Africadayz has been silenced by a low-level but pervasive sense of sadness over the past few months. Since in all my posts, I try to find at least a glimmer of gold at the Rainbow’s end, it’s been difficult to write this one because, over the last little while, from my perspective, there’s not been the smallest sign of it.
Where did it all start to unravel? Was it with the ever-increasing load-shedding; with the defacement and the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from UCT campus or was it with the latest – and ongoing – outbreak of Xenophobia? It’s hard to say.
About a week ago, over dinner, someone mentioned ‘boiling frogs’ and my very literate sister, who has lived abroad for the past 40-something years, did not know or understand the expression. Dictionaries explain ‘boiling frog syndrome’ as being an anecdote describing a frog being slowly boiled alive. The theory is that if a frog is dropped into boiling water it will jump out, but if placed in cold water that is very gradually heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be literally boiled alive.
The story’s usual metaphorical use is to caution people to be aware of even very gradual change, lest they find themselves having to cope with very unpleasant consequences later.
A few years ago I wasn’t familiar with this expression either but we’re hearing it more and more frequently now. Ten years ago none of us had heard the term “load-shedding” while ‘Xenophobia’ was a rare word, starting with ‘X’ and useful to know in crosswords or games of scrabble.
Just these additions to our everyday vocabulary indicate that ‘boiling frog syndrome’ is well underway in our New South Africa.
Dinner conversations can provide quite reliable barometer readings of the state of the nation. For the past six months there can hardly have been a group of ‘previously-advantaged’ white South Africans who have not discussed load-shedding and the pros and cons of generators versus solar power, emigration, the crippling exchange rate, eligibility for alternative passports or how one’s children might secure foreign citizenship, and most recently, our responses to the removal of monuments referencing our pre-democratic history and, the most disturbing topic of all, Xenophobia.
Our highways have become home to billboards urging us to ‘Say No to Xenophobia’, defined as being “dislike or prejudice against people from other countries.’ Adverts crop up repeatedly on radio and tv reminding us that other African nations provided safe havens for freedom fighters in our pre-democratic years while apps providing time-tables and details of load-shedding schedules have proliferated. We’ve all become quite accustomed to these new parameters, but when bemused overseas visitors remark on them we’re forced to recognise them for what they are: signs that all is not well with the Beloved Country.
“Load Shedding” is, I suspect, an entirely South African term. It’s a euphemism for ‘black-out’ and I toy with the phrase. The switching off of power might shed the load of the electricity service provider but hugely increases the load of the communities it affects. As more and more everyday people start taking responsibility for services once provided by the city or state “Load Bearing” might have been closer to the truth…
We’re all in Load Shedding together. There are no racial or economic divides as to whose power is arbitrarily cut unless you’re a political bigwig. And if, just fortuitously, you happen to live near some sort of VIP, you might benefit from far less load shedding than someone else. Rather to my surprise, it seems that the same electricity provider that is on the brink of collapse, has the ability to keep very specific areas and properties electrified while others, almost next door, are plunged into darkness. In spite of myself, I can’t help feeling faintly impressed by this discriminatory, technical skill but am as irritated by it as everyone else.
The apps are helpful but if ten years ago anyone had said that in 2015 we’d have cell phone apps keeping us informed as to when we would or would not have electricity in our homes and businesses, we’d all have promised to have left the country by then. Yet here we still are and because we’ll all in it together, it’s become a sort of ‘safe’ topic. We commiserate and exchange notes with strangers in supermarket queues and laugh at jokes in the media but all the while we’re researching other forms of power to help keep our electric gates and security systems functional, to cook dinner, to keep the internet up and running and to provide enough light for children to study. We’re South Africans after all; we think we can manage this.
But then a relative, visiting from abroad, gazes down at the Cape Town city lights glistening around the base of Table Mountain and asks whether, in a load-shedding episode, we’re able to distinguish large tracts of darkness? Yes, we are. But what about the street and traffic lights, he asks. No, they too are switched off. A beat of silence follows and we’re reminded, however gently, that ours is not an acceptable norm.
So generators are doing a booming trade. More and more people are installing them and, as with so many other things in Africa, the wealthier sectors of society are better able to cope with the breakdown of services because alternative energy sources do not come cheap. It is the poorer communities that suffer most as darkness descends over them – prescheduled or not.
Xenophobia, however, is another thing altogether. It rears its vicious head every few years and leaves us appalled and disbelieving. The cruelty and violence meted out by seemingly ordinary black citizens to others – perceived as foreigners in their midst – is beyond our wildest comprehension. We are confronted with images of appalling devastation and hatred in our newspapers and on our tv screens and it’s all happening just down the road. To begin with, most disturbingly, was the deafening silence of our leaders. After several days of unprecedented mayhem, one or two spoke up. Our president was slow to come forward and when he did it was without the necessary conviction. Never before have we missed the steadying hand of Mandela as much. Under his guidance we don’t believe this would have happened but now there seems to be no end to it. Just as one community appears to settle down, so another flares and more lives and livelihoods are lost.
Now, when I encounter someone who comes from Zimbabwe or whose lilting French accent reveals his roots to be in central Africa, my heart skips a beat wondering if he will reach home safely that night. And so I add another item to my list of ‘African’ concerns.
Cecil John Rhodes too was a stranger but in the entirely different context of the mid 19th Century. My own response to the removal of his statue from the UCT campus was completely subjective. Memories of my student days, living in Fuller Hall, include that brooding figure and I happen to love bronze sculpture of almost any subject. So, from an entirely apolitical and personal perspective, I was saddened by the defacement and subsequent removal of that statue as to me it meant simply the loss of an imposing, impressive work of art.
I’ve struggled to see this issue from a different perspective but in the end I keep returning to the same starting point. From my white, middle-aged woman’s point of view, I wish we could learn from the past, focus on the future and concentrate all our energies on simply moving forward. I would have liked to have seen all the resources expended on the removal of the statue, spent instead on the feeding and educating of a township child. The sort of child who with that sort of intervention, might have grown up to be a recipient of a Rhodes scholarship.
Eventually, after wrestling for some time with this debate, I came across an article written by one of my last remaining South African heroes, the educator Jonathan Jansen. With his wealth of experience and a unique gift of expression, he articulates my own thoughts exactly and it is with relief that I pass the baton of my opinions into his capable hands.
But then there is something else. Word has filtered down of a mysterious shadow which has made an unheralded appearance on campus and on a sunny afternoon, I decide to take a drive up there to see it for myself. There I find the plinth looking strangely vulnerable without it’s statue and further diminished by graffiti, but below it, stretching out at an angle and negotiating the stairs, is the unmistakeable shadow of Cecil John Rhodes, gazing out over the Hottentot Holland Mountains and into a future he never could have predicted.
I have no idea who the painter is or what their motive may be, but there is something poignant and profoundly sad about the image. I don’t know if it is a reference to the shadows of our past or those of our future but it tells us something and I leave with tears in my eyes.