Somebody Help Me, I Have No Heritage

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So, to celebrate National Heritage Day which happens tomorrow whatever date that is because my watch is consistently wrong, our kids get to go to school dressed in clothes which honour their heritage. Lovely in theory, let’s celebrate a thing, less lovely when it’s 7:20am and you have to leave in 3 minutes and everyone is still in their pyjamas having back-to-back panic attacks because nobody knows what the hell our heritage is. Well, we sort of do, but as white South Africans sending our 9-year-old to school dressed as a colonising rapist and plunderer feels a little wrong.

Also, being white South Africans, chances are excellent that a sizable portion of our gene pool is Khoi San and while I’m much prouder of sharing ancestry with indigenous Africans than whatever skollie relatives managed to escape the doldrums of England and Germany and survive the voyage across the Atlantic with vrot teeth and dirty underwear, and I even have a leopard skin in the cupboard (don’t ask and also don’t skel, it’s ancient and inherited) and a knobkierie which would make a nice outfit for one of the girls there’s the thing of the #blackface so that’s not even an option. And as we stood there in growing dismay I was reminded of the strangeness of being a non-African African and I realised that that is why the white people call it National Braai Day – because we don’t know what the hell else to do, but God knows we understand a marinade.

And the thing about us white people, even those like me whose relatives haven’t seen a sniff of Europe in 300 years, we have to be extremely cautious about claiming an African heritage because, as we know, this matter goes much further than what a swab of saliva might reveal. Africanness is about a lived experience, a history and a past that I will never be a part of. Worse, my kind added significantly to the kakness of black lives in South Africa which pretty much precludes me from laying claim to common ground. At the same time, the first time I put foot on British soil, late into my twenties, while the place was vaguely familiar by virtue of Kathy and Mark books from Sub A and Fawlty Towers, it was still deeply foreign and I felt no sense of belonging at all. They talk funny and still have vrot teeth.

And while I am pale and blonde and look Scandinavian, that is where the similarity ends. I lived in Sweden for a long time and loved much about it, but those were not and never will be my people. But the rainy Saturday morning I walked through the town square and encountered a group of gumboot dancers who were visiting Malmö for some or other reason… well, my husband had to hold me quite firmly by the arm to stop me from rushing over to the nearest person and flinging my arms around him. Instead I looked on quietly and cried. Because, right or wrong and shared experience or not, these were my people. And the fact that every Marc Lottering skit and every Nandos ad made me howl told me that I needed to go home. And I did. And I live here now observing the daily madnesses and sadnesses and beautifulnesses of this country.

Like, a few hours ago in front of me in the queue at Checkers was what you’d call an old school Xhosa umakhulu, a granny. Someone just like her worked in our home, invisible as a ghost. She was bent and her hands were arthritic and no question she had seen her share of suffering in this lifetime. She was buying two small kerosene lamps, probably to save on the cost of electricity. I was buying a range of overpriced things from the kosher deli because it’s Friday and I can’t be bothered to cook. Just before that I’d been for a wax. I’ve become quite friendly with the woman who keeps my legs smooth. She is recently married and they are trying for a baby. She said, ‘The only thing is, my husband is dark-skinned and looks very black, whereas I’m nice and light. I really don’t want my children to get his dark skin.’

I thought about all of this as I drove home. So many layers of wrong, so much history behind it. But still I want to think that the intensity with which I love this country and how home-home-home it is and will always be for me means I’m not just a visitor and a coloniser. Even though I have no idea what to do tomorrow to celebrate my history but braai. Happy Heritage Day, everyone. We’ve come a long way and we have a long, long way to go.

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24 thoughts on “Somebody Help Me, I Have No Heritage

  1. I was wondering what Happy Heritage Day was as one of our friends posted pictures of her and her children. Now I know and it would be hard for me as well to choose my heritage as I am full Italian but I was born in Cape Town and even being brought up Italian my soul is part of the African Land so how would I dress!!!! I loved reading your blog it was brilliant, funny but also pulled my heart strings. Enjoy your Heritage Day embrace all the nationalities. Love from Savannah Georgia USA

  2. What a fantastic writer you are, Susan. Writing such a hilariously funny text and at the sama time conveying all the sorrow and sadness that is South Africa. From Lennart i Sweden.

  3. I’ve never considered this before. It must be hard. Maybe it is a life as secretly shame ridden for the deeds of ones forefathers, as being an Austrian or German (the Nazi origins) is in Europe.

  4. made me snort out loud with laughter! So right! At school yesterday I was so envious of the gorgeous Zulu and Xhosa and Pedi and Swati dress other teachers get to wear. Our head wore an enormous caftan of fabric printed with the flag and said she really felt she was channeling Demi Roussos! What carries me always is how much we laugh with each other and love the kids, and the country – and that was so not happening 25 years ago so – all good! Thanks hey!

  5. I know exactly what you mean. It’s sad we have such a conflicted history, but it is our history, and therefore our heritage. Thanks for entertaining us with the brutal truth

  6. Great piece! Do you think it is possible to celebrate our collective South African humanity, our unitive consciousness if you like, not our history, not our culture, and not our race. As a third generation Sousafrikan my sense of connectedness to this place and its people is deep rooted – not just on Heritage day.

  7. Interesting and poignant. Born in UK, age 8 to 23 in SA (Pretoria Boys then Wits) but then USA (8yr), Holland (9yr), Malaysia (1yr) and France (4yr) before “returning” to the UK 15 years ago, makes me confused about my heritage . . . a local, a localised expat, a South African emigre??
    Please keep writing, and I missed you when you took your break!

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