Thursday, 24 September 2015

Ode to You

My mother keeps sending pictures to our family WhatsApp group of people braaiing (barbecuing), because today is Heritage Day in South Africa. Somehow, some clever marketing person decided to rebrand the day to 'Braai Day', which everyone embraced wholeheartedly and now people get together to celebrate the rainbow nation by grilling meat over an open flame.

In Paris it was a day like any other, a day closer to another weekend. As people at home were enjoying spring's sunshine and a good boerie roll I was sitting at a laundromat eating a pain au chocolat. Waiting for my laundry made me wonder what heritage means to us, both as a people with a strong patriotic streak and as individuals with very different ideas of what a single heritage might constitute. Are we even allowed to be patriotic? Does it depend on where you come from for you to be allowed to be proud of the passport you carry? In a world that is becoming more and more borderless, does the concept of nationhood still hold true? And does heritage go beyond birth certificates to included lived experiences, past and present?

Elsewhere, I have questioned the idea of belonging, of finding the puzzle that you as a piece fit into. Heritage is complicated by our family history: on the one hand white Afrikaners (white Afrikaans-speaking South Africans), on the other hand white German emigrants. Double the whiteness, double the guilt. The one side systematically divided a country up according to skin colour and for more than 50 years privileged anyone European-looking to the detriment of a much larger (and darker) local population. The other side systematically divided up a country according to what they defined as a superior race and tried to exterminate any population that did not fit this mould, leading to the World War II and millions dead (soldiers, civilians and those in the extermination camps).

On Heritage Day, do we look to this past and remember never to make the same mistakes? Do I acknowledge the privilege of my life, through the whiteness of my skin and the middle-class status that my parents worked hard for? Is there even a point to this navel-gazing, when most don't consider the current inequality that has shifted from race to class? A friend recently posted an article by Prof. Jonathan Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State, titled How to be White and Happy in South Africa . The gist of the article is to accept your position and to learn to listen to those from different cultures and (economic backgrounds), as you have grown up shielded from the hardships that people with darker pigmented skin had to endure. Heritage today, an attempt at understanding?

Now I live on a continent of privilege and with refugees flooding into the European Union the prejudices we carry with us become even clearer. There were wonderful images of people welcoming groups of refugees as they arrived in Munich. On social media I have seen the engagement of my peers through organisations such as Refugees Welcome in trying to help, be it through donating their time, their money or other goods. People are coming together in hours of need, and it is flooring to see. As Jonathan Freedland argues in an article for The Guardian, "this has been no overnight transformation. Germans have spent decades reckoning with their past in a way few nations can match. Nevertheless the embrace Germany is currently offering to the dispossessed of Syria – while so much of Europe closes its doors or quibbles over tiny numbers – has altered perceptions anew. "

So perhaps heritage can evolve into something better, from those who have helping those who have not to my Afrikaans mother making my German gran's SpƤtzle with Rouladen and showing us how to do it. Heritage is in the buildings we queue for hours to get into, in the DNA of our appearance and the family recipes that get passed on from generation to generation, in knowing that the evil that men do lives after them and the good is interred with their bones.

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