Accountant turned Braai Day master: Jan Scannell on how fires unite SA

JOHANNESBURG — Jan Scannell, aka ‘Jan Braai’, is a chartered accountant turned braai master who has reignited Heritage Day in South Africa. He started Braai Day 13 years ago and subsequently quit his job in financial services to take on a high-profile media career as ‘Jan Braai’. He’s published books and presented television programs. But his main achievement, as he will tell you, is that he’s helped to bring South Africans of all walks together over a fire. He is incredibly positive and hopeful about the country as he’s seen a different side to it. His story is an inspiring one that highlights the tremendous potential that South Africa has. – Gareth van Zyl

I’m speaking to Jan Scannell, who’s probably become more popularly known as ‘Jan Braai’ in South Africa. Jan, you’ve become synonymous with Braai Day, which takes place every September around Heritage Day. Can you tell me the backstory on how you got started with Braai Day? You quit a career in financial services to start up this project.

Yes, Braai Day is in its thirteenth year on 24 September this year. The project is very simple and straightforward. We aim to encourage all South Africans to unite around fires, celebrate our heritage and wave our national flag on Heritage Day every year. The name of the project is of course, Braai Day, because we want people to braai on the day. The idea stems from a cocktail of a few other national days of celebration around the world – most famously, St. Patrick’s Day of Ireland, King’s Day in the Netherlands, Australia Day, and then also Thanksgiving in the US. There are other examples, which I think are familiar in the South African market. South Africa, as we all know, has a lot of public holidays: most of them political or religious in nature but throughout the history of the world, politics and religion are two of the main reasons for nations to go to war.

Jan Braai
Jan Braai.

It’s not really the type of topic that typically unites large groups of people. The idea was to find a day where we can all have something in common. In South Africa, we have so many things. We have a fractured political past. On a daily basis, there are also a lot of things that people fight and disagree about. As I said, for one day, let’s just put our differences aside and celebrate South Africa. Another apt name for the day could simply be South Africa Day – just a day to celebrate that you are South African. If you read the original government statements in 1995 as well as the speeches that former President Nelson Mandela made at the time when the first Democratic Government of South Africa instituted National Heritage Day, then what we’re trying to do with the Braai Day project cuts very close to the bone of what exactly the purpose of Heritage Day is, and that is to celebrate South African heritage.

For you, it must have been quite a move to have gone from being a chartered accountant to making a career out of the world-famous South African braai. What is it about braaiing that drew you in, particularly?

I love braaiing as much as any other person. It’s not that I dreamt of being famous for braaiing or famous for standing next to a fire. The idea is; really, to create a national day of celebration in South Africa and braaiing is the hook/angle/theme of that celebration because it’s the way we celebrate in South Africa, irrespective of demographics, background, or income groups. The wealthiest and the poorest people all love to braai. The middle-class usually use gas, but wealthy people and poor people braai in exactly the same way – by using wood to make fire. Food is also a logical way to use as a centrepiece of a large celebration because typically, food and drink is the way that you celebrate.

For me, coming from a financial services background initially, I didn’t know anything about marketing. There’s no marketing in your curriculum when you study to be an accountant.  So, I then went ahead and almost approached it from a marketing (social marketing, not social media) perspective. So, social marketing is when for example, look at how do you get a whole country to know that they must wear seatbelts? How do you convince a whole country that when women are pregnant, they shouldn’t be drinking? There’s a lot of worldwide studies on these things: i.e. if you feel you need to convince a nation of some or another thing, how to go about it. I approached it as a subject and I started buying and ordering books on marketing, and studying marketing. Then I figured out that you actually need a PR. At the time, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a PR company. Then I had to get PR companies involved to help me in engaging with the media and getting what we call spin doctors to help me craft a message. I knew what I had in mind, but I didn’t always maybe use the correct words.

I wasn’t able to communicate correctly what I was trying to say, so then you need people to sit with you and help you to figure out what is the logical, easy way to explain to the nation what it is that you’re trying to do. I think it was in 2007, when I started spending all my time on Braai Day so that’s also the year when I started travelling through South Africa. I was jogging in the mountains one day and I thought ‘if the US President’s tour criss-cross America in the build-up to the elections’ then that’s pretty much what I need to do. I started reaching out to communities, engaging with community leaders, and also listening to/hearing what people think, what people do, how people braai, and how people perceive this thing. Since then, it’s been ten years that (it’s not that I’m a nomad) I travel a lot – everywhere in South Africa. I braai with people and that’s really, where the Jan Braai part of the story comes from.

As you travel and braai with a whole host of people everywhere, everybody teaches you something and then you end up ten years later with a hell of a lot of knowledge on how to actually braai. Ten years ago, I would say I braaied as much or as well as anybody else.

During your travels throughout South Africa, what were some of the chief takeaways that you had from that? It must have been quite an incredible experience because you have sat around fires with people, discussing and chatting. Did your perspective of South Africa change in any way, through doing that?

When I say we live in the greatest country in the world, it’s not just a phrase I throw out lightly. I genuinely believe that. Then, I also feel that through these travels and braais that most South Africans are positive about the future of the country. There, I do think (and I don’t want to sound like Donald Trump blaming the media) that the negative voices sometimes get too much attention from the media. South Africa has a good story to tell, as President Mbeki used to say. In terms of the nation, I think we’re well poised to really have a great future and also, for our children and their children to have a great future. Braaiing: the one thing that is interesting for me is that boerewors is braaied everywhere. It’s almost the only thing that you get everywhere. Wherever you go in South Africa, there’s boerewors.

The other thing is of course, you get different types of wood and there I can honestly say that the best wood to braai with is whatever is local. Wherever you go, it makes no sense for me to waste money by trucking in types of wood. If somebody braais in Cape Town, they should be using Rooikrans etc. If you’re in the Bushveld, you should be braaiing with Mopani. It’s completely silly to put wood on a truck and transport it thousands of kilometres because you think it’s special. I don’t think any particular wood is better. Some wood burns quicker and that just means you braai quicker.

What do you make of how big Braai Day has become? In many respects, some people may argue that it’s become bigger than Heritage Day itself. It’s obviously, quite a huge event on the annual calendar now.

Look, I don’t think it’s bigger than Heritage Day because it’s fundamentally and intrinsically party of Heritage Day. In terms of a single thing that is done on Heritage Day, I would say it is probably the biggest thing and that makes me happy. It’s an incredibly satisfying feeling – that millions of people buy into this idea. It is of course, a massive injection into the economy – in the informal sector for people collecting firewood, farmers selling meat in the supermarket, and the ad industry. So it’s like any other big day for the country to generate money and generate jobs. Did I think it would become this big? Yes, I did. I can’t say that I’m surprised. I can say that I’m very happy but it was always my intention that it would be this big and in fact, we’re not there yet. I want it to be even bigger. I don’t want to personally host massive events so for me, it must be decentralised in a way that St. Patrick’s Day has been decentralised or Thanksgiving.

Wherever you are, just have a braai. Light a fire with fellow South Africans whether they are strangers, neighbours, whether you do a street braai or you’re just braaiing by yourself; it doesn’t actually matter. The point is about lighting a fire. About 160 000 years ago, Homo Sapiens first braaied in South Africa in a series of caves on the south coast between modern day Mossel Bay and Plettenberg Bay. These were the first people (modern humans) to ever braai and by braaiing, they survived the Ice Age and also, they ate more meat and more seafood, especially shellfish than other Homo Sapiens so their brains developed faster. We are all descendants of those early South Africans. It’s such an intrinsic part of the South African heritage that it’s just a very logical fit for me.

Apart from heading up National Braai Day, you’ve also written two braai books and you’re a co-producer and presenter of the Kyknet TV show in which, you travel across South Africa. Obviously, this has become quite a serious business for you. It takes up all your time, I presume?

Yes, it’s a full-time job. I actually have three full-time employees and quite a few consultants and part-time people that help me. Braai Day (the project) unites millions of people on the 24th of September around fires. That’s almost the whole country. Then everything else flows from that. The books are sort of my pension money and they sell quite well. It’s a privilege to be able to publish books. It’s like owning a restaurant or a bar. It’s one of those things that everybody thinks ‘yeah, one day I probably want to be that, or write a book’. Everybody wants to write a book. The challenge is then to get your book published and then have people actually buy it so that it moves off the shelves. That’s very satisfying. The first book sold extremely well and was the Number 1 non-fiction booked in the country for a long time but it was always pipped on the bestseller list by Fifty Shades of Grey, which was in the same year. That’s something I can never quite get over.

I think that’s probably something to be proud of in a way – that you were right up there with that kind of book.

Yes and no, I guess. The TV show is almost a loophole in the system because if you’re running ads to promote the message about fires, you have to pay to make the ads and then you have to pay to flight the ads. Now, the topic of the TV show literally involves me travelling through the country and the world, encouraging people to braai on Braai Day. Not only does it flight for free obviously, but the TV station pays me to make the program so you’re basically getting paid to make your own advertisement and it’s getting flighted for free so that’s very nice. It obviously also opens a lot of doors. The only disadvantage of the show for me really, is that it’s in Afrikaans so you are unfortunately limiting your market but it has allowed me (over the last decade) to build up a core supporter base and a core group of disciples. For me, it’s not the target market.

The target market is all South Africans on Braai Day but by speaking directly to half-a-million people per week (a captive audience), you are recruiting some really passionate and loyal supporters and disciples who can then go out and spread the message and organise braais.

You’ve got a proper MBA but you’ve previously joked that you also have a ‘Masters in Braai Activities’. I want to know which qualification has helped you out most in life?

Both. I studied accounting at Stellenbosch and then I did my Articles with PwC in Cape Town for a year, before resigning. Then, when I was doing Braai Day, it didn’t grow quite as fast as I wanted it to grow so I was sitting between a rock and a hard place. I had to do something at the time. It wasn’t a full-time job like it is now. It was years before writing books, doing TV shows, and making public appearances. I had to do something and I thought the logical thing to do is to study a bit more, so then I studied MBA at UCT and that was a fantastic year of my life. The campus of the Business School of UCT is at the Waterfront so for lunchtime, you’d go and have a beer at Quay 4. I was 27 at the time so I had a great year. In terms of long-term skills, I’d probably say the ‘Masters in Braai Activities’ because there you really get to know the country and you get to know stuff.

The people: the most obvious example is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I’ve been able to meet with him a few times and spend time. I wouldn’t say I have him on speed dial, but if I need advice I know he’s always there to give me advice, so he’s the best example but there are a lot of others interesting characters that I’ve met over the years.

In a turbulent time like now in South Africa with so much political noise and tension in the air, do you think that the braai is the one thing that can unite South Africans at a time like this?

Absolutely. Most times, in life, even if you disagree with people; as long as you just discuss it…if people just engage in topics… I think it shows that the need for Braai Day is much bigger now than it was 12 years ago. We’re never going to agree on everything but just on this one day, set your differences aside. At a braai, you can learn about other people and they can learn about you. That causes mutual understanding, which is clearly a good thing for this country. Listening to political speeches doesn’t teach you anything about the heritage whereas if you’re standing around the fire and actually chatting, that’s real progress.

Jan Braai, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you today. Thanks for taking the time to chat to us.

Thank you very much and I hope that everybody listening to this show will go out and light fires on the 24th of September.

Brilliant. I’m sure that everybody will. Thanks again.

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