Two South Africas

2009-10-08 00:00

I LOVE people, and much of my energy comes from the joy of serving other people. But now and again I like to enjoy a little privacy, time for thought and reflection, an opportunity to unwind. Nothing offers more relaxation than a long drive through rural areas of South Africa without the endless roadworks and traffic jams of the big cities.

And so the invitation to speak at a teachers’ conference in Bethlehem came just at the right time. I was travelling through parts of the country I had never seen before, and I understood why Free Staters love their province so much. Those wide open fields and the clear blue skies roll on forever.

My watch said I was about 40 minutes ahead of schedule, so I stopped outside a little rural town called Senekal. I pulled my cap over my head and crept into the Wimpy at the end of the road, eager to avoid eye-contact in case anyone saw me to discuss their examination marks or my plans for the koshuise.

That plan failed miserably for as I ducked out of the car, a hail-and-hearty voice greeted: “Goeie middag professor.”

I greeted quickly but stayed low, chose a corner table in the Wimpy and started to review my conference address.

Peace and quiet in Senekal with coffee and a burger.

Strange, though, how you become aware of people watching you. So I slowly raised my head and, to my surprise, a row of Senekal farmers stood in a line to greet me. These looked like hard men; one had his hand in a thick cast. He assured me this was not the outcome of a domestic dispute but the result of a farming accident­. These were ordinary men who plough the fields to give South Africa its wheat and its vegetables­.

But I was slightly apprehensive. They too read newspapers. Was I going to have to defend some tough decisions? Would they start an argument over koshuis-beleid? Would they confront me about language policy? I was not sure, but this was not what I planned. I mean, could I not just have a burger and coffee without having to defend the university?

I stood up, as culture dictates, and the men smiled broadly as they stretched out their hands to greet me. “We just came to greet you and to thank you for the work you do at Kovsies [the University of the Free State]. You are on the right track, and we are right behind­ you.”

Small talk followed, with some relief on my side. These men are proud of their university; this is where they send their children. And though they are a few hundred miles from Bloemfontein, this is their university and their principal, and they wanted to come and greet me.

There are clearly two South Afri­cas. One in which racial provocation and racial arrogance thrive, especially among youth leaders sparking talk about “min­orities”. One in which sparse numbers of right-wingers try desperately to raise apocalyptic fears of blacks planning to attack and overwhelm whites.

But there is another South Africa in which people strive daily to meet each other halfway and to simply live decently and in peace with one another. It is the place I saw the other day where white and black pray together, play sports together, care for each other’s children together. If you look carefully, you will find them everywhere.

And you will find quite a few of them in the Wimpy at Senekal.

• Jonathan Jansen is the vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and the head of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

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