South Africa in Six Words

Not long before I left Chicago, a colleague at CG&A shared a book called Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs from Writers Famous & Obscure. A few of us took the challenge and tried to pen six-word memoirs of our tenure at the company. I think my favorite was Nottoli’s “1,095 bagels later, I’m still here.”

The concept, as you may know, stems from a piece by Ernest Hemingway, who, as the legend goes, was challenged to write a story in only six words. The result was magnificent in its heartbreak: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Over the course of our year here, I will challenge myself (if I remember to do so) to tell stories about South Africa in six words. Or, at least I will try to describe South Africa in six words. I’m no Hemingway.

Just two months in, my attempts are bound to be surface-level in nature, but it’s a fun – and hopefully worthwhile – exercise. Here goes:

Big Five, bigger issues, biggest hearts.

Legacy shed, we are looking forward.

Quirky, mixed-race teenager seeks worldwide attention.

Rainbow Nation, you can do this!

Brus, braais, Boks and Bafana Bafana.

I’ll keep working on it…

What story can you tell in six words? What six words do you have for us? What’s your six-word memoir?

While you’re composing, here’s one more for you:

Planes fly. Board one. Get here.

The Country is Young

Living in South Africa, it is impossible to ignore the many and great growing pains the country is going through following the transition to democracy in 1994. Following the elections of that year, Nelson Mandela took control of a country in which the minority, white population had the majority of wealth and power, and managed to guide the new “Rainbow Nation” towards its glorious (re)entry onto the world stage. Once the “Mandela glue” weakened and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) realized that fighting the government was much different than actually being the government, new challenges and difficulties emerged.

While we are admittedly not the most qualified to interpret, least of all judge, the growth of the democracy, we can, perhaps, offer our thoughts. We are trying to gain perspective on all of this by reading books and speaking with a wide range of South Africans, including veterans of the struggle. One of the observations made by Alec Russell (among others) in his book, Bring Me My Machine Gun, is that the new, post-apartheid political system has not yet been able to separate politics from policy, party from government.

A couple of related items dominating the news here are the case of the country’s Public Protector (a national watchdog, similar to an inspector general) and her investigation into police corruption, and of a South African newspaper’s investigation into potentially questionable business deals done by the leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema.

In the first case, the Public Protector has actually required protection herself and had gone into hiding because members of the police, the ANC and others were so upset that she would expose the corruption. She should have turned a blind eye, even though the separation of powers inherent in a democracy gives her freedom and authority — and, most would argue, the imperative — to be a government watchdog, to expose corruption and deliver justice.

In the second case, Malema and his supporters are outraged at such “attacks” by the media, when it seems a perfectly legitimate question to ask the self-described “champion of the poor” how he affords his cars, clothes and property. At a recent press conference called by the ANC Youth League, Malema was strangely absent. When reporters asked his representatives where he was, the men on stage responded by asking why the media kept attacking Malema. Simple question. Not so simple answer.

This Sunday, I read a powerful column by veteran anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele in the City Press newspaper, the same paper taking the lead on the Malema issue. She condemns what she calls a “culture of impunity”  and does so through the context of what it means to live in a democracy:

We stand at a very dangerous place as a young democracy. Public discourse over the past few months has raised serious questions about our shared view of right and wrong as citizens of a constitutional democracy.

There is a growing tendency to use loaded metaphors to label those we disagree with – counter-revolutionaries, tea girls, coconuts, black snakes and so on. 

Why is it becoming so difficult to debate the merits of our arguments in a country that protects free speech?

I would like to suggest the root cause of our intolerance for dissenting voices is our lack of understanding and, in some cases, unwillingness to accept the basic tenets of our constitutional democracy. 

After citing examples from provinces around the country, she delivers a call to action to all South Africans, but especially black South Africans:

A culture of impunity is creeping into our society with frightening speed. Solidarity with fellow black people cannot be an excuse for condoning corrupt practices.

Black people are the majority in South Africa and should take ownership of this democracy, including responsibility for social justice for those poorer than us.

She concludes with the following:

The blurring of the boundaries between persons in public life and the organisations they represent, as well as that between personal interests and shared common resources, is a danger to the health of our democracy.

Citizens need to be vigilant and not fear speaking out. 

After all, fear is what kept South Africa under the yoke of apartheid for so long. Our future expects better from us.

Thinking about all of this, I am reminded of a great song by Welsh-born-but-long-time-Chicago musician, Jon Langford, called “The Country is Young.” The track is, I think, very clearly about the United States and its age and experience in the world, relatively speaking. But when we are talking about a South African democracy that’s just barely old enough to drive, the lyrics seem all that much more applicable here.

The country is young
Just crawled to its feet
Takes a step and collapses
All in a heap

Resist the temptation
To slap the child down
Try to remember its age
Realize the potential
Deflect all the rage

Not too big on the sharin’
The gentle or the carin’

The country is young
The country is young

Here’s hoping South Africa can realize its great potential with a minimum of rage.

The Constant

Loyal fans of the TV drama Lost are intimately familiar with the concept of “the constant.” In the episode of the same name, Desmond begins to travel back and forth in time and worries that the time warps may kill him until, as a young Daniel Faraday instructs, he finds a constant – something or someone present in both times that can be an anchor. For Desmond, that constant turns out to be the lovely Penny.

For us, the time warps are not nearly as dramatic or dangerous (no headaches or nosebleeds), but it seems important to find a constant, nevertheless.

The flashbacks and flash-forwards (Hoffs/Drawlar, anyone?) began soon after we arrived. One moment we’d see a street full of BMWs, Audis and Mercedes, and the next moment we’d see a woman carrying a basket on her head. One minute we’d be discussing advances in South African higher education, and the next minute we’d learn about kids outside Pretoria who don’t even have a school to attend. One day we’d be in the Rainbow Nation, the next day we’d be in a country filled with racist violence.

It’s a daily dichotomy. Signs of modernity clash with evidence of the past everywhere we look.

Then, it hit me. We’ve been through this before, in other travels. In Nepal, where barefoot porters strap loads of Pringles and Spanish beer to their backs and deliver them to tiny mountain villages, and yaks wander carefree past internet cafes. In Morocco, where donkeys pull carts stacked with recently tanned hides through souks selling the latest Hollywood DVDs and brightly colored plastic cell phone cases.

The Constant: Orange Peels

The constant, the thing present in all of these places that could anchor us in time – as transitory a time as it may be – was orange peels. Simple, organic and innocent orange peels. They are everywhere.

Just as they are found in the swept streets of Thamel and the rocky trails of the High Atlas, they are here, too – on the lawn outside security gates, in the middle of roundabouts, between the cobblestones at the entrances to malls.

Orange peels.

So now that we have our constant, will we be firmly anchored or will we continue to experience such temporal dissonance? Is it a cop-out to say that only time will tell?