SA101: Heritage Day

Today South Africans get the day off to celebrate Heritage Day. But what exactly are we celebrating?

When I first got here, I asked people that question on nearly every public holiday. The meaning behind Heritage Day elicited more blank stares than most, so I looked it up. Turns out it’s not just a long weekend to celebrate the coming Summer weather, and there’s a good reason people aren’t sure why they get the 24th of September off – it’s a relatively new holiday. According to good ‘ole Wiki, Heritage Day celebrates “…the diverse cultural heritage that makes up a “rainbow nation“. It is the day to celebrate the contribution of all South Africans to the building of South Africa.” It was added to SA’s list of public holidays only in 1995.

In 2005 there was a movement to change the name of the holiday to National Braai Day, and although it didn’t officially take hold it is still they name by which what many people know this long weekend. Rather than celebrating all the different cultures that make up the country, Braai4Heritage proposes that South Africans celebrate a tradition that brings South Africans from all walks of life together – braai-ing meat (and maybe other things) over an open flame. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is the official patron of the day: he talks below about why he thinks Braai day a positive, “unifying” holiday (and apparently can cook up a mean chop himself.)

On a lighter note, I’ve also dug up some important braai etiquette that you should know, just in case you find yourself in the vicinity of a Weber today.

Happy braai-ing!

You’re going the wrong way.

arrow signJust back from a great (if hectic) visit back to the States for a fabulous conference and some quality time with the fam in MN. Wonderful trip, but I am very happy to be home.

I don’t know about you, but jet lag is the least of my issues when doing the continental shuffle. You think I’d be used to it by now, but a zillion little things always trip me up when I get to one side or the other. I get in the wrong side of the car. I have to remember to say “zed” and not “zee” or vice versa and tweak other word choices so that people understand me. I spend an inordinately long time studying the pizza delivery menu, trying to remember which toppings they use where (oddly, SAfrican and American pizza toppings arepretty different). I lean in for a hug or a kiss on the cheek at inappropriate moments. But the thing that takes me probably the most time to reprogram are my default settings: do you default left or right? 

Don’t worry, this doesn’t seem to be a problem when driving – the steering wheel on the other side is a pretty good reminder. But it causes me problems for weeks on end when walking down the street,standing on a busy escalator, or most frustratingly, in the grocery store. My sister and I noticed the phenomenon of pedestrian rules of the road when we visited Ireland a million years ago. We kept dancing with people on narrow sidewalks, running into old grannies, having to dodge runners at the last minute. I guess I’d never realized how ingrained your left/right default settings are, even when on foot. And for some reason it’s harder to reset and pisses people off more than many things – I’ve definitely had obscenities shouted at me by little old ladies in walkers more than once in the UK, or had someone simply refuse to cede their side of the sidewalk and push me into the street here in SA. The trickiest bit is that the strength of the right/left default seems to be directly correlated to the propensity to queue. In otherwords, if you’re in a society that dutifully lines up behind that person who really isn’t in the checkout line, than odds are that you’ll experience more forceful opposition to giving in to right of way. What makes this tricky in SA is that some people are queuers, and some most decidedly aren’t. So some people stick rigidly to their side of the grocery store aisle, and others are weaving all over the place. As you can imagine, this makes it tough to navigate and pretty darn frustrating, especially behind an oversized shopping cart.

Rough life, huh? Oh the trials and tribulations of an international life 😉

Rolling out the red carpet

Before I left for DRC last week, I traveled to Jo’burg for a meeting set up by the organization I’ve been doing some work with in South Africa. They bring together members of the regional and international community to dialogue about the challenges in Zimbabwe and raise awareness of the South African government and general population about the current situation in Zimbabwe.

I knew they were well connected, but I was still surprised when they told me that Morgan Tsvangirai, the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, would be addressing this session of their ‘Building International Consensus’ dialogues. For those of you who don’t follow Zim politics much, Tsvangirai is the founder and leader of the MDC, the party that has provided the main opposition to Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF. After a disastrous election in 2008 (lots of corruption, violence and vote stealing), they joined together to form the Government of National Unity (GNU) to try and move the country towards a new constitution and elections. I won’t go into too much detail since I’m far from an expert in Zim politics, but you can find more info from the BBC here.

The event was all very dramatic. After a morning session of the usual diplomats, academics and civil society activists (which uncharacteristically started AND finished on time), all 150+ people there were hushed and seated We were coached that protocol indicated that we must all rise as the Prime Minister entered the room. When the doors were flung open a mass of about 10 men in black strode quickly into the room – the Prime Minster isn’t the tallest man, so he was swallowed up in the sea of suits. He was an incredibly charismatic speaker – most notably he announced that both he and Mugabe are committed to having elections next year, something that has been widely debated. He took questions for nearly as long as he’d spoken, addressing and answering even the most difficult questions in a very un-politician-like manner.

Afterward I was sitting with the team who had put on the meeting doing a post-mortem, and everyone got up and went outside rather abruptly. I followed them outside, and wondered why they were all standing in a line. Then I noticed that there was a fancy car parked at the curb of the hotel, and a red carpet rolled out – I still didn’t put two and two together. Finally I realized that the team was lining up to say goodbye to the PM, and that where I was standing put me in line to be first to shake his hand! Not exactly what I’d been expecting when I woke up that morning.

N2 Chronicles III

Cruising along on the N2 last night, heading home after an overly-decadent dinner with Nick’s fam in Somerset West, we were passed at high speed by a small white van.  I thought nothing of it until I saw the lettering on the back:

Mortuary Ambulance

Excuse me?  I didn’t know there was such a thing as a mortuary emergency.  I pretty much figured that once you were dead there stopped being emergencies.  Ok, maybe being late to your own funeral could constitute a minor crisis…but how often does that really happen?  So often that it requires an entire ambulance service?  Maybe something I have to add onto my list of ‘things to worry about’.

testing, testing…

Today, I was actually sat down and shown in great detail how to fill out a bubble sheet test.  Use pencil (no mention of #2, don’t think they exist here), fill in completely, erase completely, make sure the answers match up properly, no stray marks, etc.  They also had to show me how to fill out the date, since it was ‘backwards’, despite the fact that I am clearly American.

Apparently mastering the art of bubble sheet completion is not the same rite of passage here in South Africa that it is in the US Educational system.  I think we had that down pat by the time we were out of 3rd grade at least, and if you could manage to avoid them throughout highschool you obviously didn’t graduate.

Just a little funny moment in my day.  Oh, and the test sheets were designed by Pearson Testing or something in Minneapolis, MN…small world.