Sir Winston Churchill, upon visiting Uganda in 1907, described it as ‘a garden of sunshine and deadly nightshade’. He remarked that ‘...behind its glittering mask...wears a sinister aspect...a sense of indefinable oppression...a cut will not heal, a scratch festers’. Msimangu, in the novel Cry the Beloved Country, says, ‘"Because the white man has power, we too want power, but when a black man gets power, when he gets money, he is a great man if he is not corrupted. I have seen it often. He seeks power and money to put right what is wrong, and when he gets them, why, he enjoys the power and the money. Now he can gratify his lusts, now he can arrange ways to get white man's liquor... I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating."
Prophetic words indeed. As the rainbow nation slides into a quagmire of increasing chaos and anarchy, there is a dull feeling of impending doom among many of its inhabitants. Anxiety, and anger too, at dreams broken and hopes dashed. Part of the frustration arises from a sense of miscalculation or misplaced expectations. Is there an air of inevitability about the future, or are people making the mistake of viewing Africa through a prism of ‘fear, sentimentality or condescension’, as the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe puts it? Do we need to recognise the complexity, and indeed, the humanity that exists here?
Those South Africans who have travelled to other parts of Africa often remark on how pleasantly they are received there. Richard Dowden writes in his epic Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, “Africans have in abundance what we call social skills. These are not skills that are taught or learned. There is no click-on have-a-nice-day smile in Africa. Africans meet, greet and talk, look you in the eye and empathize, hold hands and embrace, share and accept from other without twitchy self-consciousness...not all Africans are fighting or starving. Millions of Africans have never known hunger of war and lead ordinary peaceful lives.”
There are indeed terrible problems in Africa-in the 1990s, 31 out of 53 countries were in a state of civil war or serious internal conflict. We are all familiar with images of war, starvation and disease associated with this continent. These are harsh realities, but they do not represent the whole picture. There are deeper truths, which simplistic views of either romanticised exoticism or catastrophic perpetual conflict do not allow for. South Africa does indeed stand precipitously on the edge; it has been there before, but the patience and magnanimity of its people prevailed.
In the final analysis, the state has failed to deliver, its institutions decaying and stagnant, its leaders bloated with the excesses of power. Corporate interests are blurred with those of politicians. The only hope that remains are the people of South Africa. This time around, however, there are no inspirational leaders; no system, structures or policies to support positive change; no collective momentum from the population for the common good; and no security force to protect civilians from criminals within and outside of the government. As individuals, South Africans have never been more vulnerable. Can the good of Africa come to the rescue this time? Do you, as a South African, feel that there is a future for you on this cruel, crazy, beautiful continent?