Living in a grey area

2010-05-25 00:00

WORLD Cup fever means that people are driving with South African flags on their cars. Should I follow suit? I might if I thought that Bafana Bafana have the least chance of getting past an embarrassing first round. I feel uninvolved. I don’t care who wins — England, Mexico; I remain a disinterested outsider. I envy people with a strong sense of national identity.

We were in London over the British election. “Was that exciting?” people ask. Well, no. Not really — except for the Brits who stayed glued to their televisions. Media helicopters hovered endlessly over Downing Street during the deadlock, watching for removal vans to guess who might be moving out and who might be moving in. But we had no stake in the outcome. Cameron, Clegg or Brown, it made no difference for us. We were disinterested outsiders.

Much more exciting for us was a walk in the Scottish borders in late spring, with field after field of daffodils, snowdrops and forget-me-nots. Or the bluebell wood in Berkshire. Or the wonderful seats for the Royal Ballet provided by a kind friend. Or the concert of William Walton’s music in honour of Lady Walton’s death last month.

Yet although I love London and I love the English countryside, I don’t belong. My roots with England are roots with an England of the past, an England of childhood books. In modern Britain I remain an outsider. To be honest, though the music was exciting, I don’t really like Walton all that much and my English music is in the past with Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar and Gustav Holst. And though the modern ballet was wonderfully executed, it wasn’t my kind of ballet.

My roots are in an England past; my future lies in a different place. But what is that place? What is it to be a South African? What constitutes South African music? Must I learn to sing isicathamiya, which I like but can’t manage myself? Art? I know there is South African art beyond Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef and Tinus de Jongh but do Cecil Skotnes or Gerald­ Bhengu identify our culture as Thomas Gainsborough or J. M. W. Turner might once be said to have defined Englishness? Dance? Must I learn to toyi-toyi or diski dance to express South Africanness.

Or literature? There are famous South African authors. But how many of us of all languages and ethnicities can really identify with Nadine­ Gordimer, or the fast-rising slew of good African writers, or even begin to understand J. M. Coetzee. Do they express South Africanness? Of course there are great Afrikaans writers too, but do they characterise what it is to be South African? Are we all destined to be rooted only in our separate cultural identities from the past?

We were in England for a beloved aunt’s 90th birthday. We stole some extra days in Italy in Siena for studies I am doing. We coincided with a public holiday. The Duomo, San Domenico and the museums were filled with lines of schoolchildren being taken on a cultural tour of their roots.

What wonderful roots they are — Giotto di Bondone, Duccio di Buoninsegna and a host of Sienese painters and sculptors whose names were not familiar to me. What wonderful frescoes and paintings. What wonderful stories — of the Council of Nine, or wars and heroes, of Catherine, patron saint of Siena and Europe whose life I am studying.

Did the children enjoy the tours? Who can say; they enjoyed the gelato and the outing. But by the end they certainly knew what it means to be Italian and Sienese. While we, though stunned by the art, remained just tourists.

On our subsequent walk through the Scottish borders, we met the daughter of one of our bed-and-breakfast hostesses. She is about to take her gap year working in a remote hospital in the Transkei. “Was her mother not nervous?” we wondered. Yes, a little, was the reply — “but my daughter has led a sheltered life and needs to embrace the real world.”

Is the Transkei more real than the Scottish borders, with their ruined abbeys and castles, with their rich history of war and rebellion? Sir Walter­ Scott lived in the borders. Robbie Burns wrote in the borders. Scottish music lives on in the Usher Hall of Edinburgh. Scottish art flourishes in the galleries filled with Charles Rennie Mackintosh and others. I am sure the Scottish lass with her porcelain complexion will profit from her South African visit (and get sunburned) — but she knows her roots, and they are Scottish.

Damien Hirst, a notable member of the Young British Artists group, wrote recently that in his rebellious youth he had never been into an art gallery until his teens, when on a chance school visit he was “blown away” by the experience and knew he wanted to be a painter. So he welcomed a move to encourage tours of children from disadvantaged and working-class schools to art exhibitions. The Young British Artists are expressing in a new way what it means to be British.

On what tours would we take South African children to learn what it is to be South African? To what music should they be exposed? To what art? What books should they read? What does it mean to live in South Africa? What is our identity? What is our shared culture? I have no idea. How fortunate are those older cultures that have forged their identity. Perhaps my grandchildren will know one day what it means to be South African, and not just a person of British, Afrikaans or African ancestry living in South Africa. If so, they will gain a security and rootedness that I lack. Am I just a disinterested outsider in South Africa as well as in Britain and Italy and everywhere else? Sometimes I fear so. But perhaps I should buy a little flag after all.

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