Guest Column

South Africa argues vociferously with itself – and that is a great thing

2019-06-28 05:00
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The contest of ideas in South Africa is vigorous but so often it is about the really big issues – about what you want your country to be, writes Adam McCarthy.

On June 30 I will end my term as Australia's (longest-serving) High Commissioner to South Africa. Sometimes being a diplomat is a bit like seeing your teenage niece or nephew at the family Christmas party every year – you miss the granularity, the nuance – but there are some things, especially the changes, which you see with great clarity. With that in mind News24 has asked me to put down some personal observations about South Africa after four and a quarter years in your amazing country. So, here we go.

You know you are alive here. Heads of mission usually write a "valedictory" cable to their capitals and I am sorely tempted to title mine "South Africa: It's never dull". Colour, vibrancy, contradiction, conflict, conciliation, joy, desolation, love, kinship, enmity – and that is just South Africa's politics! For a diplomat this country is the gift that just keeps on giving – ordinary days where nothing much happens are for other people on other postings. 

In part that is because South Africa is a work in progress. We have a reasonably good idea of what Australia will fundamentally look like in 10 years or 20 years. But in South Africa it is all to play for – 25 years in much has been settled but fundamental issues about your democracy – including the economy, society, party system – are still evolving. Which is one reason why…

South Africa argues loudly and vociferously with itself – and that is a great thing. The contest of ideas here is vigorous and hard fought but so often it is about the really big issues – about what your country is and want you want it to be. The public space is filled with debates about what sort of society South Africans aspire to, what sort of economy, how to ensure equality of opportunity, how to deal with race, how to deal with poverty. Which, given that access to the public space was regulated and controlled not that long ago, is a great thing.

Your democracy was hard fought and won – and cherished.  We cherish our democracy in Australia too – but perhaps when everyone has had the vote for all of their adult lives you can take it a bit for granted. I was lucky enough to be in East Mamelodi on 8 May observing the election. I won't forget it. The act of voting here has a certain vibrancy about it – people patiently stand in line laughing, talking, singing and even at times ululating. South Africans fought for that right to vote, you are proud to exercise it and you don't mind having a bit of fun at the same time. 

The ties that bind our countries are stronger and more diverse than you may think. Naturally enough, Australia and South Africa both tend to look north – to the rest of Asia and to the rest of Africa respectively. But that means at times we lose sight of just how deep the connections are between us. And I don't just mean sport or the fact that you can get pretty decent biltong in "Perth-fontein". Australia is the seventh largest investor into South Africa. We are the sixth largest source of tourists to South Africa outside the African continent. South Africa alone constitutes more than a third of our total trade with Africa. Your investment into Australia has grown by almost 200% since 2012. Not to mention that we are both members of the Group of 20 leading economies and as significant Indian Ocean countries we both play leading roles in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). I could go on but you get the picture – in terms of trade, investment, jobs, people – we matter to each other: a lot. 

This has been a wonderful place to raise a special needs child. The acceptance that we have found for our daughter here – the willingness to include, the refusal to judge or assume, has been life affirming and won't ever be forgotten by us.

Your country is staggeringly beautiful. I may be a diplomat but rest assured I am not just saying that to be polite. We have been lucky enough to clock up tens of thousands of kilometres driving all over this extraordinary place you call home. The highlights – so many. But if I have to pick one thing that will stay with me it is the long driving days in the Northern Cape – big vistas, stunning landscapes, a star engorged night sky and an almost invariably open road before us. 

And, in conclusion, hamba kahle South Africa. Goodbye and thanks for an amazing four and a bit years. You will always have a special place in our heart and we wish you ever success as your democracy starts its second twenty five years. May it be a lekker quarter century indeed.

- McCarthy is the outgoing Australian High Commissioner to South Africa. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

Read more on:    australia  |  diplomacy
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