are different, we are all equal. Quite simply, the word means everything that we have inherited from the past: our languages, food, built and natural environment and the various things that go to make up what we refer to as culture.

Heritage is our present, and this we should know in detail in order to plan, in any serious way, for the future. But we can only do this if we understand the past and the fact that nothing is static, that everything is always undergoing a process of change.

For the sellers of labour, heritage means primarily the social, economic and work environment in which we exist. And this was highlighted for South Africa for this Heritage Day in a report released by the statistician general.

Entitled “Youth employment, unemployment, skills and economic growth 1994-2014” it revealed a worrying picture of still racially skewed large-scale joblessness and skills deficits. This applied particularly among the so-called “Born Frees”, those young men and women born after 1994.

If ever there was a misnomer, this is it. Because the children born after 1994 were born into families that grew up in the earlier decades where advantages accrued on a racially graded scale. The transition from a racially-biased parliamentary democracy to a non-racist version did not undo the advantages and disadvantages of decades of social engineering and centuries of the racist deprivation embedded in colonialism.

This much has been recognised by most of the trade union movement, but resisted by elements such as the Solidarity union and its “civil rights” offshoot, Afriforum.

But even Cosatu gets caught up in the unity-in-diversity, all-in-the-same-boat mantra. Responding to the statistician-general’s report, the federation bewailed the fact that “our companies are still purely profit-oriented and not concerned about social transformation”.

But our economic heritage is a competitive, individualistic and profit-driven system. Companies that are not profit-oriented do not survive. And it is also a legal requirement that companies maximise profits for their shareholders.

As the late and, from a labour movement perspective, unlamented economist, Milton Friedman noted, shortly before he died: any company director who prioritises social responsibility — in other words, benefit to the community at large over that of the shareholders — should be sacked on the spot. From a corporate viewpoint, he was correct, especially in the current intensely competitive, dog-eat-dog environment.

So perhaps, when September 24 comes around again, we in South Africa should not be celebrating our diversity as much as questioning why our diverse communities are so grossly unequal.