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'Braai Day' Aims To Bring S. Africans Together Over Barbecue

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'Braai Day' Aims To Bring S. Africans Together Over Barbecue

Food History & Culture

'Braai Day' Aims To Bring S. Africans Together Over Barbecue

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One young South African is on a mission to continue Nelson Mandela's efforts to overcome his country's racial divisions. But instead of protests and civil disobedience, the instrument this young man's instrument of change is a pair of barbeque tongs. For our summer series, the Global Grill, NPR's Gregory Warner introduces us to the man who is grilling for national unity.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Imagine America without the 4th of July. Okay, we'd still have independence. You could even close the banks on that day but no ritual hot dogs, no burgers, no fireworks.

JAN SCANNELL: So there's not that one day a year where everybody has a proper celebration, the same type of celebration, with friends and family.

WARNER: Jan Scannell is a 32-year-old former accountant with a dream to establish a national holiday in South Africa like July 4th called Braai Day. Braai is a South African barbecue of meat or vegetables over wood embers, never charcoal or gas. And back in the years when Scannell was still climbing the corporate ladder, he used to like to braai on his weekends, inviting friends and family over for this classic South African picnic.

But then he had a revelation at age 25 after accepting a coveted post in his firm's office in Manhattan, when the prospect of leaving his friends, his country, and his grill filled him with panic.

SCANNELL: I decided I actually don't like looking at a computer all day. I want to do something that contributes to society. In my mind, the biggest thing that South Africa needs is we need to be united as a nation. That's obviously the type of work started by Mandela himself.

WARNER: South Africa already has an Independence Day but it's a sober day of reflection on the end of apartheid, more never again than please pass the ketchup. So, Scannell quit his job and launched his unlikely campaign. And now each year, more South Africans have started to get onboard. Here's the Braai Day anthem from 2011.


WARNER: Eight years after launching his campaign, Jan Scannell, who now goes publicly as Jan Braai, has a TV show in its third season, a best-selling braai cookbook, and in this press conference video, stands in his trademark white apron next to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is now the official patron of Braai Day.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: We have what, 11 official languages? Only one word for this wonderful institution, braai. It has a fantastic potential to bind us together.

WARNER: That the country even has 11 official languages might discourage hopes of finding one tradition in common. But as Jan Braai and I walk though the meat aisle in a Cape Town supermarket, hunting sausages...

SCANNELL: We're looking for boerewors, which is a typical South African sausage.

WARNER: Jan finds in this very boerewor sausage, with its coarsely ground pork and beef and spices, a national emblem.

SCANNELL: Boerewors is a fantastic analogy for South African society as a whole. You've got sausage-making skills from Europe that came with the European settlers to Africa. Then you've got spices and the knowledge of how to use them from the East, stuff like coriander, nutmeg, cloves. And then in Africa, it was very typical to cook all your food on a fire. So boerewors is, it's probably the best analogy, foodwise, of the rainbow nation.

WARNER: Half an hour later, on a windy promontory in Cape Town called Maidens Cove, a small group that includes his photographer and his television show director is gathered around a fire, drinking beer and waiting for those logs to burn down to coals. Using wood is the only sine qua non of the braai.

SCANNELL: It forces you to stand around that fire and have a bit of a communal conversation. So that's why it's just not the same for us to use gas because then you just light it up and you cook.

WARNER: Now, Jan Braai spent a lot of time thinking about how to package the idea of national unity as a celebration; to move those high ideals out from behind the podium and onto the back porch. Nelson Mandela did that with rugby in 1995, when he donned the green and gold jersey of the national team, colors then synonymous with apartheid oppression, and thus transformed their World Cup victory into one the whole nation could rejoice in.

SCANNELL: And that moment for me is what we're trying to re-create with Braai Day. Because you'll never win the World Cup every year. That's just not going to happen.

WARNER: And you'll never have Mandela there forever.

SCANNELL: You'll never have Mandela there forever, but you'll always have Braai Day. So, trying to create this asset in South Africa that pays annuities every year, forever.

WARNER: He won't be satisfied until Braai Day, on September 24th, is as recognized in his nation as July 4 is in ours. Until then, he's willing to win over South Africans, one freshly braaied boerewors at a time. All right, well, I'm going to try one.

SCANNELL: I think you should speak while you do it.

WARNER: Okay, okay. Yeah, all right.

SCANNELL: I'm about to eat the boerewors now.

WARNER: I'm about to eat the boerewors now. It's interesting. It's like I'm eating a hotdog, but I'm eating a hamburger. A hotdog and a hamburger at the same time. And if National Braai Day takes off, a whole lot of hopes as well packed into this sausage skin. Gregory Warner, NPR News.

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