Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Is this South Africa’s silence of the lambs?

Llewellyn Kriel asks the same question I and some foreign ILSA readers have wondered many times. Why do we South Africans take the shit? Why are we so meek? Note the brouhaha recently in America over a healthcare bill under discussion. Those people get involved. When will we get involved?


It boggles even my mind how South Africans can be so docilely satisfied with the way things are.

It defies comprehension by correspondents in Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, the US and Canada. Well, except for the vast and growing network of expats in some of those countries — they are not in the least surprised that South Africans, and especially the predominantly black population, seem to meekly accept bad governance, crime, high cost of living, unfulfilled promises, lack of services and infrastructure, abysmal public service and sub-standard education as the norm with which they have to live.

What surprised me recently — no, it actually shocked me — was to read comments by a writer who called herself “Nhlanhla” in which she said, “Maybe things were really better in the days of apartheid”. Of course, the name could quite easily be a nom de plume of some disgruntled white hankering after those dark ages, but the rest of her letter sounded genuine enough.

A month ago I stepped off an oh-so-ordinary-and-uncomfortable SAA flight from Heathrow (the plane worked, the cabin crew didn’t) into the new OR Tambo international terminal and was pleasantly surprised at the smooth working of the place. Mechanically world-class, as one would expect of the host country of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Then I went outside to await my pick-up and it was like stepping through a time warp. I was back in the origins of ordinariness, the motherland of mediocrity, the cradle of corruption. I felt like I was in an episode of Stargate SG-1.

After arranging my bags so I could straddle them (just to be safe), I looked up as a gaily decorated tourist minibus stopped (right over the pedestrian crossing and fuck the people manhandling trolleys of baggage across the road). Written on its side were the words, “Welcome to South Africa” in the unmistakable colours of our flag.

Stepping through Johannesburg International Stargate into a palpably unwelcoming otherworld where aggro and hostility hang like a tangible curtain over everything is distinctly unpleasant. I felt I should be wearing some kind of mask against this “disease”. I remembered the scene from Beverley Hills Cop where Eddie Murphy walks into a redneck beer joint. It’s the one where he delivers the classic line: “I’m yo’ worst nightmare — a nigger with a badge”. Except I didn’t have a badge, this wasn’t “home” and I wasn’t feeling welcome.

I remembered overhearing a conversation as we waited in a shambolic queue courtesy of SAA at Heathrow the night before. An elderly couple struck up a jolly old chinwag with a woman in front of me. They asked if she was going to Johannesburg. “No,” she replied “just catching a connecting flight to Cape Town. And you?”

“No. We’re also connecting. We’re on our way to Ngorongoro. It’s our 50th wedding anniversary, you see. We go to Africa every year. We’ve been to most of the parks in South Africa, but we always connect. It’s just too dangerous to stop over anywhere.” Of course, that was the spark and several other Brits began talking about their only common experience of SA — violent crime — until the SAA people finally got their shit together and separated the rich from the poor and I followed the economy-class crowd.

My first reaction was to think something along the lines of “stupid Poms”. Then I remembered a presentation back in 1999 when I was with Business Against Crime. The central message of the presentation was that Johannesburg, unlike other world cities, was never seen as a destination by tourists, always as a stop-over on the way to somewhere else. If anything has changed in the past decade, I thought, it certainly wasn’t the opinions of those regular tourists.

The memory returned as I waited outside international arrivals watching taxis multiple-park and four uniformed and uniformly obese SAPS raucously while away the morning.

South Africa is a country of immeasurable talent and dreams as wide and spectacular as the Karoo sky, yet the standards its people demand of their sportsmen and women far outshine the standards they expect of everything else.


Is it because our sports stars have risen to the challenge while our authorities at every level have failed year after year, month after month?

Okay, but then what about the private sector?

Well, quite frankly, while in most democracies, developed and developing, the private and public sectors are distinct organisms, in SA they’ve become such cosy closet chums one never knows which you’re dealing with. It was that way in the dark days of apartheid and the Broederbond and it is the same today — except that the cabals and cliques and old boys clubs that have arisen don’t have a common name.

I suppose the death of accountability has quite a bit to do with it. It is as pervasive a mindset among big business in SA as it is among our notorious leaders and officials. Try getting to talk to Shameel Joosub or Pieter Uys at Vodacom, or Tom Boardman at Nedbank, or Jacko Maree at Standard Bank, or Maria Ramos at Absa, or Simon Susman at Woolworths or Adrian Gore at Discovery or any one of the unapproachable, unreachable, untouchable aristocracy of business and you’ll run headlong into an impenetrable phalanx of self-imposed isolation from us, the “unwashed and diseased masses” who keep them in glorious fat-cat luxury.

Until all of these private and public-sector elite start seeing themselves as accountable to you and me and show us that they respect us and our rights, all we have is feudalism, apartheid, classism and the very worst kind of superiority complex — of them, the Übermenschen, and us, the untermenschen — in a different garb.

And because ordinary South Africans are seen and treated as inferior underlings, numbers on a balance sheet, wedges in a demographic and not worthy of their attention, honesty, courtesy or responsiveness, ordinary South Africans have become accustomed to the filthy sackcloth of our low status. We acknowledge our worthlessness, endlessly intoning the mantra “ons mag nie kla nie” (“we can’t complain” — as in complaining is forbidden). Like lambs we accept this as just the way life is.

Until the world erupts in rioting and violence and arson and death. And the political and corporate übermensch react with shock and awe, saying “Let them eat cake”.

Oh, by the way, I just checked my email and there’s an open invitation to pop in for a chat about Obama’s health reform plans and a cup of tea or coffee with Congressman Jim Moran, representative for Alexandria VA, where I lived for five months with my son and his family in the United States. And I’m not even a voter in the US. I was just visiting.

That’s called accessibility and accountability. If Jim Moran can do it, why can’t we?

5 Opinion(s):

Anonymous said...

"South Africa is a country of immeasurable talent and dreams as wide and spectacular as the Karoo sky, yet the standards its people demand of their sportsmen and women far outshine the standards they expect of everything else.


-the sportsmen and women dont gather the worls media together and scream "racists!" at us, thats why!

Anonymous said...

Most sportsmen work hard for their place in a team - most earn their spot (unless of course you're the AA representative in the team). The government picks their members, like it or not. The majority of whites are raised with morals and are taught consequences to their actions; whereas the majority of blacks aren't. They grow up with no moral compass so is it any surprise that SA has turned out this way - like most of us knew it would? The whites are taught from young not to complain so we don't know how to stand united and fight back against all the injustices we experience. We know we'll be branded racist for voicing our opinions. Our only voice is through these types of blogs, unlike the blacks who can say and do as they like without any consequences. That's the life of the whitey.

Doberman said...

Anon 6:03 said "Our only voice is through these types of blogs". Change it. I was raised like you, to respect all cultures even in darkest apartheid SA. But I've stopped that. Give yourself the same freedom everyone else grants themselves. Break that mental barrier and speak openly about all issues, including racial issues, and do not be afraid. It is not evil to be racist. To be racist is different to being a supremacist. A racist is someone who recognises that there are different races, that's all. The United Nations recognises the different races, are they racist?

Free yourself from what you were taught. The more people talk openly about race, the sooner we can put it behind us. Keeping quiet about race issues that is wrong won't make racial tensions and injustice disappear. Hold blacks to the same standards as whites. It's for their own good as Bullard says.

Talk openly, discuss, say what's on your mind, in front of your friends and family and you'll be surprised how many people will open up to you. If they don't then they are two-faced. The real racist is one who pretends s/he doesn't see races.

Exzanian said...

Hear hear Dobes, well put!

Dachshund said...

A night watchman who got drunk while on duty was sent home by management of the Defy factory in Ladysmith, KZN. He'd tried to lock himself in the toilets, but management weren't having it. He was stabbed to death on the way home.

The next day two cars belonging to white staff were trashed by furious blacks who said it was whitey's fault the black guy was killed. They said he should have been allowed to stay on the premises instead of walking around a dangerous township in the middle of the night.

Dobes, what were you saying about holding blacks accountable?