SA, not sad

As intended, the Beijing Olympics have done much to help China launch itself as a new and exciting brand, overtones of the 1936 Munich games notwithstanding.   South Africa hopes to get the same mileage out of the 2010 soccer world cup. We need it.

Right now, the South African brand has another famous sporting event hanging around its neck, ironically a triumph, but one that creates the temptation to conclude that our best days are past us. As Simon Kuper recently put it in the Financial Times, South Africa “has slipped from fairy tale to sad, complex country.”

The triumph in question was the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the way, as related in John Carlin’s new book (and soon to be movie), Playing the Enemy, Nelson Mandela made the most of it by donning a Springbok jersey to complete the seduction of Afrikanerdom.

The problem with this fairy tale moment , as was perhaps inevitable, is that it has become the anchor in a narrative arc that has South Africa going downhill ever since, last year’s recapture of the world championship notwithstanding.  Indeed, the fact that President Mbeki could not recapture the Madiba moment  (could anyone, ever?) served merely to reinforce the story line.

Now, in Kuper’s throwaway, yet crushing epithet, we are a “sad” country, drowning in what are politely called our “complexities”.  Even our Olympians have proven themselves impotent.

Whatever the writer intended, and he is a sympathetic observer, “sad” reeks of condescension. It evokes dinner party conversations fueled by too much reading of the Spectator. “So sad about South Africa.” “Inevitable, really.” “Yes, I suppose it was really too much to hope they could keep it together after Mandela”.

The “fairy tale”-to-“sad” narrative is itself rooted in a fairy tale – fairy tale in the sense of myth. Myths are stories that people tell themselves to help explain the inexplicable.  For many in the North, apartheid’s soft landing still does not fully compute. South Africans were supposed to end up killing each other on a grand scale, not settle their differences and unite amicably around a flag, a constitution and a powerful sense of shared nationhood.

Simplest is to fall back on the great man theory of history: the impossible happened thanks to one great man, a magical hero, “one good native”, in the phrase Mark Gevisser attributes to Thabo Mbeki.  So much easier than the hard work of understanding of what is, yes, a very complex society.

Kuper wonders “what remains of Mandela and that jersey.” He finds two legacies. One is a “South African nationalism that crosses colour boundaries and can be seen both in polls and the recent pogroms of foreign immigrants.” The other is “those million daily moments of inconsequential friendliness when whites and blacks meet in this still largely segregated country. When South African’s aren’t committing crimes, they mostly treat each other with ordinary respect.”

Setting aside the cheap shot in that last sentence, this analysis is problematic on every count. It assumes that South Africans did not have it within them to find a common patriotism without a deus ex machina. It completely misunderstands the roots of the recent attacks on immigrants, which had nothing to do with nationalism.

And it misses perhaps the most fundamental point about this country which is that for all the horrors of apartheid and everything that preceded it, South Africans like each other. The million daily moments of friendliness – a lovely phrase – are anything but inconsequential. They are a genuine expression of South Africa’s soul.

“Humanity,” wrote the Roman public intellectual Seneca, “is the quality which stops one being arrogant towards one’s fellows, or being acrimonious. In words, in actions, in emotions she reveals herself as kind and good natured towards all. To her the troubles of anyone else are her own, and anything that benefits herself she welcomes primarily because it will be of benefit to someone else.”

The humanity not of one but of many is what got South Africa past apartheid. It’s at the heart of the South African brand. May it shine through in 2010.

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