There are a number of things a city slicker can learn at a potjiekos competition smack in the middle of the small Karoo – that ‘Suurings’ (those little yellow flowers with the sour stems we used to eat as kids) go very nicely in a waterblommetjie bredie; that creamy, cheesy, bacon pasta is outrageously good done over the coals, and Oupa Bekker, whom Herman Charles Bosman immortalized in his famous short stories, is alive and well and living somewhere near Montagu. Not only Oupa Bekker, but Gysbert van Tonder, At Naude and a whole host of beloved Groot Marico farmers showed up at the Makiti Montagu Heritage Potjiekos competition and put away scary amounts of Klippies and coke while they sat in the sun, stoked their fires and made pots of succulent springbok (shot by themselves, naturally) cooked with locally dried peaches; chicken and smoked pork, and seafood stew packed with perlemoen to be eaten with bread baked on the coals. There’s not a lot you can tell these men about cooking meat over a fire.
This was the first year the town of Montagu hosted the event, and I don’t remember when last I had so much fun. For R50 you got a very nice (read: large) wine glass, a packet of olives and entry into the tasting tent where wine makers and their reps were only too happy to fill your glass three times with your tipple of choice (mine was the caramel-liest Chenin Blanc I’ve ever tasted) while you swanned around the food tables helping yourself to hunks of ciabatta dunked in olive oil and dukkah, chilli and mint haloumi fresh off the grill, and olives flavoured, chopped and prepared every way you can imagine. While a lady from Brackenfell with very red hair sang eighties covers, we wandered around the marquees, wine bottles in hand, offering cooking tips to the beefy, good-natured farmer-chefs who have no doubt been preparing kudu and making potjie since before we were born.
What’s more, once the judges had announced the winner (the waterblommetjie bredie with Suurings), we took the liberty of traipsing around with our plates, tasting some of the amazing dishes that were rustled up that afternoon, and in the warmth and friendliness that was evinced between competitors and their families in the heat and dust of a Sunday afternoon somewhere in the semi-dessert I felt some sort of pang of something; a nostalgia and a sadness around what was and what will never be. You take one look at these oversized men with their enormous limbs and sunburnt faces from years of outdoor toil and you know that they are what they are. Alone on their vast tracts of land under a huge blue sky, our not-so-new South Africa has little bearing on their lives. Whether I agree with their views or not, I understand how they think. Like the real Oupa Bekker, they are relics of another time and place.
And for better or for worse, this afternoon of potjiekos and boeremusiek is what Heritage Day means for a lot of people living in South Africa. For others, it means a well-deserved day off work, and a bus ride to a stadium where there will be beer and braaied meat and speeches and songs and vuvuzelas. Muslim families will take their soft drinks and home-made samoosas and pies and daaltjies to the Green Point park where they will rest and chat and absorb the sun while their children climb on the jungle-gyms and run across the grassy expanses. We, white liberal(ish) intellectuals will gather on a deck in a trendy part of town and enjoy good wine and fancy salads and expensive cuts of meat. And that’s how this country is. In my hugely sentimental and highly unlikely fantasy version of South Africa, where there was no segregation – legislated or otherwise – we South Africans would be a bunch of brown people who spoke a combined Xhosa-Afrikaans-English dialect and shared a unique, hybridized culture which consisted of elements of all of us, and race would be irrelevant and assets shared.
Instead, we have our ‘pockets’ and our clans and our ways, and there is about as much chance of the vuvuzela folk showing up to make a skaapboud potjie as there is of the Karoo farmers heading to a stadium to dance and toyi toyi and sing. And I don’t imagine this will be changing anytime soon. Which is why most of us distance ourselves from the word ‘Heritage’ and any notion of oneness that this might connote and re-name it National Braai Day, as some folks suggested we do a few years back. Because in spite of centuries of living separately and having no national culture to speak of, what we can agree on in no uncertain terms is that we South Africans are partial to meat cooked outdoors over the coals. And maybe, for now, that will have to do.