Bridging cultures, provinces and language: ‘ Braai’ in South Africa

The South African culture is different in so many ways that it was hard to choose one single aspect. When I say the South African ‘culture’, this is actually wrong, as there is not just one culture in this country.  South Africa is not called the rainbow nation for nothing – it has 11 official languages and hence, at least, 11 different cultures. Interestingly, English is the most commonly spoken language in official and commercial public life, but only the fifth most spoken home language. The cultural composition varies also in all of the nine provinces.

The one thing, however, that is typically South African, almost clichéd, and that bridges different cultures, provinces and languages is the South African “braai”. A braai is basically a BBQ, whereas the word is used to describe the event (the BBQ itself), the verb/activity (to grill, or to host a BBQ) and also the grill facility. In the grocery stores you can find special braai sauce, braai meat, braai bread, braai spices; and there are also typical braai sides. A braai is not just a BBQ though – in fact, never ever refer to a braai as a BBQ when you speak to a South African, BBQ is a chips flavour here.

A braai has its own set of rules, one of them being that the fire has to be made with wood, never with coal. Subsequently, the whole procedure requires a lot of time, usually South Africans start putting on the fire in the late afternoon – just to start eating at around 9 pm or later. There is a braai going on every day, whether it is a week day or the weekend, warm or cold, exam season or vacation. The way it usually works is you get invited to a braai – rather spontaneous, most of the time on the day, you bring your own meat and wine and you make sure you have nothing else planned for that night. Meat only refers to beef, pork or lamb, ostrich and game, chicken is considered salad. Once you have arrived the atmosphere is very relaxed, the host is always the braai-master, you just find a space for your meat and enjoy a night in a very warm environment with great conversations and a lot of meat – typically all together once the braaing is over. South Africans are typically very open and welcoming, curious to hear your stories and eager to share theirs – following the principle of “bring friends” you can be sure to meet tons of new people every time.

For me, a braai is the perfect symbol of the South African lifestyle. It reflects their notion of time – with the starting time as a simple suggestion, and starting “now now” meaning you can arrive whenever you feel like it. It also reflects their hospitable mentality and openness, warmly welcoming everyone, according to “the more the merrier”. A braai is a social event, where young and old meet, locals and internationals engage, people of diverse cultural backgrounds with different mother tongues share stories and where nothing else matters but being together and celebrating life.

This kind of social gathering was at first very strange to me. In Switzerland, our notion of time and our social interactions differ strikingly. We would not take hours and hours every day to cook dinner, it is more about cooking dinner to eat some food, whereas a braai is not primarily about the food but the whole event as such. Among us students, we would also not think about spending several nights a week out socializing around a grill – probably because of the social and societal pressure of performing the best. If so, this would rather be with friends and people you already know. Furthermore, everyone in Switzerland would arrive on time and also “prepared” for the braai. The first time I ever attended a braai, me and another international student brought salad to a braai (like we would at home), just to find out that no one eats that for practical reasons, as you stand around the fire, chatting here and there, not at a table. We also expected to find cutlery and plates there, when we learnt that this is not a thing most South Africans worry about. Bringing a small gift for the host is not common, neither is sharing one’s meat and wine – probably because they do it every night.

In general I feel that a Swiss braai would involve less spontaneity, less social openness and more “controlled organization” – at least this holds (more) true for Swiss Germans.

Vanessa Zehnder

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