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Heritage Day: why it is such an important part of South African culture

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Heritage Day is around the corner and before you turn your kitchen cupboard inside out to find your braai tongs, it's important to take a moment to learn about what Heritage Day means to us as South Africans.

You may know it as National Braai Day, Shaka Day or Heritage Day. No matter what you call it, it's important to look at Heritage Day as a day for us as South Africans to celebrate everything that makes us a rainbow nation and to learn about other's cultures and beliefs.

Nelson Mandela said, in an address on Heritage Day in 1996 "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.

We did so, knowing that the struggles against injustice and inequities of the past are part of our national identity; they are part of our culture. We knew that, if indeed our nation has to rise like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of division and conflict, we had to acknowledge those whose selfless efforts and talents were dedicated to this goal of non-racial democracy."

Now, 25 years after our first democratic elections, we live in a country which boasts 11 official languages and many, many richly diverse cultures and beliefs. These different cultures and beliefs form the basis of our Rainbow Nation, something which makes our country unique.

So, what is Heritage Day and what does it mean to us as South Africans?

Heritage Day has its origins in the province of KwaZulu Natal, where people observed the 24th of September as Shaka Day, in honour of the legendary conqueror and king, Shaka Zulu. Shaka Zulu is best known for uniting the Zulu clans into one single nation. In 1995, in the early days of our democracy, the Public Holiday Bill was presented which included several proposed public holidays for our nascent rainbow nation. It did not, however, include the 24th September on the list, something which the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) objected against. This led to negotiations and ultimately a compromise was reached, which saw the 24th recognized as 'Heritage Day', an official public holiday in South Africa.

Where does Braai Day come from?

Braai Day was started in 2005 by a man named Jan Scannell, as an initiative to encourage South Africans to focus on our joined heritage rather than on our cultural divides. The initiative encouraged everyone to use the public holiday as an opportunity to do something truly South African - have a good old braai. After a popular media campaign and due to the fact that everyone in this country likes a good braai, regardless of their culture, the name 'Braai Day' became synonymous with Heritage Day. The National Braai Day initiative became so popular that in 2007, beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu became the patron of 'Braai Day'.

So, this braai day, as you sit at home with friends and family and watch the boerewors or chicken wings sizzle in front of you, take a moment to think about your very own heritage and what Heritage Day means to you, as South Africans.

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