Our pot of gold

2011-03-10 00:00

BEING a rainbow nation doesn't come naturally. We prefer to remain in our own colour spectrum. I was driving home from Durban listening to cricket on the radio. The English had finished their innings and the Irish were waiting to start after lunch. During the interval, I switched to a phone-in commentary on the Afrikaans service. They seemed to be discussing whether in the light of the earthquake in Christchurch listeners would change their minds about emigrating to New Zealand.

The replies were varied. There were fierce patriots — no place better than South Africa. There were firm fundamentalists — God knows when your time is up and whether in Christchurch or Koffie­fontein you can't escape his call. But there were three or four callers who said they had lived for a while in Australia or New Zealand and they couldn't wait to get back there. They were beautiful countries. The people were so nice. You felt so safe there. And — said at least three of them — it was all "First World".

Now what could they have meant? Sydney is a modern city with modern amenities, as are Melbourne and Auckland. They are certainly First World. But Adelaide? It's a bit sleepy, hardly on a par with a European metropolis. And Ayers Rock, or Darwin? And beautiful though Christchurch is, most of South Island in New Zealand is rural small-town countryside with hardly a smart coffee bar to be seen and the electricity doesn't always work. Granted that no one could put poor dilapidated Maritzburg in a First World category, but is Sandton not thoroughly First World? Or Cape Town? Or Sunnyside in Pretoria? Or perhaps, if you look hard and ignore the dead palm trees on the beach front, even parts of Durban?

I suspect that what the callers really meant was that there are no black people in Australia or New Zealand, or (because there are) they're not in charge. First World means a world run by whites. These callers were Afrikaans-speaking folk, white folk by the sound of their accents (bruin Afrikaners might be forgiven for feeling at the moment that they don't belong), who said they were more at home in the antipodes than here. Here they are not in control and they feel vulnerable.

I was, in fact, driving home from arranging for a visa to visit Greece later this year. The consulate demanded proof of a hotel reservation in Athens. When I gave the address of our Athens hotel, the friendly Greek official looked alarmed. "That's not a safe area," she said. "It's full of immigrants. Let me give you the name of a hotel in a safer area."

I had chosen the hotel on the Internet, primarily by price. I know from past experience that the area around Syntagma Square is a bit rough. But it is convenient and cheap. I guess that a South African consulate official in Melbourne might say the same to an unwary Australian booked into a hotel in Hillbrow. "It's not safe, it's full of immigrants". And granted, where there are immigrants there is also likely to be poverty and therefore petty crime. We will need to be sensible and careful in Athens.

By immigrants, I suspect the Greek woman meant Albanians or North Africans. Are all Albanians thieves? By immigrants in Hillbrow we mean people like Nigerians and Rwandans. Despite Nigerian Internet scams, are most Nigerians not good, honest people? By First World the Afrikaans callers meant white world. We are at home among people like ourselves. We are ill at ease and nervous among people of a different culture. People other than us seem strange and dangerous. We can't read the unspoken signs as we can among our own. Uncertainty breeds insecurity. Thus the outspoken and unfortunate remarks made by Annelie Botes, for which she forfeited the South African Literary Award. "I don't like black people. I don't understand them." Not the thing to say, but she probably speaks for many. Perhaps similar feelings run below the various crass remarks by Jimmy Manyi about Indian and coloured people. The African National Congress leadership may cringe, but (as the not-to-be suppressed Julius Malema reminds us) his views are probably the views of many ANC voters.

Most of us would be too careful to say such things aloud, but most of us, if we are honest, understand where the feelings come from. Greeks don't like Albanians. Zulus don't like Nigerians. Poor black people resent Indian prosperity. White people are nervous of black people. And, for those of us of British ancestry, we don't much trust anyone who doesn't speak good English, whether black, Afrikaans, Chinese or Patagonian.

A rainbow is an ephemeral thing. It isn't real. It's just a trick of the light. Is the dream of a rainbow nation as ephemeral and unattainable? Or, if we really chased after it, is there gold at the foot of the rainbow? Can we break out of our comfort zone and learn to delight in the differences? It is easier for white South Africans to feel at home in Sydney or Auckland than in Edendale or even Northdale and Allandale. But aren't we missing out on something unique, a richness of diversity hardly to be found elsewhere? Isn't that what makes South Africa potentially special — even though we're not making much progress yet?

• Ronald Nicolson is a retired Anglican priest.

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