When the silver lining looks more grey than luminescent

2012-08-18 12:27

This week, I felt a little like I lived in Singapore. At a Gautrain station, the guard ambled over and told me to get rid of my chewing gum.

“There’s a bin over there,” he said.

I binned the gum and my instinct to be tjatjarag. This mama doesn’t want to be thrown from that train (it’s a joy to ride). Singapore is the city-state that grew from being a backward Asian port to an open-trade, Southeast Asian giant.

It was engineered by founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled Singapore like a patriarch. There is little democracy and you get fined for everything, including chewing gum on the metro. It works and I wish Mangaung would elect us a leader like Lee. That wish is about as likely to come true as my other dream that Nelson Mandela was about three decades younger.

Then, I continued my journey into Mzansi as Singapore on a visit to the University of the Free State, where rector and vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen has wrought a miracle in his three years at the beautiful institution in the centre of South Africa.

The home of Reitz, the residence that brought into sharp focus our omnipresent racial schisms when a group of students humiliated workers in games they thought were student fun, the university now feels like a happy place.

Reitz is, fittingly, home to Thuthuka, the programme to train previously disadvantaged chartered accounts. It has been a roaring success.

Granted, I was there for a short time, but I was charmed by the sense of journey the campus has made, by the inspiring students I met, and the openness and global character of the campus. It has become a jewel.

Jansen is something of a Lee Kuan Yew. He sits under a tree where students can come for a chat; Mrs Jansen regularly caters to visiting students at their home; and there are sweet potato and custard days on campus where he turns chef for a day.

Student organisation is straitjacketed to ensure the toxic party politics of South Africa does not harm harmony. You can only become an SRC member if you are an A-grade student. Imagine applying this to national leadership.

Then, a final trip down Singapore way. Read the Vision 2030 written by Njabulo Ndebele and Antjie Krog (see Page 31) and see what a planned country may look like in 18 years.

How wonderful if their lilting dreams came true – the National Planning Commissioners, led by Cyril Ramaphosa and Trevor Manuel, have plotted a path that suggests it is within current realities if we exhibit the political and leadership will to do so.

What have my three Singaporean meanders to do with athlete Caster Semenya or the Olympics? I messed up last Saturday night when we edited a late edition. We valorised Semenya on our front page: “Our silver heroine.” The headline should have been: “How Caster messed up.” She did.

Let’s face it, Semenya could have won if she had broken out earlier. She has said as much.

This week, speaking in a different context, writer Max du Preez quoted the American conservative Michael Gerson, who wrote of “the soft bigotry of low expectations”.

This resonated for me as I think we subjected our fantastic athlete to this bigotry by not calling a miss a miss. Instead, I joined the chorus saying “Sharp! Sharp!” to our Moletjie Express when a more dispassionate response was necessary.

What happened? Why did Semenya pull back? Was she tired? Did she throw the race because of previous humiliations? Better questions get better answers.

Better questions make better nations too. I love our “Aargh! Shame” gene that is shared across races. We forgive easily, feel sorry quickly and celebrate silver as if it is gold.

It often means we settle for less. South Africa can be a break-out nation, but we amble at the starting line and ignore the gun, celebrate a nearly there like a good and proper win. It’s not what great nations do and Singapore is not a bad model to aspire to.

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