Heritage Day in South Africa comes every 24th of September as a reminder of the nation’s cultural diversity and as a chance to express national unity.
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The first Heritage Day was instituted in 1995, after the first free elections that spelled the end of apartheid and the beginning of a new, non-racially based democracy.
The roots of Heritage day, however, precede 1995. The 24th of September was originally simply a Zulu holiday celebrated in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. It was a remembrance to Shaka, the great chief who united the Zulu tribes into a unified nation. When a bill was being passed in 1995 by the South African parliament to establish South Africa’s official public holidays, the Zulus objected that “Shaka Day” was not included. A compromise finally kept the date but broadened the meaning to include celebration of the heritage of all South African peoples. Thus, it was renamed “Heritage Day”.
The official government definition of the “heritage” in “Heritage Day” counts it to include all that the people inherit, such as culture, history, wildlife, monuments, artwork, literature, music, folklore, languages, culinary traditions, and more. In 1996, president Nelson Mandela declared that Heritage Day would help South Africans use their “rich and varied cultural heritage“ to “build our new nation.” Each year, the government declares a special theme for that year’s Heritage Day. In 1995, for example, the theme was on Enoch Sontonga, the author of South Africa’s national anthem. His grave was declared a new national monument, and his music and life were remembered.
Should you be in South Africa for Heritage Day, you will be able to hear the president’s speech on television, learn much about the cultural heritage of various South African peoples, and enjoy the beauty of the land. Some specific things to do in South Africa on Heritage Day include:
- Attend a “braais”, if you can get the invitation. “Braais” is the Afrikaans word for “grill or barbecue.” “Braaivleis” means “grilled or barbecued meat.” These potluck-like party dinners are indulged in all across the country every Heritage Day. It is a little like a Fourth of July picnic in the United States. Family and friends gather to grill meats, such as boerewors (a kind of sausage), kebabs, lamb chops, pork, chicken, steak, and ribs. You will also find fish and rock lobster (“kreef”) in coastal towns and pap (cornmeal porridge) in almost every town.
- Visit Hout Bay for the reenactment of the Battle of Hout Bay held there around this time every year. The battle took place in 1795 between a British frigate in the bay and the coastal cannons and fortifications of the Dutch and French defenders. Although the British failed to take the fort at this time, they later took it and all Cape Colony with it. Afterward, they further strengthened the fort at Hout Bay.
- Tour sites associated with Nelson Mandela’s life and career. There are many, but some of the most important ones include: the Robben Island Museum, on the island where Mandela was once held as a prisoner; the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha and Qunu, dedicated to youth and heritage themes; the Mandela House Museum in Soweto, where Mandela and his family lived for many years; and Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg, where you can take photographs with his gigantic statute.
- See The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg or the similar District Six Museum in Cape Town, both of which reveal the realities of the apartheid era. The contrast between then and now is stark and very much “on topic” when it comes to the purpose of Heritage Day.
- See the world’s largest free-flight aviary in Plettenberg Bay. This is a part of the “natural heritage” of South Africa. It is a mesh dome built over the top of nearly 6 acres of natural forest. Inside, there are literally thousands of bird species.
South Africa has a rich and diverse heritage, and scheduling your visit for Heritage Day is one of the best ways to appreciate it. The history, people, and wildlife of South Africa hold endless variety, and you will never regret the trip.