Over the rainbow

2008-02-13 00:00

We are South Africans. We laugh at danger. We are not daunted by disappointments. We are “can-do” people. We are winners (well, not at soccer, perhaps; but at least we dress up for soccer more colourfully than anyone else). And we hardly notice the Eskom load shedding any more.

We are all trying to be positive. President Thabo Mbeki says we’ll pull through the Eskom crisis. President-to-be Jacob Zuma assures us he won’t upset the applecart. The treasury assures us that we are not on the verge of a depression. Chris Moerdyk says that on balance there’s much more to feel good about in South Africa than otherwise. Colin Gardner says that if we all pull together we’ll come out of all this stronger than ever, maybe.

And for what it’s worth, I agree. So here’s my bit. I love South Africa. I love the variety and vibrancy of the people. I do still want to be part of a rainbow nation. Especially, I have decided, I love quintessentially South African Johannesburg. I can’t say I feel the same about Kimberley (well, I’ve only been there once) or Bloemfontein (never been there) or Cape Town (not South African). But Jozi is the place to be.

We were there recently for a family wedding. The hotel was a cross section of the South African demography — the guests were mostly black with a sprinkling of Muslim families and a whole football team. Oh, and there were two white couples. We all got along fine. The Sunday Rosebank Market was better than the London Camden Market even before the Camden Market fire. The Zoo Lake restaurant was buzzing with young families. At the Dunkeld fish market they had fresh fish and oysters which we can’t buy where we live although we are only an hour from the coast. The glittering malls are full of wonderful art galleries. The waiters and shop assistants are sassy and cheerful.

I wondered why Johannesburg people retire to the midlands. It should be the other way round. We midlands folk should retire to Johannesburg. Of course, the traffic is terrible, but pensioners can travel at off-peak times to delectable Johannesburg spots and enjoy the vitality of a real South African city in a way that working folk cannot. It epitomises urban South Africa and I love it as much as I love the easy access to the South African wildlife where I live (the zebras, the buck and the birds, but also my fellow retirees). But I am old and at leisure. For working people with businesses to run the power cuts cannot be so lightly laughed off. For young people with their futures before them the threat of a collapse of the national infrastructure and a free fall of the rand is a worry that cannot be ignored. And for white, coloured and Indian young people, the worry is even more serious.

Mbeki, in his State of the Nation speech, called on all South Africans to work together, but his agenda has really been an Africanist one. Other races are tolerated and, indeed, are quite useful for their skills and their considerable contribution to the fiscus. But his agenda has been to show that Africans can manage and can muster the same skills as anyone else, that Afro-pessimism is misplaced.

We can’t blame him for that. Afro-pessimism is a subtle form of racism. There is no reason to doubt innate African ability and every reason to acclaim the fact that so many have succeeded when all the dice of poor education, abysmal housing, poor health services and a couple of centuries of negative colonialist brainwashing are loaded against them. But where does that leave a rising generation of young white people?

My daughter-in-law suffered a smash-and-grab attack last week. Nobody was hurt. No big deal, really. South Africa, as Moerdyk said, is not for sissies. Except that it will almost certainly mean that her resolve to move to Australia will now become strengthened and she will join my two daughters and most of my grandchildren in Australia. Sissies, you might think. Except that the first daughter moved to Australia because of crime and shortly after their move her husband’s uncle was killed in a Pretoria housebreaking, confirming their decision. The next daughter went to Australia on a “look see”, and while she was there her infant son’s godfather was killed in his Johannesburg office. So my gentle suggestions to bring their skills back to their birthland have fallen on deaf ears.

I know that I have benefited from apartheid. I accept that this is pay-back time. I am genuinely happy to live here and contribute what I can. I know that my adult children have all benefited from apartheid too, and I could, and do, argue that they owe something in return. Except that, in reality, no one in authority is very keen any more on letting them make any contribution except taxes.

But what about their children, my grandchildren, born long after 1994? Must they still pay back for the sins of their grandfathers? What place will there be for them in the rainbow nation? White people of any political persuasion have a diminishing voice in politics. Their skills are not wanted in positions of leadership in government or parastatal organisations.

And that’s understandable. Let’s still be positive here. Let’s wager that South Africa will succeed. If South Africa gets its act together, my grandchildren in 20 years’ time may still live in a beautiful country. They may still get rich in private enterprise. Their children may attend expensive private schools. They may live in a comfortable ivory tower. But they won’t be allowed to belong. They will prosper on the margins of South African society, on sufferance, in a privileged ghetto. Their opinions won’t count. Is that any way to live?

And if the wager is lost, if South Africa fails to get its act together — not because Africans are unable to deliver but because of a seemingly corrupt political system that rewards buddies and allies rather than ability — if the capacity of the state to provide power and water and transport and police protection collapses, even their ghetto will collapse around them. And their contribution and skills will still be unwelcome. I must pay the price for years of unfair privilege, but must my grandchildren pay that price too?

I do not see myself as leaving South Africa. But if I had young children, I would have to think and pray very hard. I don’t have a sense of grievance about this. I don’t blame anyone. It’s just how it is. My grandchildren are fortunate to have options. Nobody owes them anything. But I am sad that in all likelihood the option may not be a South African one.

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