Freedom’s blaring horn

2010-06-19 12:53

When assessing ­nations, there are statistics

and then there are the ­intangibles.

Inflation and unemployment don’t tell you

much about patriotism, ­optimism and the sense of shared identity that make or

break ­societies.

South Africa is a case in point.

I spent part of my childhood in a South Africa that marked my

­imagination because it combined light and shadow as no other place: a

succession of sunlit afternoons in gardens of avocado and jacaranda trees,

punctuated by glimpses of ­ragged blacks being herded into ­police vans.

“I suppose they don’t have their passes,” some relative would

mutter and the mind of a London-born child of South African parents would

wrestle with what that meant. ­

Gradually, the white supremacist apartheid system

came into focus.

It was about denying blacks skills, mobility, ­living wages and

their very humanity.

In the mind of the Afrikaner, with its Biblical

­justifications for oppression ­masquerading as separateness, the black

­majority was good only to be ­“hewers of wood and drawers of ­water” – if


This South Africa of my youth saw the world as “anti-TWOL” – a

silly ­acronym for a so-called traditional way of life.

Among these

­“traditions” was branding ­inter-racial sex a crime, a cataclysm always looming

and the imagined bloody end of an ­unsustainable ­system which was not just

small talk but a lurking spectre.

And here we are, two decades ­after Nelson Mandela walked out of

­captivity, in a South Africa hosting the most-watched sporting event on Earth

and doing so in a spirit of unity that has blacks and whites alike draped in

flags, blaring on ­vuvuzelas and rooting for Bafana Bafana.

The team is mediocre.

South ­Africa will probably become the first

host nation ever not to qualify for the second round.

That would be sad but in

the end it’s immaterial.

This ­particular World Cup is ­political. It is an

affirmation of a ­nation’s ­miraculous (if incomplete) healing, of African

dignity and of a continent that deserves better than those tired images of

violence and disease.

“The country is going to the dogs,” I still hear it as I heard it

long ago in a different guise. What did I say about statistics? There are plenty

of them.

This is still a country where only 60% of dwellings have

flush-toilets, where an estimated 6 million people are HIV-positive and where

­unemployment runs at 25%.

High walls and 300 000 private security guards bear

testimony to the high murder rate.

To all of which I say: people have unrealistic expectations.


want to fast-forward life as if it were a gadget. You don’t erase the effects of

centuries of colonisation and apartheid in one generation.

­“Non-racialism” –

President Jacob Zuma’s commitment – is not the state in which South Africa lives

any more than the US or Europe does.

Still, what I see is grandeur: a ­country of 49 million people –

38.7 million of them black, 4.5 million of them white, the rest ­mixed-race or

Asian – that has held together and shunned Zimbabwe-style ­unravelling or

Congolese ­implosion.

Do not underestimate South ­African achievements.

I sat this week in a packed stadium in the capital, Pretoria, as a

vuvuzela crescendo greeted Bafana and a white woman led 11 black kids – team

mascots – onto the pitch.

The horns fell silent for the Uruguayan national


When South Africa lost 3-0, the response was dignified and peaceful: the

intangibles of ­nationhood.

Let’s talk vuvuzela for a moment. Players have complained, Facebook

pages are dedicated to banning it and earplugs are selling briskly among

European fans. Intolerable horns!

I have news for the discomfited: this is actually Africa.

The horn

sounds to summon.

There is not such a great difference between the kudu horn

made from the spiral-horned antler and the plastic horn.

The vuvuzela carries powerful symbolism. Rugby, the traditional

sporting stronghold of the white ­Afrikaner, has shunned it. Soccer, dominated

by blacks, has embraced it.

Yet today, Afrikaners flock into black Soweto to

watch rugby and whites and blacks both carry their vuvuzelas to World Cup


I’m sorry but French players will have to suffer their headaches:

these are not minor political miracles.

As one comic here tweeted: “After one ­weekend, Europe wants to ban

the vuvuzela – if only they’d acted this fast when banning slavery!”

The other day I was talking to a ­distant relative, an economist

named Andrew Levy, and he said: “I don’t fear for my life and that’s the miracle

of South Africa.

I say hello to a black in the street and he’ll say hello to me

in a friendly way.

I know I might get killed in the course of a robbery – not

because I’m white, not because they hate me but because there’s poverty.

“I’m a patriot in the end,” Levy said.

“I love this country’s beauty. And when I see the unity and

goodwill the World Cup has created, I believe we can ­succeed.” – New York Times

» Roger Cohen is editor-at-large for the ­International Herald Tribune

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