Enough with the firework frenzy

2009-10-27 00:00

IN the 1 000-year-old English town where I grew up, for several weeks in autumn, a pile of wood would start to grow in a cleared space in the municipal park. Citizens would add branches and logs, and excitement grew as communally we tried to build a bigger bonfire than the year before. With this growing anticipation were endless public education campaigns about the safe handling of fireworks and how to enjoy the festivities responsibly, so that by the time November 5 arrived, we knew the firework code as thoroughly as South Africans know the ABC of safe sex. The evening itself was one of the few times in the year when the town had a true sense of community, as we all squealed with excitement at the fireworks, ran around with sparklers and ate jacket potatoes baked in the ashes.

Later, as a student living in a poor inner city area, I joined residents contributing old pieces of wood and broken furniture to build bonfires on the road and set off fireworks, and again the community spirit came together between the rows of terraced houses. In retrospect, it must have really messed up the tarmac, but no one came to stop us.

In South Africa, however, I have come to realise three things about fireworks. Firstly, they are used three times a year, not once — Guy Fawkes night, Diwali and New Year’s Eve; secondly, there are no public education campaigns; and thirdly, whatever the level of safety, a section of the population will always­ complain vociferously. This is the section (generally white) of people who don’t like their sleeping in the hollow to be disturbed by the sound of fireworks and people enjoying themselves. They complain obsessively­ about traumatised dogs and they completely ignore the benefits of bringing people together­ socially in this traumatised society.

The use of fireworks for celebrations is not just religious, but ancient and global — think of the opening of the Olympics in Beijing and New Year’s Eve at Sydney Harbour Bridge. Rather than allowing the vocal minority to stop fireworks, shouldn’t we be embracing them as one of the few things that all South Afri­can cultures enjoy? Isn’t it time we put the debate about fireworks to rest and started to tolerate the customs of others for the sake of nation building, the way they tolerate white obsessions with rugby, braais and the length of grass? Isn’t it time we tolerated the funeral next door, the Diwali event and the slaughtered cow for a celebration, rather than constantly raining on others’ parades? How about going beyond tolerance to active understanding? Let’s start sympathising with the bereaved and wishing people well for Diwali­. Better still, let’s go to the funeral, join the celebration, and share “ooohs” and “aaahs” and smiles with strangers as the fireworks sparkle. Let’s start using the newspaper space for constructive education campaigns, rather than letters and petitions that broadcast our intolerance and narrow-mindedness to the world. Why do we allow people who choose to live near the Royal Showgrounds to stop fireworks displays, rather than use the oppor­tunity to create a safe space for people to come together and be happy? And yes, let’s keep our dogs inside when we know fireworks are coming, like the rest of the world does.

As for me, I intend to take my daughter to a Diwali event next year, so that she keeps her open mind and engages with other cultures. And, judging from the firework displays I enjoy from my garden, I think I’ve found the best New Year’s Eve party — anyone care to join me in Sobantu?

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