The Braai's dark past

Andrew Donaldson on British reaction to Boris and Carrie Johnson's belated wedding reception


I HAVE until very recently not given much thought to the braai’s dark past. But I’m now informed the national obsession with throwing chunks of meat on a fire has apartheid roots and this could be potentially embarrassing; you don’t want to get too involved with grilled Grabouw wors lest a heap of human rights violations rises up from the sousboontjies to spoil the party.

Two weekends back, Boris and Carrie “Antoinette” Johnson celebrated their first wedding anniversary with a bash at the Daylesford Estate in the Cotswolds. The couple had married in lockdown, and this thrash doubled as the wedding reception they were denied last year. So the Johnsons went large. They laid on a braai for their guests. 

Most commentators ignored the catering, and instead pointed out how unseemly it was that the prime minister should be dancing like a drunk uncle at, uh, a wedding reception when, in fact, there were several major crises requiring urgent attention, even if he is some sort of zombie PM, merely marking time until his ignominious departure from Downing Street next month.

But not at The Times. No, their lifestyle editors chose instead to unpack this foreign-ish thing, the braai. The result, published last week, came as a surprise to many of us. It was braai, but perhaps not as we know it. . . ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

For a start, they reported that the company responsible for the catering had used Aberdeen Angus ox cheeks in their boerewors, which was described as “spicy beef-based sausage”. This, it was suggested, would have satisfied “the more red-blooded Brexit-supportive guests”. No harm there, I suppose. But then there was this:

“Any potentially unsavoury associations of braai’s historic roots in apartheid-era Afrikaner culture was neutralised by the fact that (catering company) Smoke & Braai is run by Simon Chiremba, a dynamic black Zimbabwean chef and entrepreneur, a model example to those Brexiteers who wanted the chance to open Britain to the best of the whole world’s talents, rather than just Europe.”

The irony here being that our own crazed xenophobes in Operation Dudula take a dim view of Zimbabweans doing any sort of work in South Africa, let alone turning a few chops over the coals. It’s perhaps in everyone’s interests then that we continue to tend to our own braais. As The Times puts it, “One key braai saying is, ‘Jy krap nie aan ‘n ander man se vuur nie,’ which means, ‘Don’t mess with another man’s fire.’ Respect the bloke taking the heat, as it were, and things will be OK.” 

Or perhaps not, should there be a deranged mob with cans of petrol massing outside your home. 

On the whole, though, I must concede that the newspaper made a decent fist of it explaining that a braai is not merely a barbecue. Far from it. There’s romance and mystery about the post-prandial fire. Weird philosophising, half-pissed introspection and poetry even as the sparks dance in the dark. One source, an English type, told the paper, “It’s a bit Neanderthal, isn’t it, sitting around the flames? But as soon as you have fire you have a focal point, you have theatre.” 

Further uncomfortable enthusiasm is present in the suggestion that a braai is “nationhood built around a huge symbolic campfire”. Mention is made of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Braai Day” patron, pictured in an apron bothering boerie “to unite the divided nation, one chargrilled, high-cholesterol meal at a time”.

Cue the rumble of a sosatie in rebellion. In the guts. 

There are some errors of fact. Guests, for example, are not invited over for a “chop ’n’ drop”, but rather a “tjop en dop”. But even this is rather outdated. A more contemporary colloquialism, coined by the late Jeremy Thomas, a sorely missed friend and colleague, would be to “pull in for a yard and platter”. The former being the ideal length of boerie; the latter a reference to the “flattish” shape of certain brandy bottles. 

On the whole, though, this sudden concern with Saffer custom is slightly unsettling. The Times suggests that the British are getting “their heads around braai”, thanks largely to the spike in firing up of Webers that come with rugby and cricket tours, “as well as the dominance of the British in the South African tourist market: more than 430 000 British tourists visited South Africa in 2019 before Covid decimated the industry”. 

Could another act of culinary colonialism be in the offing? There is, after all, very little that the English eat that doesn’t taste of empire and other nations’ fare. It is almost impossible, for example, to tuck into a korma without feeling enraged at Queen Victoria. Only the earnest cajoling of the servers at Just Jaipur, down the back end of the local shopping mall, will entice one to ask for the dessert menu. Don’t mention the Koh-i-Noor diamond, though.

A note, though, on snoek. The Times states that this “Western Cape fish described as ‘mackerel on steroids’” is also prepared on the braai. Which is true. But they’re on dangerous ground here. A pap snoek is a fearsome thing, which the British discovered during the Second World War. With food rationing becoming more strict, and commercial fishing more dangerous, Britain shipped in 11 million cans of snoek from Cape Town, believing this cheaply sourced fish would solve the besieged nation’s need for protein. 

The ingrates, however, hated the stuff. They found it inedible and foul-smelling. The defence ministry even published recipes designed to make the fish palatable, but to no avail. They couldn’t give the stuff away. After the war, the cans were relabelled and sold as cat food. It’s unlikely, then, that they’re going to take to snoek now. They have long memories here when it comes to such things.

The good news, however, is that the braai will in all likelihood not be appropriated by these people. At least not this summer. The UK is currently in the grip of a prolonged drought. The countryside is bone-dry and we are warned of the risks in lighting fires. Throw in the current heatwave and it is just like home; the Saffers here pay no attention to the health and safety stuff and accordingly braai themselves bedondered. The neighbours don’t like it. All that smelly smoke wafting over the fence. But then they’re probably vegetarian.

Not funny

In 2007, the editors of the satirical newspaper, The Onion, published Our Dumb World: Atlas of the Planet Earth — 73rd Edition (Little, Brown and Company), a parody of the sort of educational book commonly found in an American high school library. India’s entry, for example, emphasises the country’s reputation as a tech-support provider and advises it will address crumbling infrastructure and widespread poverty “just as soon as it as finishes telling Midwesterners how to install Windows XP on their home computer”. Ukraine, “the Bridebasket of Europe”, is described as a world-leader in “the harvesting, processing, and exporting of wivestock”. Scotland has “a long and proud tradition of not being England”. And so on.

The South African entry, meanwhile, focuses on murder and violent crime, particularly in the post-apartheid era. “Sadly,” the authors note, “while formerly oppressed citizens have recently been granted newfound freedoms, many are still forced to ride in the back of vehicles such as ambulances and hearses.”

Gender-based violence is highlighted: “South Africa also has the highest incidence of reported rape in the world, with a rape occurring every 10 minutes, though embarrassed South African men say that it’s usually more like every 15 minutes, and even longer when they haven’t been drinking. In fact, the word ‘no’ has little meaning in any of South Africa’s 11 official languages, and the opposite meaning in at least seven.” 

It’s also claimed that, in 98 per cent of rape cases, “the assailant is more often than not someone the victim knew from past rapes”.

Fifteen years after Our Dumb World’s appearance, Bheki Cele, the police minister, brings renewed shock and horror to such flippancy with his comments on the horrific gang rape of eight women outside Krugersdorp on July 28. The women were taking part in the filming of a music video when they were attacked by a group of men said to be illegal miners, or zama zamas

According to Cele, one victim was fortunate to have been raped only once. He was quoted as saying: “They ordered the rest [of the production crew] to watch as others were raped, one woman was raped by ten different men, the other one by eight, the other one by six, the other one by six, four and three and all that. The one 19-year-old was lucky, if it is lucky, that was raped by one man.”

Later, on Saturday, after police had arrested more than 130 illegal miners in the area, none of whom, incidentally, have been linked to the rapes, Cele doubled down on the dumbassedness by telling residents from nearby West Village that he could not imagine a beautiful woman with an illegal miner. 

Zama zamas are disrespectful ... I saw the victims, they are beautiful models,” the Sunday Times quoted him as saying. “They are young people and I’m sure they were happy and enjoying themselves [at the shoot]. I can’t imagine a zama zama with a beautiful woman ... They come here and go underground and take our gold, but what tells them to go into communities and start committing crimes?”

There was, naturally, more of this clueless ranting. Much, much more. But as Stellenbosch University political scientist and chair of the SA Research Initiative in Gender Politics, Professor Amanda Gouws, has pointed out, Cele’s bluster is just one more indication that that the ANC continues to miss the point about the systemic nature of rape in South Africa and why men attack women. “Extensive research has been done on the motives of rape,” Gouws writes in The Conversation. “The overwhelming conclusion is that rape is not about sexual desire. It is about power and an entitlement to women’s bodies.”

Alarmingly, the response from Cele and the SAPS to the Krugersdorp gang-rape has shifted public anger from the incident itself to the issue of illegal mining by foreigners. “The women,” according to Gouws, “became a footnote.” She writes:

“The latest attack also exposes police incompetence to deal with illegal mine workers who have been terrorising West Village for years. Illegal miners allegedly regularly rape women from West Village, and despite women reporting the rapes, the police were reluctant to investigate.

“But the ‘foreigners are responsible for rape’ narrative is the same as men being singled out as ‘bad apples’. It ignores the systemic nature of rape in South Africa. And it creates the impression that South African men do not rape. The high statistics, however, show that many South African men rape.”

Cele is, unfortunately, impervious to such criticism. Not only is he incapable of understanding the issue, he has absolutely no interest in doing so. Is there any use in mocking him, seeing as he’s literally beyond a joke? How is it possible that he remains in government? All that I can think of at the moment is that we punish whoever it is who allows this fool to make his strange noises.

Faking news

This column usually steers clear of such things, but Monday was International Female Orgasm Day, part of a campaign to celebrate women’s right to sexual pleasure. They threw a party at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) to mark the occasion but, as the wags there remarked (to loud groans), no-one came. Tuesday, though, was Women’s Day. There came the customary platitudes and patronising lip service about GBV trotted out by our politicians on such occasions. Cyril Ramaphosa, however, struck the rock with his call that women be paid for the work done in the home. 

Hopefully this does not include compensation for salad duty while the menfolk are getting deep around the braai. . .