Cake, Candy and Existential Crisis

A Heritage Day story by Dinika Govender

Heritage Day essay

Words: Dinika Govender | Illustrations: Nena Maree

There was a time in my life when Heritage Day was met with the fervour of an Olympics opening ceremony. That was a time when the identity of school-going, decent dress-length-wearing, detention-evading scholar preceded all other self-concepts.

The build-up to September 24th each year was the ex-Model C schooling system’s one chance to flex its multi-cultured stripes. Glitter bombs of colour, inharmonious mash-ups of traditional music from various ethnicities, and the same glazed-eye-wide-smile that tends to reveal itself when people sip on diversity in large crowds: it was all there in another kind of multicultural fest: a Heritage Day Cake ‘n Candy.

Heritage Day essay

Its aim:

Celebrate South Africa’s multiculturalism – and by extension the school’s - by learning about other cultures and gaining an appreciation of each other as equal members of a diverse society. (Chapter 1, Positive thinking for nation-building*, Tripartite Alliance et al, 1990)

Its method:

Invite pupils to sell food and snacks unique to their ethnicities at a schoolwide Heritage Day flea-market of sorts. On this day traditional dress would also be allowed (with the exception of traditional dress that involved nakedness, visible piercings or make-up). The principal would be wearing something as close to a Madiba shirt as possible. It would clash with her pale skin.

Heritage Day essay

Cue panic.

I would have to decide which of my people’s ethnic food would be both marketable enough and representative of my heritage. Samosas were too obvious. I did not like them that much. And the prepubescent dieters would definitely not like them. Bunny chows did not make the migration from Kwa-Zulu Natal to Johannesburg with my parents back in the 80s, so those were off the personal heritage list too. Then there were sweet meats – traditional Indian desserts usually eaten around Diwali and other special occasions. But who would enjoy something sweet named “meat”?

Heritage Day essay

Could you sell something that is supposed to, in some way, represent you that you did not personally enjoy? What if it sold well but you did not relate to the food beyond that fact that both you and the food share a homeland? What if you didn’t even know how to pronounce the names of your traditional dishes – let alone know what ingredients they contained? What if you triggered a deadly nut allergy in a classmate because of your own cultural ignorance?

These were among the concerns that would sit with me at the dinner table in the run-up to the Heritage Day Cake ‘n Candy. Over takeaway pizza and pasta (thanks to one Monday half-price special that ran for a limited period of as-long-as-I-can-remember and saved my mother one night of cooking) my parents and I would discuss what would be affordable, manageable and ‘Indian’ enough to contribute to the market.

I would end up selling samosas anyway.

Heritage Day essay

As for the rest, the Heritage Day Cake ‘n Candy saw Greek, Italian and Portuguese mothers come out in full force to help their children share (read: outwit, outplay and outsell) their sections of Johannesburg’s Fournos Bakery. All three east-Asian pupils colluded to make it rain with fortune cookies and White Rabbit Sweets (although I’m quite sure one of them is Filipino), whilst the white South Africans who identified as ‘just South African’ either attempted to reconstruct family trees in cucumber sandwiches and cold tea, or sold milk tarts and vetkoek under the curious banner of “authentic South African”. Inkomazi made the rounds, but dombolos, imifino and trotters had stayed home.

This was the Rainbow Nation at work: a patchwork of resources, self-love and overbearing parents unevenly distributed among cultural groups.

At least no one ever rolled in with a spit-braai.

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