Nelson Mandela is officially “improving,” though still in critical condition at a South African hospital. His long battle with a lung infection has South Africans anxiously contemplating their “post-Mandela” future in a still racially divided country. In a unique strategy, one man is hoping to help heal those divisions with a pair of barbecue tongs.
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.
“There’s not that one day a year [in South Africa] where everybody has a proper celebration — the same type of celebration — with friends and family,” he says.
Braai is a South African barbecue of meat or vegetables over wood embers, never charcoal or gas. Back in the years when Scannell was still climbing the corporate ladder, he used to braai on the weekends, inviting friends over for the 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.
“I decided I actually don’t like looking at a computer all day — I want to do something that contributes to society,” he says. “And, to my mind, the biggest thing that South Africa needs is [that] we need to be united as a nation.”
South Africa already has an independence day. But it’s a sober day of reflection on the end of apartheid — more “never again” than “pass the ketchup.” So Scannell quit his job and launched his unlikely campaign.
Every year, more South Africans got on board. And now eight years after launching his campaign, Jan Scannell has a TV show in its third season and a best-selling braai cookbook. In a press conference video, he stands in his trademark white apron next to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the official patron of Braai Day.
“We have what, 11 official languages? But only one word for this wonderful institution — braai. And it has fantastic potential to bind us together,” Tutu says in the video.
That the country even has 11 official languages might discourage hopes of finding one tradition in common. But as Jan Scannell and I walk though the meat aisle in a Cape Town supermarket, we find something emblematic of the South African braai — boerewors, a sausage with coarsely ground pork and beef and spices.
“Boerewors is a fantastic analogy for South African society as a whole,” Scannell says. “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, food-wise, of the rainbow nation.”
Half an hour later, on a windy promontory in Cape Town called Maidens Cove, a small group that includes his photographer and television show director is gathered around a fire, drinking beer and waiting for the logs to burn down to coals. Using wood is the only sine qua non of the braai.
“It forces you to stand around a fire and have a bit of a communal conversation,” he says. “That’s why it’s just not the same for us to use gas. Because then you just light it up and you cook,” he says.
Scannell has 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.
“That moment for me is what we’re trying to recreate with Braai Day. Because you’ll never win the World Cup every year [and] 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. “
He won’t be satisfied until Braai Day, on Sept. 24, is as recognized in his nation as July 4th is in ours. Until then, he’s willing to win over South Africans, one freshly braaied boerewors at a time.
This post is part of Global Grill, a summer series from All Things Considered that pulls apart the smoky flavors of grilled foods from around the world.