South Africa Has a Heart

A couple of good friends of mine started yet another wave of Afro-pessimist discussions. One of them is a former co-worker who moved here from Germany less than a year ago, and another is one of many South Africans who decided that they had enough of this place and moved to a space in the advanced world, where things run predictably and one is more likely to die old in bed than in a violent crime. Both people, I must say, are very near and dear to me and I understand where they are coming from, but I do not feel that they are judging this place fairly.

I would be imitating the official propaganda line if I say that the world has to judge South Africa by where it used to be a few decades ago, with gross inequalities and tension between the races reaching a near-breaking p0int. I would be asking too much of the world perhaps to judge it not by the yardstick of a Europe whose civilization has been in the making for hundreds of year, or by the yardstick of a North America, or Australia who built their civilization after marginalizing and ousting the indigenous peoples.

I ask people to judge South Africa by its heart, by its people.  The people who are the salt of the earth of this country (and this continent) are not the criminals who broke into my flat and lifted my computer, they are not the child rapists,  they are not the corrupt politicians, and they are not the South Africans who criticize and bad-mouth the country with another (western) passport tucked safely into their back pockets. It is everyone else who lives in this place trying to earn an honest living with a smile, no matter how difficult things get.

I have been to Europe and I always get this cold feeling from people around me. They complain and moan if the bus is late, and quickly start huffing and puffing if another person inadvertently blocks their way in a supermarket aisle.  People are so uncharitable and intolerant of others’ mishaps and of small inconveniences.

Here in South Africa, people are tougher, yet in a way this makes them more human. We tolerate being squeezed four abreast in a minibus. We wait patiently when a person wallows in confusion not knowing exactly what item they are looking for in a shop. We greet each other on the road, and we smile. We start making conversations and getting to know someone after we encountered them once or twice at the same place.

People in this country have a lot on their plate. They fight the daily prejudice, and the crime. They try to eke out an existence hampered by daily inconvenience of imperfect services and over-extended public facilities, and yet they persevere, with dignity and with a smile.

A few days ago I was walking towards the V & A Waterfront. Across the road from the Commodore Hotel there is (or was) a bedsitter of sort, or cheap flats.  On that day I saw the people who lived in that bedsitter. They were strewn on the sidewalk along with all their worldly belongings. There were cookers, ancient fridges, bunk beds, appliances, and at least one battered car.  But mostly there were the mattresses and bedrolls, extending from the wall of the property to block the whole sidewalk.

I walked past mostly black and coloured people of varied ages.  I saw one gaunt-looking elderly white woman in blue jeans cuddling an equally ancient dog. These were no bums or homeless beggars. Most wore decent, but old clothes, and some were passing the time by reading. Perhaps there were a few students from out of town among them.  As I walked along I saw a clutch of them further on talking to a policeman in a patrol car, but there was no trouble, rioting or shouting as you would expect under the circumstances.  When I wanted to maneuver Robert’s buggy past the last mattress, the young man sitting on it just moved it aside. I turned and said: “Thank you”. He surprised me by answering, with a smile: “You’re welcome and sorry for the trouble”.

I was so blown away by his polite answer, because it was so free of rancour and so incongruous with his desperate situation. I  had to ask him then what was happening there, and as I expected they have been evicted from their lodgings. The young man did not seem perturbed but rather optimistic that the policeman will solve the problem. I keep thinking of these people now and hope that they have been sorted out. That man, and the way he behaved is in a nutshell the people of South Africa. The way they react to dire problems with patience, dignity and humor always amazes and inspires me.

I once spoke to a friend of mine about South Africa, why I love it.  There are many reasons, but mostly because it is a place that challenges you, and surprises you. Sometimes the surprises are nasty, but most of the time they are little gems of wonder, wisdom and learning.

South Africa makes you face your own prejudice and challenges it. You cannot hide behind the familiarity of your comfort zone, be it country, colour, race or sexual preference, and then glibly make a judgment on this country.  To those who question whether South Africa is capable of hosting the World Cup I say: Didn’t Mexico host one successfully ? Didn’t Greece pull off hosting the Olympics, with a balance book worse than South Africa’s?  What I would like to know the REAL criteria that makes these two countries better than  South Africa.

Yes, perhaps I am wearing rose-coloured blinkers, but I am optimistic that this World Cup will work. It won’t be spectacular, groundbreaking or breathtaking, but it will be an African World Cup, for All Africans to be proud of and for the world to enjoy.

This is the link to the article my friend mailed me and which was referred to in this post by my friend the Baron.  One of the commentators inspired me to write this. He reasons that it is the responsibility of the world to assist in making this World Cup work for South Africa and thus give hope for the future of the continent,  because South Africa its  only beacon of hope. He said: The world cup is the symbol of the future for this country. If it is pulled from [its people], whatever investments exist in the country will be pulled out, whatever skilled people remain in the country will surely leave, and Africa will go to pot”. I think his opinion has merit, and I also believe that true aid is teaching Africans how to do things, not to throw money and food at them. The world however prefers either to do the latter, or to watch from afar expecting us to burn ourselves down anytime.

Here are all the other reasons why I love South Africa ( I will be adding to this list as I remember things).

1- It is the rainbow nation. Nobody here is too foreign, and no religion is too exotic .  Most people accept you for what you are.

2- I can wear shorts and sandals almost year round.

3- I do not own mittens, gloves, or long underwear.

4- I can see wild animals in their natural habitat.

5- I can get my documents certified for free at the police station.

6- I don’t have to see the face of one corrupt political leader or another whenever I open my wallet to take out paper money. Our money has the faces of the big five (African wild animals: Rhino, Elephant, Lion, Buffalo, and leopard).

7- In South Africa you can install prepaid electricity meters, where you can really watch your electricity consumption.

8- South Africa is ranked 35th out of 178 countries for ease of doing business – ahead of places like Spain, Brazil and India.

9- South Africans are creative, resourceful and artistically inclined – you can enjoy the creative energy everywhere. There is amazing music, literature and visual art produced here. This apart from the traditional and innovative arts and crafts you see in market stalls.

10- It is God’s own country, stunning in every way, with amazing biodiversity and most wonderful vistas.

11- Chocolate marshmallow Easter eggs, Chutney, and the plethora of tastes and spices from all over the world.

12- The abundance and variety of local fruit and vegetables: Avocados, mango, litchi, papaya and pineapple are a few of the popular ones, in addition to all types of other fruits I am used to in the northern hemisphere. No wonder South Africa is one of the largest fruit exporters in the world.

13- I can easily get and afford efficient household help.  I try not to abuse the privilege by offering decent working conditions and wages.

14- The music, the spontaneous rhythm that comes out of people at every possible occasion. There is nothing more moving than strangers singing together in perfect harmony that comes out of the joy of the occasion, completely unrehearsed.  Even the demonstrations and strike become a song-and-dance affair. After all, we are the people who made the toyi-toyi protest dance famous.

There are many more reasons but to sum up most of what I read and feel, I can say that South Africa is real, passionate and challenging.  Living here has an element of adventure, as you are experiencing a place that is evolving and trying to find its place in the world. So if you like your life predictable, and safe you may want to stay away.  South Africa, like its mother continent,  is wild, passionate and surprising and it takes a free spirit with tenacity and tolerance to understand and embrace it.

Make Your Choice:

5 Reasons Why South Africa is Not Ready for World Cup 2010

5 Reasons to Stay in SA & 5 Reasons to Leave

24 More Reasons to Stay in SA

One of the best reasons sums it up

Update: The Cape Argus ran a story about the eviction on Portswood Road. Here is their update. Unfortunately there was no happy ending for the people involved.

The eviction might have been one of the results of moving Somerset Hospital (A government hospital) from Green Point. This move is most probably motivated by the business potential of the building and area of the hospital, which is very close to the V&A Waterfront. I bet it would be turned into a hotel, making money for big business, at the expense of the weak and poor as usual.