To be or not to be proudly South African

2009-03-17 00:00

I’m never sure whether to laugh or cry when I receive yet another “Proudly Souf Efrican” e-mail, wondering if they’re honest statements, or defence mechanisms. Not being radically pro or anti the argument, I don’t have an answer.

I’ve been away for eight months, almost long enough to incubate a baby. In that time, I’ve incubated some new perspectives; although I don’t think I’m any smarter.

I’ve accumulated a diverse new chapter to my life; new career, friends and colleagues, a new home, vistas and adventures, and with it the old adage of starting life again from scratch comes to mind. That’s quite something; initially literally not knowing a soul, then experiencing the networks exponentially unravelling.

And what have I lost, I muse? So, so much; emotionally, physically and materially.

I’m still left pondering about “Proudly South African” though, and wonder how many aeons it takes to step past the past. My father, despite having a mother of Prussian descent, refused to purchase a German car after World War 2, even with its superior engineering. And he lived another 25 years after Adolf Hitler’s horrific genocides. His anti-Germanic emotions permeated our home. That’s why I ponder on how long wounds take to heal.

South Africa’s scars seem paper-thin, like when a scab gets rubbed off once too often. Politics remains the hot spot in most arenas. There’s always that ulcerating old wound lurking, to do with a myriad mistakes made by various sectors of humanity over the past few centuries. Prior to that it was a luscious ancient natural cradle. That’s the part of Africa that I love. The unspoilt magnificence that makes me feel fuzzy.

I surprisingly already feel that about Kiwiland. The countryside is sublime. The city I dwell in is a large sprawling footprint of humanity, spilling in all directions and surrounded by masses of transcendent aquascapes and burnt-out volcanic outcrops.

There’s also human waywardness here, but I don’t have to be barred up. The other day I met up with an ex-Pietermaritzburg colleague, who has three Kiwi-born children. On a visit to South Africa, the four-year-old chirped up in his Kiwi accent, “Mummy, why do the people all live in cages?”

I feel a lightness of being here. I think of life’s yin and yang; those that have that epiphany to seek an alternative lifestyle and those who have that ceaseless belief “dat alles sal reg kom”. And then there are the tragic sufferers who desire to find solace somewhere on the planet, but whose circumstances simply don’t permit it. They’re the ones for whom my heart cries the most.

Epiphanies don’t come to all of us. Mine happened during the Cosatu strikes of 2006 when our schools were forcibly closed. Stones were thrown and I was shouted at over the telephone, “We’re coming to get you now!” by a woman with a brutal, menacing tone of voice. I immediately had to evacuate everyone from school. After dedicating over 30 years of my life to special needs’ education for primarily disadvantaged children in South Africa, something seemed to die in my soul that day.

New Zealand is a land full of promise and a haven for refugees far and wide. Currently, I’m an advisor to a school that has a delightful 10-year-old Congolese pupil with cerebral palsy, who’s arrived out of the blue, has never been to school and cannot speak English.

On the negative side, it’s a land where people hook into global societal folly such as methamphetamine (known as P in New Zealand and Tik or Ice in South Africa). But drugs remain a choice and people have free will, whereas having to reside in a cage is sometimes not an option, but a necessity.

And as it’s the eve of my return to Africa for a whirlwind visit, my pondering about the strangeness of humanity becomes sharpened. I get a mental picture of Robert Mugabe stuffing his face with the last chunk of cream cake from what was once the breadbasket of Africa. And I wonder how people continue either to stand courageously tall or else find solace in their delusional dreams.

• Eve Hemming is an educational psychologist in Auckland and a former Pietermaritzburg school principal.

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