Heritage Day is an important South African public holiday which is celebrated on the 24th of September each year. It is a day on which all South Africans are encouraged to celebrate their culture and the diversity of their beliefs and traditions, in the wider context of a nation that belongs to all its people. As the self-proclaimed ‘Rainbow Nation’, boasting a vibrant cultural diversity, eleven official languages, a rich and intricate history and a variety of traditions, Heritage Day is recognized and celebrated in many different ways in South Africa.
History of Heritage Day
While many South Africans are aware of Heritage Day, how many know the history behind it, the true reason we celebrate this momentous holiday, and its connection to various cultures and traditions?
Heritage Day was initially known as ‘Shaka Day’ or ‘Shaka’s Day’, a day dedicated to commemorating the legendary King Shaka Zulu on the presumed date of his death in 1828. Shaka Zulu played an important role in uniting different Zulu clans into one cohesive Zulu nation in Kwa-Zulu Natal. To this day, thousands of people gather at the King Shaka Memorial on the 24th of September each year to pay tribute to the great Zulu King.
When the bill presented to the new post-Apartheid Parliament of South Africa in 1996 omitted Shaka Day from the proposed Public Holidays Bill, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), a South African political party with a large Zulu membership, strongly objected to the bill. Eventually, a compromise was reached between the Parliament and the ANC (African National Congress), and it was decided that a national holiday would be created where South Africans of all cultures and creeds could come together and celebrate their diverse cultural heritage – Giving rise to Heritage Day!
“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.”
– Late former President Nelson Mandela in an address marking Heritage Day in 1996
In recent years, Heritage Day has further evolved and become synonymous with National Braai Day. Some call it Shisa Nyama or Ukosa, while others call it a braai. Regardless of what term you use, the intention remains the same – Gathering around a fire, enjoying good food, good company and celebrating your culture and heritage with friends, family, and the ones you love.
Why is Heritage Day Important in South Africa
South Africa ranks among the 10 most culturally diverse countries in the world. A county’s relative diversity is determined based on several factors and high-level considerations, including: Level of ethnic diversity; Number of immigrants; Number of spoken languages; Number of religious beliefs; Number of political parties; Level of religious freedom; LGBT rights and freedom; and Level of personal liberty. Each of these categories are further divided into sub-categories, to ultimately determine the level of cultural diversity in any given country.
In addition to being one of the most culturally diverse countries, the population of South Africa is one of the most complex and diverse in the world. It is because of this intricate and vast diversity that Heritage Day is so important in South Africa and should be celebrated by all its people. National Heritage Day is dedicated to recognizing the cultural wealth of our nation in its entirety. By acknowledging, embracing, and celebrating our various cultures, traditions, and heritage against the background of our unique diversity, we build pride in ourselves, our fellow South Africans, and our nation as we remember the difficulties and hardships of the past, share in the victories of the present, and raise hope for the future.
One of the most important aspects of Heritage Day is the fact that it exposes us as South Africans to different people, cultures, traditions, beliefs, and religions we may never have been exposed to or encountered otherwise. It encourages us to step outside of our own ‘cultural bubble’, and urges us to learn, grow, explore, and experience the vibrant and diverse range of cultures that exists within our glorious rainbow nation. And, in turn, allow us to understand, appreciate, recognize, and respect each culture and everything it embodies.
At the end of the day, we are ALL South Africans, and our ability to grow and learn from each other is not only endless, but a gift. This will further allow us to grow as individuals and contribute to a more unified South Africa.
Heritage Day therefore provides a great opportunity for all South Africans to put their differences in politics, perspectives, and opinions aside, to unite and come together in a single shared purpose and objective – To celebrate South Africa’s profound history and heritage TOGETHER AS ONE NATION!
Another important aspect of South Africa’s heritage that should not be forgotten is living heritage. In essence, living heritage is the foundation of all communities and an essential source of identity and continuity. The various aspects of living heritage include: Cultural tradition; rituals; oral history; popular memory; performance; indigenous knowledge systems; techniques and skills; and the holistic approach to nature, society, and social relationships. In South Africa, the term ‘living heritage’ is used interchangeably with the term ‘intangible cultural heritage’.
Why is living heritage important and what role does it play? Living heritage plays a vital role in promoting cultural diversity, reconciliation, social cohesion, economic development, and peace. In every South African community, there are living human treasures who possess a high degree of knowledge, skills and history pertaining to different aspects of diverse living heritage. It is important for South Africans to reclaim, restore and preserve these various aspects of living heritage in order to promote and accelerate its use in addressing the various challenges communities are facing today.
South African Cultures
South Africa is the Rainbow Nation, a title that captures the country’s cultural and ethnic diversity. As mentioned, the population of South Africa is one of the most complex and diverse in the world.
South Africa’s black population is divided into four major ethnic groups; namely Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, and Swazi), Sotho, Shangaan-Tsonga, and Venda. There are numerous subgroups within these main ethnic groups of which the Zulu and Xhosa (two subgroups of the Nguni group) are the largest.
The majority of South Africa’s white population (about 60%) is of Afrikaans descent, with many of the remaining 40% being of British or European descent. South Africa’s coloured population have a mixed lineage, which often comprises the indigenous Khoisan genes combined with African slaves that were brought here from all over the continent, and white settlers.
Languages in South Africa
South Africa has eleven official languages:
- English (9.6%)
- Afrikaans (13.5%)
- Ndebele (2.1%)
- Sepedi (9.1%)
- Xhosa (16%)
- Venda (2.4%)
- Tswana (8%)
- Southern Sotho (7.6%)
- Zulu (22.7%)
- Swazi or SiSwati (2.5%)
- Tsonga (4.5%)
In addition to its eleven official languages, many other languages from all over the world are frequently spoken in South Africa, some of which include: Portuguese, Greek, Italian, French, Chinese etc.
Heritage Day is one of the most important National Holidays in South Africa. It is vital to both the nation as a whole and its people that it continues to be recognized, commemorated, and celebrated.
Despite the many differences that exist amongst the various South African cultures, South Africa’s strong sense of unity around longstanding traditions has always remained integral. When needed, our rainbow nation always comes together as a force to be reckoned with.