Heritage Day – Public Holiday – 24 September

Customs, norms and traditions are often taken for granted around the world. Many people grow up in areas with one or two dominant cultures and, as a result, they rarely pay much mind to the lifestyle that they inherit. By contrast, South Africa has always been a particularly vibrant nation, both in terms of its racial groups and its cultures. Instead of shying away from this fact, the people of South Africa have chosen to embrace and celebrate their differences while remembering the shared values that bind them together. The upshot of this choice can be seen in the form of Heritage Day. Heritage Day – Public Holiday – 24 September

Every year, the 24th of September is celebrated by all South Africans as a public holiday known as Heritage Day. If this celebration happens to fall on a Sunday, the public holiday is observed on the following Monday. Additionally, the entire month of September is also recognised as Heritage Month, although only the 24th is acknowledged as a public holiday.

South Africa’s heritage day is not to be confused with International Heritage Day, which takes place on the 18th of April.

Heritage Day - Public Holiday - 24 September
Heritage Day – Public Holiday – 24 September

What is the Point of Heritage Day?

Heritage day is an annual commemoration of South Africa’s cultural diversity and heritage. South Africans are encouraged on this day, and indeed throughout the entire month, to remember and celebrate their cultural identities, beliefs and traditions.

Special consideration is also given to the promotion and preservation of ‘’living heritage’’. This term refers to a group’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’ and can be most easily understood when contrasted against a physical heritage. Unlike a tangible heritage such as a location or historic monument, a community’s living heritage is made up of abstract elements such as their oral history, rituals, traditions and techniques. Living heritage is seen as an integral factor when promoting social cohesion and cultural diversity and thus South Africans are encouraged to reclaim, restore and preserve these traditions.

On a broader level, South Africans are urged to use Heritage Month to promote nation-building and a shared national identity

What are the Origins of Heritage Day?

The 24th of September was originally celebrated throughout KZN as Shaka Day. in honour of the Zulu king. In 1995, a push to make the day a national holiday was rejected and the 1996 government’s list of proposed holidays did not include the 24th. This resulted in backlash, primarily from the IFP, who objected to the bill.

Eventually, a consensus was reached and it was decided that the day would come to be recognised as Heritage Day and would become an official public holiday.

What is National Braai Day? – Heritage Day – Public Holiday – 24 September

In 2005, a media campaign was initiated that sought to rename Heritage Day as ‘National Braai Day’. It is claimed that the braai is an appropriate symbol of a shared heritage throughout the nation as citizens from all backgrounds and races engage in this style of cooking.

Heritage Day - Public Holiday - 24 September
Heritage Day – Public Holiday – 24 September

This movement did receive some criticism, however, as many people saw the rebranding attempt as somewhat counterproductive. They noted that Heritage day was originally designed to encourage an appreciation of South Africa’s diverse cultural background and rich history, and thus they believed that it should not be celebrated through, or symbolised by, the practice of a single tradition.

While some South Africans now refer to the holiday as National Braai Day and celebrate it by practising the traditional cooking style, it is still officially recognised as Heritage Day.

Heritage Day Events

Each year, the importance of Heritage Day is highlighted via various speeches given by high ranking government officials, including those issued by the president. Putting aside these political events, the holiday is also celebrated alongside many concerts, cookouts and picnics held throughout the country.

That said, perhaps the most common method of celebration during Heritage Day involves inviting a few close friends over and enjoying a small backyard braai.

The holiday has also gained an informal custom which sees some people dressing in traditional clothing in order to better represent and honour their culture.

Heritage Day Initiatives

Beyond simple celebrations, many groups and municipalities have also encouraged more active forms of commemoration, specifically, they have emphasised the need to study South African history while fostering an environment that promotes further learning.

These plans can be accomplished in multiple ways, however, the two primary suggestions offered include –

  • Motivating your children to develop a habit of reading and personal study – It is believed that such encouragement will create a generation more inclined to explore and analyse their own history and culture.
  • Visiting a local museum or the provincial archives – South Africans have access to a wide range of informative sources that can provide an unparalleled level of cultural and historical knowledge. They are encouraged to make full use of such resources when developing their understanding of their heritage.
Heritage Day - Public Holiday - 24 September
Heritage Day – Public Holiday – 24 September

Statistics – Heritage Day – Public Holiday – 24 September

Most demographic profiles tend to group South Africans based on their race. According to this method, the makeup of the country looks something like this –

  • Black African – 80.9%
  • Coloured – 8.8%
  • White – 7.8%
  • Indian/Asian – 2.5%

That said, each group is composed of multiple cultures and ethnic groups which can be further divided, and thus, it would be largely meaningless to celebrate something like ‘black culture’ as a whole. As a result, South Africans tend to focus on more specific group identities instead, for instance, Black Africans can be separated into 4 main groups, namely –

  • Nguni
  • Sotho
  • Shangaan-Tsonga
  • Venda

Some of these groups can also be subdivided into even more specific categories, for example, the Nguni label encompasses the Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi.

White South Africans are usually split up more broadly depending on their lineage –

  • Around 60% of White South Africans are of Afrikaans descent
  • The remaining 40% are of British or European descent

Many Indian/Asian South Africans maintain a deep cultural connection with their ancestral homelands while the Coloured community often includes a mixed lineage made up of various cultures and peoples.

In Conclusion – Heritage Day – Public Holiday – 24 September

Heritage Day is a public holiday dedicated to the country’s rich culture and legacy. It is a time during which South Africans remember, study and celebrate their specific cultures and traditions while fostering a sense of shared identity throughout the nation.

The holiday can trace its origins back to the Shaka Day celebrations which used to take place in KZN on the same day. Political parties approached the government with petitions to turn this event into a national holiday but these proposals were initially rejected. Later, a compromise was reached which saw the date commemorated as National Heritage Day instead.

Special consideration is often given to the living heritage of the country and its people. This living heritage is composed of the various intangible aspects of culture such as a group’s rituals, oral teachings, traditions and techniques. That said, Heritage Day is still considered a time during which the nation’s physical monuments and historic landmarks should be honoured. 

Heritage Day - Public Holiday - 24 September
Heritage Day – Public Holiday – 24 September

The public holiday is observed every year on the 24th of September and should not be confused with International Heritage Day which is on the 18th of April. If the date falls on a Sunday, the holiday is celebrated on the following Monday.

A 2005 media movement attempted to rebrand the holiday as National Braai Day as this style of cooking was seen as a unifying aspect of South African life. The movement faced some criticism from groups that saw the push as a counterproductive change that would result in people celebrating one part of the country’s culture rather than its diverse heritage. Some parts of South Africa still refer to the holiday as National Braai Day although it has never been formally recognised as such.

The government has also encouraged citizens to actively foster a culture of reading and study to further promote the exploration and continuation of South African heritage. Individuals are encouraged to seek out information at local museums and at the provincial archives to broaden their understanding of their history. Even so, most South Africans simply celebrate the holiday at events such as concerts, parties and braais.

Disclaimer LAW101: All of our posts are for research purposes only. Law 101 aims to assist its readers with useful information on the laws of our country that can guide you to make decisions in line with the South African Governmental Laws currently in place. Although our posts cite the constitution in many instances, they are intended to assist readers who are looking to expand their knowledge of the law. Should you require specific legal advice we advise you to get in touch with a qualified legal expert.

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