— Every September 24, South Africans observe Heritage Day, a celebration the country's diverse cultures and beliefs.
But some people want the day to focus on the one thing all South Africans seem to have in common: a passion for cooking meat on the grill, known as braai, the Afrikaans word for grill or barbecue.
But for many South Africans, Braai means much, much more than that. In a nation where babies are given dried meat for teething; where parliament has twice debated the merits of eating horse; and where saying you don’t like beloved boerewors sausages is grounds for a fight, to say that South Africans like meat is an understatement.
"We have, what, 11 official languages? But only one word for this wonderful institution: braai," said Archbishop Desmond Tutu upon the launching the renaming initiative in 2007
. "It’s braai in Xhosa, it’s braai in Afrikaans, it’s braai in English, it’s braai in whatever. And it has fantastic potential to bind us together.”
Braai Day initiative leader, Jan Braai (his real name is Jan Scannel), says there is one essential element to a great braai, and surprisingly it isn’t meat.
“This is about much more than cooking meat on a fire," he said. "In fact, whether you actually cook meat on a fire is utterly unimportant. You can cook vegetables on that fire, or fish, or just stand around the fire. This is about uniting a nation, a nation so divided by its past, but a nation that has everything going for it to be a fantastic place, and we are a fantastic place."
Judging by statistics — and by Johannesburg’s ravaged supermarkets — many South Africans are going with meat for their braai.
According to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, the average South African ate 58.6 kilograms of meat — equivalent to two small lambs — in 2009, the last year for which they prepared figures. Although Americans still beat South Africans at the meat-eating stakes, devouring nearly twice as much, South Africa’s consumption is steadily rising.
For Dimitri Gutjahr, owner of a popular vegetarian restaurant in Johannesburg, the Braai Day initiative is an awful idea. Being South African and vegan — he claims it's not a contradiction — he can't reconcile the prospect of a national celebration built upon an unusually large slaughter of animals.
“Sometimes [people] don’t see the true meaning behind things, we take everything for granted," Gutjahr said. "We’re born having braais all the time, but the truth behind that is that we’d be celebrating a day, and because of that day a whole lot of extra animals would have to be butchered and slaughtered ... I don’t think that’s really cool.”
But still he couldn’t resist sticking his nose over the braai.
“You know, a good idea for a braai is to do a papillote in tinfoil, where you make a fire on a grill and then in tin foil you can put vegetables, nuts, grains," he said. "You pretty much steam it — anything you could steam, and you could still make something on a braai that’s fun. Half the fun about a braai is that you’re around a fire … and you’re with the elements, you’re outdoors with your friends, talking, chatting, building a fire together and cooking together.”
So whatever is on your grill this Heritage Day — and regardless of your ethnicity, background and language — fire it up and enjoy, South Africa.