Somebody Help Me, I Have No Heritage


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.

On National Braai Day

The guy on the right is a photo bomber. It was Oupa Bekker, on the left, whom I was surreptitiously trying to capture.
The guy on the right is a photo bomber. It was Oupa Bekker, on the left, whom I was surreptitiously trying to capture.

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.

Belia's brother-in-law, Ben, pushed the boundaries with this chicken, smoked pork and chorizo extravaganza. It didn't win, but it should have.
Our friend, Ben, pushed the boundaries with his chicken, smoked pork and chorizo extravaganza. It didn’t win, but it should have. Here, Belia and I pretending to have made it ourselves.