What South Africa means to me
in bed on a hot summer's night, hearing my parents talking in the
sitting room nearby, and from far away across a valley the sounds of
drums and people singing rhythmically and in complex harmonies, I
remember feeling a sort of thrill, a frisson , at the
realisation that the two sounds meant such different things, and that I was connected to both.
That is an early memory. Was perhaps four or five at the time, and did not have the insight or the vocabulary to make much sense of what I was experiencing. I knew that I liked it, though. It felt so right to me.
Later I came to realise that I was indeed in a privileged position in history – that I was waking up to a world on the cusp of a historical evolutionary moment. My parents represented the last of a breed, the last of a type, the type that was caricatured in so many cartoons of missionaries braving the jungle, pith-helmetted with Bible in hand, cutting their way through the dense jungle, surrounded by danger, to bring the “Good News” to the “heathen savages” who were “outside the fold” and in need of salvation.
As I grew up, the scenes of my youth, the pleasant walks in the forests surrounding our home, the hearty meals cooked by mother's “treasure”, Mariah, in a kitchen dominated by a large, black, wood-fired stove, were already anachronisms, already doomed to extinction.
The world was just coming out of the dreadful cataclysm that was the Second World War, and Africa was just starting to see the possibility of shaking off the yoke of imperialism that had burdened its people for centuries.
The spiritual connection
We at the southern tip of Africa were faced with some tough choices. I can remember my father's intense dismay at the victory in the elections of 1948 (ironically, they were held on his birthday, 26 May) of the National Party under prophet of apartheid Dr D.F. Malan. I remember, too, that I, all of four years old, picked up on his feelings of anger and disappointment, and pleaded with him that we should go and live somewhere else, like Scotland, perhaps.
Already I was feeling the almost schizoid pulls of Africa on the one hand, represented by the night music I was hearing, and Europe on the other hand, which I saw in some romantic way as an alternative home, perhaps. But the vague safety of Europe was no match, really, for the intense reality of the rhythm and the harmony, the bright days and fragrant nights, the rolling, grassy hills and the wonderful, warm people of Africa.
And so as I played with my Dinky Toys on the dusty pathways around our house, my head was being filled with the stories of David Livingston and how he battled against the slave trade, of my father's experiences during the war when he was stationed on Robben Island off Cape Town, and I also started to develop some awareness of the horrors that had been going on in that war.
Over the years since then my sense of Africa has, I think, deepened and become more realistic, less romantic. And yet I still feel the intense pull of this place, its seductive beauty, its fecundity, and the depth of the spiritual connection that can be felt here, if one is open to it.
Language and respect
I do not mean “spiritual” in any religious sense. I mean “spiritual” in the sense of the intense humanity of the people, especially of South African people. Some people call it “uBuntu”, the spirit of African humanism. And that feels right to me, as the root of the word “uBuntu” is the word “umntu” which means “person”. It is a term of deep respect.
This philosophy is expressed in the saying "Umntu ngumuntu ngabantu" - a person is a person through other people. This expression I first heard in Afrikaans, - "'n Mens is 'n mens deur mense" - when spoken by my philosophy lecturer Dr Johan Degenaar at the University of Stellenbosch almost 50 years ago now. It is a saying that is the inheritance of every South African.
The people of South Africa were subjected to one of the most intense programmes of dehumanisation ever implemented. Even that wonderful word “umntu” was turned into a derogatory term, and deliberately mispronounced by many whites, who would refer to their black compatriots as “munts”. So a word with a profound meaning to blacks was debased by whites into a term of disdain, of complete lack of respect.
A similar thing happened with the plural of “umntu” which is “abantu”. The apartheid regime used the word “bantu” to mean a black person, and whites would even speak of “bantus” not realising that “abantu” is already plural. (The anthropological term “bantu”, especially as denoting a particular family of languages, is less objectionable, though personally I'm still suspicious of it).
The implication of this rape of a language, this complete disrespect for it, is that the people to whom the language is their language, are not worthy of respect or acceptance. It is a display of ignorance, a kind of knowing ignorance, which implies that it is not worth really knowing anything about the language. Just bastardise it for one's own purposes and don't think about the people to whom the language is important.
- Sushi king in mining row - Gauteng - IOL | Breaking News | South Africa News | World News | Sport |
Colourful tycoon and sushi king Kenny Kunene boasted that his 40th birthday party cost R1 million but his promises to uplift poor communities with projects worth R54.2m smell fishy.
Trends in South Africa
In South Africa today there are many cultural and social currents flowing, some quite close to the surface and so noticeable, others submerged and so less observed. I just want to highlight two contrasting currents or trends which I am observing as being at play.
The first trend is the tendency on the part of some whites in South Africa to minimise the evil that was apartheid. There is this effort to say that apartheid was not so bad, really blacks under apartheid were better off than blacks in the rest of Africa, owned more cars, had better houses, and so on.
Even if blacks under apartheid were materially better off, which actually I doubt, the real evil of apartheid was not the material disadvantages that blacks suffered, though these were not inconsiderable. The real evil of apartheid was at a spiritual and psychological level.
Blacks were told, directly and indirectly, that they were second class, not so good, had no culture, needed whites to guide them. This is dehumanising, this is disempowering.
So the trend of minimising the evil of apartheid is a lie. For a white to really understand what apartheid meant to a black would take mighty acts of will and imagination. And unless we do use our imagination, unless we consciously decide to really understand how apartheid was for a black person we have absolutely no right whatsoever to try to say that apartheid wasn't that bad. It was bad, so bad that whites I think will always struggle to understand how bad.
The other trend which is defining something in our society is that of conspicuous consumption on the part of some blacks who have “made it” in the money stakes, and the defence they use of their blatant and vulgar displays of affluence: that criticism of it is somehow the result of a refusal to accept or acknowledge black success.
South Africa is the most unequal society in the world as measured by the Gini co-efficient. The wide disparity between the wealthy and the poor is acknowledged as a reality and a serious problem by the government. The wealthy are mostly, though not by any means exclusively, white. The poor are mostly, though, again, not exclusively, black.
In the face of this kind of inequality, the widely-publicised eating of sushi off the bodies of scantily-clad, beautiful young women is just obscene. It is degrading to the women, and insulting and insensitive to those who struggle to find a meal, any meal, each day.
There are people who live on land-fills and rubbish dumps, scratching for morsels of food discarded by others. There is a point to celebrating success, but one has to look at the nature of the celebration in the face of the extreme deprivation suffered by so many.
Some of my Hubs on South Africa
- South African jazz a historical introduction to the beautiful music of a beautiful country
A brief look at the history of jazz in South Africa
- South African Freedom Day 2010 some reflections
Some reflections on South Africa as we prepare to celebrate the 16th anniversary of democracy and the defeat of apartheid.
- Indian South Africans 150 years of toil and triumph
Indians arrived in South Africa as indentured labourers in 1860. This Hub celebrates 150 years of their contribution to South African culture.
- Cape Town City South Africa in pictures
A collection of photos taken during an hour long stroll around Cape Town's city centre. Cape Town is the Mother City of South Africa
- South Africas Mother City at the Fairest Cape
Cape Town's history and present have produced a vibrant city full of interesting places to see and things to do.
- Blythswood: a unique South African mission station
Blythswood Missionary Institution in the former Transkei, South Africa, was unique in that the people it served asked for it and contributed to the cost of setting it up.
- Historic Hartbeespoort Dam - the battle against water pollution
A historic dam is threatened by pollution and a remediation project is launched to save it
- Zita Park in Garsfontein, Pretoria a place of fun and reconciliation for all
Zita Park in Garsfontein, Pretoria, is a great place for children to have fun in a really safe environment
- Gandhi in South Africa - racism and non-violence
Gandhi landed in Durban, in what is now kwaZulu-Natal Province, in May 1893, a newly-qualified barrister sent to do some legal work for a Bombay legal firm which had some interests in South Africa.
- Wonderboom - Pretoria's 1000-year-old wonder tree
Pertoria's wonder tree is more than 1000 years old and is rich in history.
- What happened in South Africa after Nelson Mandela was released from prison
Nelson Mandela, Madiba to his millions of followers, was released on 11 February 1990. This Hub celebrates the 20th anniversary of this historic day
- Historical old buildings in Cape Town: St Stephen's Church and the Bo-Kaap
Strand Street in Cape Town runs from the Castle of Good Hope on the Grand Parade to the foot of Signal Hill. On the way it passes many historical and interesting places, including what used to be called Boeren Plein (Farmers' Square) or Hottentot Ple
- A perfect female the fascinating tale of Dr James Barry
In an awesome life of role-playing Dr James Barry managed to keep his real identity, Margaret Bulkley, a secret until his (her?) death. For more than 50 years Barry duped the military and medical authorities of Britain, first in getting medical train
Knowing where we have come from, where are we going?
The elections of 1948 (in which only whites voted, apart from a handful of blacks in the Cape, where a different franchise was in operation) ushered in a period of turmoil and suffering and the determined attempt to impose a racial system of great cruelty.
The elections of 1994, in which all South Africans across the land participated, ushered in a period of a different kind of social experiment, a social contract based on human rights, non-racialism, non-sexism and a broad inclusiveness which deliberately cut across the divisions created and maintained by apartheid.
In 1996 the country's Parliament adopted the SOUTH AFRICA CONSTITUTION ACT 1996 which entrenched in a legal instrument the hopes and aspirations of the South African people in all their rich diversity.
On the occasion of the adoption of the new constitution in May 1996 then-Deputy President, later President, Thabo Mbeki made a speech in the Assembly which has become known as the "I am an African" speech and is justly celebrated as one of the greatest ever made in South Africa.
In ringing cadences typical of black oratory Mr Mbeki claimed the right of all South Africans to the title "African."
Some excerpts from this classic speech:
I am an African.
I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land.
My body has frozen in our frosts and in our latter day snows. It has thawed in the warmth of our sunshine and melted in the heat of the midday sun. The crack and the rumble of the summer thunders, lashed by startling lightening, have been a cause both of trembling and of hope.
The fragrances of nature have been as pleasant to us as the sight of the wild blooms of the citizens of the veld.
The dramatic shapes of the Drakensberg, the soil-coloured waters of the Lekoa, iGqili noThukela, and the sands of the Kgalagadi, have all been panels of the set on the natural stage on which we act out the foolish deeds of the theatre of our day.
At times, and in fear, I have wondered whether I should concede equal citizenship of our country to the leopard and the lion, the elephant and the springbok, the hyena, the black mamba and the pestilential mosquito.
A human presence among all these, a feature on the face of our native land thus defined, I know that none dare challenge me when I say - I am an African!
I owe my being to the Khoi and the San whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape - they who fell victim to the most merciless genocide our native land has ever seen, they who were the first to lose their lives in the struggle to defend our freedom and dependence and they who, as a people, perished in the result.
Today, as a country, we keep an audible silence about these ancestors of the generations that live, fearful to admit the horror of a former deed, seeking to obliterate from our memories a cruel occurrence which, in its remembering, should teach us not and never to be inhuman again.
I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still, part of me.
In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East. Their proud dignity informs my bearing, their culture a part of my essence. The stripes they bore on their bodies from the lash of the slave master are a reminder embossed on my consciousness of what should not be done.
I am the grandchild of the warrior men and women that Hintsa and Sekhukhune led, the patriots that Cetshwayo and Mphephu took to battle, the soldiers Moshoeshoe and Ngungunyane taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom.
My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by the victories that are the jewels in our African crown, the victories we earned from Isandhlwana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as the Ashanti of Ghana, as the Berbers of the desert.
I am the grandchild who lays fresh flowers on the Boer graves at St Helena and the Bahamas, who sees in the mind's eye and suffers the suffering of a simple peasant folk, death, concentration camps, destroyed homesteads, a dream in ruins.
I am the child of Nongqause. I am he who made it possible to trade in the world markets in diamonds, in gold, in the same food for which my stomach yearns.
I come of those who were transported from India and China, whose being resided in the fact, solely, that they were able to provide physical labour, who taught me that we could both be at home and be foreign, who taught me that human existence itself demanded that freedom was a necessary condition for that human existence.
Being part of all these people, and in the knowledge that none dare contest that assertion, I shall claim that - I am an African.
Mr Mbeki also stated the clear hopes for the future that most South Africans share, the hopes that were struggled for during the dark apartheid years, the hopes that we strive for today, that were bing embodied in the constitution adopted that day:
I am born of the peoples of the continent of Africa.
The pain of the violent conflict that the peoples of Liberia, Somalia, the Sudan, Burundi and Algeria is a pain I also bear.
The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share.
The blight on our happiness that derives from this and from our drift to the periphery of the ordering of human affairs leaves us in a persistent shadow of despair.
This is a savage road to which nobody should be condemned.
This thing that we have done today, in this small corner of a great continent that has contributed so decisively to the evolution of humanity says that Africa reaffirms that she is continuing her rise from the ashes.
Whatever the setbacks of the moment, nothing can stop us now!
Whatever the difficulties, Africa shall be at peace!
However improbable it may sound to the sceptics, Africa will prosper!
So where are we now?
I am not a romantic idealist who is blind to the many faults of this country, South Africa. There is too much violence against women and children; there is too much crime, and frequently violent crime, for any of us to feel complacent; there is too much poverty, and the school system is woeful. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has left communities ravaged, the number of child-headed households proliferating, and the provision of health care, especially to the most vulnerable, almost hopelessly inadequate.
There is corruption up to the highest levels of government which is sapping the moral fibre of the people and providing an incredibly bad example for young people to follow. Added to this is a lack of accountability, almost an avoidance of accountability, in all levels and spheres of public life.
There is still too much poverty around - too many people are still excluded from the benefits of the democracy and freedom that has been so hard-won. Too many people go to bed hungry at night, too many people don't have a decent shelter or a piece of land to call their own, too many school children still attend classes under trees instead of in proper classrooms, and too many of them still have to walk many kilometres to their schools, leaving them vulnerable to unsrupulous people and the ravages of exhaustion and hunger.
For all that I remain optimistic about South Africa. I agree with Mr Mbeki, that given what we have come through, "Whoever we may be, whatever our immediate interest, however much we carry baggage from our past, however much we have been caught by the fashion of cynicism and loss of faith in the capacity of the people, let us err today and say - nothing can stop us now!"
I am optimistic because I believe in the strength of our democracy and the readiness of people to debate issues, to talk out and to be vigilant.
I am optimistic because, for all the difficulties we have face in the economy, we are resourceful and, as the old Afrikaans saying goes, "'n Boer maak 'n plan (A farmer will make a plan)".
I am optimistic because I encounter daily evidence of the goodwill of the majority of people, without regard to colour, language or social class. I am constantly amazed at the level of acceptance we show each other.
I am optimistic because people still rally around worthwhile causes, like the "16 Days of Activism agains Women and Child Abuse" which happens each year.
There are still people like young Puddy Zwennis who recently rode a skateboard from Johannesburg to Cape Town, a distance of 1800 kilometres, to raise awareness of poverty.
Puddy wrote on his website Skate for Change: "I had everything I could wish for, even the things we took for granted, like a warm bed to sleep in at night and a delicious plate of food every day... Life has always been good to me, I never had any shortcomings... That is why it is time for me to return the favour."
How can I not hope when there are young folk who can think like that?
The kind of South Africa I can believe in
I have just found this excellent piece by Professor Jonathan Jansen of the University of the Free State called "My South Africa" which I thought readers here might also appreciate. It was posted by entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson on his personal blog.
Please hop over there and read it. This is the kind of thing which makes me happy to call myself a South Afican!
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2011