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South Africa’s Rainbow Nation – The Story of Heritage Day


The month of September is synonymous with National Heritage Day, a day celebrating the history of South African heritage and revering cultures, traditions and proudly South African traits. While colloquially referred to and celebrated as national Braai Day, Heritage Day is so much more than simply hauling out the Weber and lighting it ablaze. While nothing smells quite like Heritage Day than searing meat on the open flame, Heritage Day has a long heritage of its very own on how it came to pass.

What was initially celebrated (pre the new democratic Parliament of South Africa) as Shaka Day; the 24th of September was celebrated in commemoration of the Zulu King Shaka who had been responsible for uniting disparate Zulu clans into one cohesive nation during his reign. When this historic holiday was excluded from the Public Holidays bill, revised in 1995, the IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party) made up of predominantly Zulu members, lobbied for its inclusion, motivating the importance of celebrating cultural heritage, not just Zulu heritage but the diverse cultures, customs and traditions making up the multicultural rainbow nation of the “new South Africa”, a new title was applied to the customary celebration, naming the Day National Heritage Day

“…when South Africans celebrate the diverse cultural heritage that makes up a "Rainbow Nation". It is the day to celebrate the contribution of all South Africans to the building of South Africa.” - Lowry 21:1995

Used to describe post-apartheid South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said it best when he referred to South Africa as a "Rainbow Nation" following South Africa's first democratic election in 1994. Mr Nelson Mandela expanded on the idea, when he said, "…each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld. A rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world..."

Although metaphorical and not at all intentional, there are a number of fundamentals that each speak to the notion of a “Rainbow Nation”. Aside from the multicultural diversity making up South Africa’s population:

Eleven different languages have been recognised as official languages of South Africa, these include:


  • Afrikaans
  • English
  • isiNdebele (Ndebele)
  • Northern Sotho (Sepedi)
  • Southern Sotho (Sesotho)
  • SiSwati (Swati/Swazi)
  • Xitsonga (Tsonga)
  • Setswana (Tswana)
  • Tshivenda (Venda)
  • isiXhosa (Xhosa)
  • isiZulu (Zulu)


Six colours make up the South African flag, including:


  • Red
  • White
  • Green
  • Yellow
  • Black
  • Blue


The South African National Anthem employs five of the eleven official languages spoken in South Africa, namely:


  • Xhosa (first stanza, first two lines)
  • Zulu (first stanza, last two lines)
  • Sesotho (second stanza)
  • Afrikaans (third stanza)
  • English (final stanza)


Today, the 24th of September is known as Heritage Day and is celebrated throughout South Africa in recognition of South Africa’s Rainbow Nation and the multi-cultural diversity that ties the country together. Whereby the “ties that bind us together are stronger than those that would tear us apart” Heritage Day is a mutual celebration of each and every culture, ethnicity and background that every South African contributes to the encompassing legacy of the country.

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