2016 left me speechless. Between Brexit, the growing realisation that Trump was a very real US presidential possibility, the Fees Must Fall riots at our universities followed by the Zuma (our South African president) Must Fall marches (and yes, he must), my writing voice flew the coop. For the last several months I’ve been trying to find it, catch it and coax it back but it’s been difficult. To distil something from my cerebral cacophony has proved challenging, but it’s time to try.
Neither Brexit nor Trump are my areas of expertise so I have no intention of wading into those minefields. Suffice it to say, that since my experience of South Africa over the last 25 years has been of an increasingly tolerant and accepting society, it’s been disconcerting to realise that other world-leading countries seem to be becoming less so.
But yes, despite our bungling government, giggling president, high crime rate, and the bad press we achieved through the university riots last year and, worse still, our chaotic State of the Nation Address last week, despite it all, my personal experience of South African society is one of growing tolerance and acceptance
In the last week, a couple of readers have asked why I’ve stopped writing and I’ve been at a loss to explain it. When I first started this blog, back in 2012, my intention was to share my everyday experience of post-apartheid South Africa; the good, the bad and the ugly. Nothing has changed except my age and if I’m to be true to that early blogging goal, I need to try to make some sense of the past few months.
At one time I considered calling this blog ‘White Noise’ because in essence, I guess that is all it is: A white, older woman giving her take on the society in which she finds herself. I remember deciding that as a title, the phrase might carry a negative connotation so I discarded it in favour of ‘Africadayz’, hoping the name would convey the sense not only of the everyday, but also of the often quite surreal aspects of life in Africa. The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘white noise’ as ‘noise containing many frequencies with equal intensities.’ That is a bit too academic for me. I’ve always associated it with the kind of static you get when you can’t find your favourite radio station. As such, that noise is irrelevant and irritating but to extend the metaphor, it could parallel the ongoing struggle of white South Africans to find their comfort zone in the ‘New South Africa’ where our opinions and aspirations are becoming less and less relevant.
The whole notion of ‘relevance’ has piqued my interest since December when I had dinner with a young, brilliant, newly qualified (white) paediatrician. As it does in this country, the conversation turned to politics and in particular the relationship between politics and health care. I suggested, not for the first time, that this erudite, enthusiastic young man get politically involved and his answer, brutally honest, gave me pause for thought. ‘Because I’m irrelevant’ he said. ‘As a young, white, male professional, what I think, what I believe and what I want are completely irrelevant in this country.’
My instinctive response was to protest, deny and dissuade but on reflection, I have come to accept his perspective. In my white, older-than-middle-aged-head, I had never really stopped to consider this question of relevance before, but now I have. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons I stopped writing too. My thoughts and opinions on the eternally colourful conundrum that is my country don’t matter or make a difference. But then I’ll have an encounter or an experience that tells a completely different story from what is widely circulated and I find myself once again wanting to share a different perspective, irrelevant or not.
The young paediatrician is not leaving the country. While he accepts his political irrelevance, he is prepared to put his heart and soul into his work in a Government Children’s Hospital and there will be many families, across the rainbow spectrum, who will very grateful for that.
Perhaps that is a way forward for many of us white, ‘old school’ South Africans who have chosen to stay and ride this roller-coaster of joy, hope and sometimes despair. I like to follow Bishop Tutu’s advice to ‘do a little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.’
When the Fees must Fall protests started on our university campuses in the last few months of 2016, I was horrified by the wanton destruction of university property, the chaos caused by a minority of students that prevented the majority from writing their final exams, graduation ceremonies having to be cancelled, examination halls having to be cleared for fear of violence and intimidation and the far-reaching ramifications of an academic year ending in chaos. I took it very much at face value and teetered dangerously towards the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality.
But as time passed and conversations around the subject ensued, I began to wonder if the Fees Must Fall riots were only a symptom of a much greater problem and somewhere in my reading, listening and wondering, the phrase ‘generational wealth’ popped up. Initially, the word ‘wealth’ conjures up thoughts of money, plain and simple. But when it comes to the differences between black and white in this country, it means so much more. Not confined to the differences between students, it applies across the board to the heritage of black and white South Africans and is an often-overlooked legacy of apartheid.
I have become acutely aware, suddenly, of how often and easily I refer to my past. Many of my most treasured possessions belonged to my grandparents and my parents and I know the stories behind them. I have a wall of old black and white photographs dating back to the 1800’s and moth-eaten albums depicting bearded great-grandfathers and pioneering grandmothers. I am surrounded by my past and my present identity is shaped by it. The black staff I have employed have no experience of this. Even the photographs they possess are likely to have been taken by me. They have no ‘recorded’ history’, no home libraries of old reference books, no stocks and shares to fall back on when money gets tight, no trust funds to help educate their children. All these things comprise ‘generational wealth’ and I am ashamed to admit that it is something I have only come to appreciate in the past year.
As so often happens when a new perspective or attitude foments, you find references to it cropping up around you. So it was when I visited a special exhibition at the London Museum two months ago. ‘South Africa, the Art of a Nation’ was uniquely curated to showcase the development of art in this country through the ages. It was there that I encountered the work of Santu Mofokeng, a South African photographer who has compiled a ‘Black Photo Album/Look at Me, 1890 – 1950’, a collection of rare family portraits of black, middle class families taken during that time. I was fascinated by his pictures. Somehow, apartheid managed to eradicate almost entirely, not only that middle class but even most of the proof that they ever existed. We have a lot to answer for.
So I view the university protests differently now. I have a greater appreciation of the sense of frustration and disappointment that must arise when a student arrives, full of hope, to start his tertiary education. While his matric results might sound promising, they count for little when he is pitted against others who have had not only better schooling, but also come to university equipped with life experiences and opportunities way beyond his knowledge. Now I think of the protests as only the tip of an iceberg that is swelling beneath the slightly choppy surface we choose to see. It is an unsettling scenario and one which still has a long way to go before its played itself out.
But despite it all, almost everyday, I find something to wonder at in my ordinary, daily interactions.
A few weeks ago, in my local grocery store, I noticed a fellow shopper. With waist-long dreads, emerald-green eyes against cappuccino skin and countless tattoos and piercings, he upped the ante among the mostly suburban, matronly customers roaming the aisles.
As I opened the door of the drinks refrigerator, something reacted with the steel handle. Electricity flared and I jumped a step back, almost onto his feet.
“Jeez,” he smiled, putting out a steadying hand, “You definitely haven’t lost your spark.” I smiled all the way through the rest of my shopping and even more so when he waved a cheerful goodbye as we got into our respective cars outside. And I smiled not because of what he said, but because he said anything at all.
Would I want to go back to a time when a young man like that would have thought twice before looking me in the eye, let alone reaching out to steady me? Not in a million years. Now I have conversations with people from vastly different backgrounds from my own that are often enlightening, sometimes amusing and occasionally humbling and my life is enriched by them. We’re all on this sometimes exhilarating, sometimes terrifying roller coaster together now and conversations with our fellow riders show we share the same frustrations and concerns. How we react is subjective but for me now, the ride is still fascinating.