Cowards and patriots

2011-06-30 00:00

I FEEL guilty. I confess I did feel gloomy after Julius Malema’s outburst on his re-election as leader of the ANC Youth League. I confess that I did momentarily wonder, once again, whether one is wise to plan on a future here. But Jackson Mthembu, spokesperson for the ANC, has no patience­ with my misgivings. Those who think of leaving are cowards, and he said: “I’ve never been fond of cowards. They are not loyal and are simply unpatriotic­.”

Am I a coward? Am I un- patriotic­? Do I deserve Mr Mthembu’s scorn? Would the country be better off without people like me, as a caller to one of the endless SAfm talk programmes alleged? I concede that as a retired person I don’t make much of a con- tribution­ now, although I still pay rates and taxes, and without a host of somewhat privileged little people­ like me all paying our taxes, our economy would not survive.

Here’s the thing — I do feel afraid because I am too old now to start in a new country to build new wealth. All I have to sustain me is my life savings which provide my pension. If the mines — or worse still, the banks — are nationalised­ and my savings depreciate my money may run out before I die. There is no social security­ to rescue me. Mr Malema is toying with my only lifeline. Senior­ figures in the ANC assure us that they have no intention of nationalising nor of grabbing land without compensation. But Mr Malema­, it seems, commands the support of the youth. He says what they apparently feel in their hearts. Whether sensible, practicable or not, Malema’s ideas are what they want to hear. And of South Africa’s voting population of around 31 million people, those between 18 and 30 years of age (ie. those eligible to join the ANCYL­) comprise 37%. But in eight years’ time, presuming that those currently in the youth league don’t change their minds, and that those following them and who will by then be 18 share the same ideas, they will comprise 58% of the electorate. Be afraid ... be very afraid.

So am I a coward? Am I un- patriotic­? Samuel Johnson famously­ said: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” and given some of those currently shouting loudest­ about patriotism, Johnson had a point. But I think I am patriotic after a fashion.

In my heart I support South African­ sports teams. I wore a Bafana T-shirt during the World Cup. I was miserable when the Sharks lost against the Crusaders. I delight in Jonathan Jansen’s stories­ about South Africans — black, Indian, coloured, white — who make a difference. I admire Nelson Mandela, although I don’t think he is a saint (and nor does he). I have even voted for the ANC, although not recently. But if believing that some of our leaders are fools and crooks makes me unpatriotic and disloyal then I plead guilty (although a few hours of watching Sky News makes one aware that this is not a peculiarly South African problem).

Actually I can’t emigrate. I don’t have enough money. Most countries wouldn’t accept me. And in truth I would not want to live anywhere else for long. This is where my identity and history are rooted. So what do I do?

What I do in fact is to forget about it — or at least forget about it until Mr Malema or Mr Mthembu open their mouths again. I was taken to watch Madame Zingara’s circus. The waiters and almost all of the audience were all dressed up in masks, feathers, ball gowns, gorilla suits, cowboy suits or whatever took their fancy. It was perfectly politically correct. There were no caged animals, only people­ performing amazing acrobatic feats (although I hope they were not treated cruelly in their training and I’m not sure of that).

The artists were young, beautiful, glamorous and extraordinarily talented. As well as the acrobats there were four large African ladies­ dressed in pink. They were in fact very large ladies. They sang like the Mahotella Queens. They danced, they wiggled their generous bottoms in a manner that less generously proportioned women could not hope to emulate. Their enthusiasm warmed us all on a cold night. We all had a really good time.

Were we just fiddling while Rome burns? Is it okay to enjoy ourselves with so much gloom around? Were we ostriches burying our heads in the sand? There is some truth in that, but I prefer to think we were just South Africans­ defiantly refusing to be miserable, proud in our ability to have fun, fiercely asserting that in the end alles sal regkom. We do belong together. Fat ladies in pink, beautiful girls on the trapeze and even old white men have a place.

I am not sure, still, where our journey will lead us or where we will all end up. But in the meantime, be damned to the gloom clouds and let’s be happy.

•  Ronald Nicolson is a retired academic and Anglican priest.

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