Monday, June 14, 2010

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes.- Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

I have found being South African during this World Cup very...well, confusing.  I feel waves of celebration moving through a tide of cynicism.  There are times when I loathe what this country has become, I'm ashamed of our abysmal standards.  The problem is the people, the attitudes of the average South African. The apparently irrevocable decaying of standards. The news, every day, is full of it.  And it drains away that feel good factor.

Is the antidote to this justifiable cynicism to ignore the news?  Is it to pretend that our country is hunky dory? Is it to tell anyone that will listen that HEY, I'M PROUDLY SOUTH AFRICAN- PAAAAAAAAAAARRRP!!!
I don't believe so.  On the other hand, to maintain exposure to the constant stream of what is happening in South Africa is a recipe for depression.  So I suppose one needs a balance of awareness, of creative response, and yes, a little disconnection - to maintain one's sanity. Use those periods of disconnection from the national pscyhe to recharge your personal framework, to feel the sunshine.
In the same way that one must get away from the computer, and put to bed all the social media twitters and comments, we also must turn off the stream of news in this country, or go mad.  

Inspiration has to be real to work

South Africa has more than a fair share of criminals, pigheads, racists, more than a fair share of the corrupt, the poor, the sick, the trailer trash, the low class, the rich, the unemployed, the arrogant cubicle slaves...  Am I proud of our stadiums or cities?  No.  Am I proud of our soccer team?  So far, they performed well against Mexico, but they're not champions. Not yet.  I'm not proud, but I am engaged, and ready to enjoy and share their success.  I'm also prepared to see them lose, and that is the standard that I fear will reflect poorly on us.  Because to some extent it is justified.

Of course, on the other hand, I am encouraged by this possibility: wouldn't it be wonderful if we can inspire them to greatness, and they, us?  Because an inspired people can work miracles.  I think this is the heart of the matter - inspiration needs to be pure, needs to be honest, to work.  To be real.  I'm not sure that our inspiration is real.  I believe it's marketing schpiel, and greed, and desperation, with a bit of vuvuzela vibe to warm and fuzzify it all.

So what is this proudly South African thing then? It's a marketing schpiel. And the mobs have taken to it like sheep to a border collie.  If someone from Iraq told you they were proudly Iraqi, you'd find it slightly amusing, because you'd have zero reference.  What would being proudly Iraqi mean to you? I wonder what Americans and the French and other nations think when they hear us telling each other how proud we are, knowing what they must know, knowing what we know?  It's a little disingenuous to be proudly South African when we have so much to be ashamed and embarrassed about. What do the Germans, the Brazilians, the Mexicans think when we go into raptures about our team, our team drawing a match?  It says something about our standards, but it says something more.  It's a little desperate.

Missing moral compass

We can of course be proud of Nelson Mandela, we should, of course, try our best.  Mr Mandela though points towards a more fragile reality.  The man is ailing and hanging onto life in Johannesburg's Northern Suburbs. Mandela's life presents us with an era of South Africa, and once he is gone, we will be fully and finally ushered into a new era. A South Africa without moral leadership, without even the metaphor of his moral compass.  The vacuum of a South Africa without Mandela heralds, so soon, the likes of Malema.  Malema himself is chomping at the bit, to wrest this country from law and order, threatening to polarise its people and pillage its resources in that age old oh so African tradition.   How forgetful we have become, how quickly the eradication of conscience. 

Malema has gone utterly silent while the World Cup is on - but what happens when the tournament is over?  In that sense, the tournament is a blessed reprieve.  Because the aftermath is too horrible to contemplate.  So is that what this World Cup represents, much deserved, and very expensive escapism?

In South Africa we have beautiful mountains, beautiful animals, but can you really say that you're proud of our game reserves, those precious parts of the country essentially devoid of occupying South Africans, essentially empty of any cultural significance, empty of any historical association.  Which is why we love those places.  I know I do.

Having travelled a lot I have experienced the mindset other countries have of our country, and it covers a wide spectrum.  The average is what you would expect - when people hear you're a South African and see that you're white, they immediately assume you're a racist.

South Africa can learn from Korea

I experienced my first World Cup in South Korea.  South Korea is a wildly fascinating country, an incredible contrast to our own country.  It has one of the world's most homogeneous populations, all speaking one language.  They are an incredibly unified people, simultaneously reserved but also inclined to embarrassing sentimentality.  Their soapies and movies certainly demonstrate the latter.

While Koreans are impressively literate and disciplined and sophisticated and rich, Korea is one of the world's most overcrowded countries, and it's certainly one of the most polluted places I've ever lived in.  It was in Korea that I learned to appreciate our diversity - not only of landscapes but in our people.  It's difficult to convey how monotonous Seoul can be - where 99% of people look identical, skyscrapers are carbon copies, all vehicles are Korean made etc.  Yet I learned to love Korea and was wildly supportive of their team during the 2002 tournament.  Whatever criticisms you might have, Koreans are pretty well mannered in general.  They are, also, as a rule, and probably not consciously, extremely racist.  They won't employ a teacher for example, and in general, if you are overweight, or black, or ugly.

I remember when I returned from Korea I went through a honeymoon period in South Africa, loving the food, the open space, the blue skies, the high quality of life.  After about 6 months the steady flow of bad news starts to irk, the constant news stream of one atrocious crime after another, one corrupt official exposed after another.


When I visited Australia in February this year I actually confessed to an Aussie, a stranger I met in a bar, that "I am ashamed to be South African."  I said I was ashamed of the constant focus on racism, the constant crime, the constant government scandals, the miserable health and hospital system, the crumbling municipal infrastructure.  It was interesting that my confidante seemed to know all this already, and suggested I move to Australia.  I had a similar conversation several times with different Australians.  Curiously, by the end of my trip my black and white perceptions of Australia = good South Africa = bad had changed.  That month in Australia was massively uncomfortable, with most days exceeding the mid 30's degrees Celsius, and a muggy humidity followed me just about everywhere.  I longed for the fresh air and coolness of the Highveld.  I also longed for something else.  Food and accommodation that wasn't outrageously overpriced - Australia is an extremely expensive place to visit.

South Africa is a confusing place to live in.  You either love South Africa or you hate it.  You're either proudly South African or you're not.  You're either with us or you're against us.  That's the reigning psychology.  It's repeated everywhere by many people.  On Facebook, on Twitter, if you dare disagree with a choir of consentors, you're labelled either a traitor or a racist.  Sometimes it is true, people who are critical might be conservative, inflexible folk who yearn for the good old Apartheid days.  I think that probably, more often, South Africans are so busy pursuing political correctness, and so busy blowing smoke up each other's arses, that they begin to lose touch with reality, they begin to give up common sense.

The Semenya Case

Caster Semenya is a good case in point.  What to do about this athlete who is alleged to have an unfair advantage?  Some people leapt to her defense.  Why not; a poor black girl being victimised by the big bad girl.  Sexist.  Racism.  Terrible discrimination in the Big Bad World.  Actually, hysteria aside, there's a very simple test at work - does this athlete have an unfair advantage over other female athletes on a race track.  Well what would constitute an unfair advantage?  How about higher than normal levels of the male hormone testosterone?  And as it turned out, her hormone levels were three times the normal level.  Problem solved, she does have an unfair advantage.  Please note that months later, no announcement has been made.  The logic is undeniable though.  Of course one can sympathise with Semenya's plight, it's certainly isn't her fault, but is it fair?  What would be fair, would be to remove the internal testes or bring the hormones down to a 'normal' level, but in practise you would be changing the person.

At the end of the day it really ought to be up to the athletes themselves to decide what is fair.  I am inclined to think that they would consider Semenya -as she is - having an unfair advantage.
Then there is the blade runner saga, almost a rerun of the Semenya saga, is it fair to have an athlete competing against able-bodied runners...  It depends of course on whether those artiificial legs would allow Oscar Pistorius to win by a fair margin.  Imagine Pistorius in an Olympic Final.  I'm sure we'd all like to see it, and it would theoretically be fine, unless he occupied one of the top 3 positions.  Once again, that's my opinion as a competitor, and at the end of the day, it's the competitors who ought to vote, have due consideration.

What does all this have to do with South Africa?  A lot.  I am all for an inclusive society.  That means we don't have a small set of consentors with power who are happy, but the rest are miserable, taken for a ride and excluded.  It's difficult to be genuinely enthusiastic about the world cup because of some basic realities: our government and municipal services, our public transport, our security, our health services, are all in a shambles.  South Africa could have solved its housing backlog and paid for the care of hundreds of thousands of AIDS orphans with moneys siphoned off to build soccer stadiums.  But they were built, and a few stooges pocketed some extra moolah.  What does the ordinary South African get for this investment?  A breathtaking scene, a spectacle, as one enters beautifully constructed stadiums, the thrill of having thousands of visitors celebrating and apparently enjoying our country.

A nation blowing its own trumpet

The Vuvuzela I think epitomises best the loud empty blaring noise that is the ill-considered blowing of our own trumpet.  It's a good metaphor, because it is a loud, noisy, deafening, meaningless sound.  Made of plastic, it is entirely geared toward lining some company's pocket, it has zero cultural significance [other than for Coca Cola and MTN] and let's face it, it's a harmful addition to the spectacle which probably does not make it easier for most teams to play the game.  I think the mischievous approach of our national team, that the crowd blast the opponents senseless, is neither sporting nor honest nor even honorable.  I have an idea the plastic ear drum busters will be banned as soon as Bafana exit the tournament, which is likely to be during the first round.

Should the Vuvu be banned?  Once again, what do the players say?  Personally I've experienced the horn blasting right beside my ear and I'm genuinely concerned about attending a match for fear of hearing damage.  I have sensitive ears but that's me.  I realise others love the vibe, and it does provide some color.  I confess not to understand the point of blowing the Vuvuzela at games where Bafana isn't playing, especially if people from those countries are complaining.

Criticism of the Vuvuzela is warranted, just as criticism of South Africa is warranted.  Some criticism of ourselves is warranted too.  I find it disturbing this trend towards insisting on being positive when the reality is that there is a tremendous amount that needs attending to.  Of course one could also yell oneself hoarse naming all these things that ought to be fixed.

My hope during this tournament is that our exposure to this large influx of foreigners will broaden our ability to have common sense about our local situation.  It is neither as bad nor as good as many South Africans try to portray it.  And there is an alternative to the absolute view.
Do you know where thinking in absolutes come from?  From our governing belief system.  From religion, that teaches us there is right and wrong, good and bad, heaven and hell, God and the devil, night and day.  Actually, life is very seldom so simple or so easy.  You may believe in absolutes until you find you're homosexual, or wanting an abortion,or that between day and night is the twilight.  You might subscribe to absolutes until you find that between black and white, male and female, heaven and hell is the mixedupness that is the complete, the whole spectrum of reality, with it's halfbreeds, its hermaphrodites and transvestites, its ladyboys and that boring middle ground that is neither here nor there.  We may wish for comic book reality, where the extremes are colored in using opposing colors, and definite opposites.

Naturally there is some credibility in opposing views, there is truth in both views, and one must consider whether a thing is good collectively, not just for ourselves, or our exclusive happiness.  On occasion it is good to digress from a mindset, whether optimistic or pessimistic, and ask the honest question: what isn't working, and why.  That is known as critical thinking, a critical dimension to thinking in absolutes, but a dimension that creates perspective, and perspective can make all the difference in the world, especially if your world is this beautiful, cruel, unfair, unique South Africa that we call home.

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