Monday, July 12, 2010

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

Did we see our arses here at the arse end of Africa?
by Nick van der Leek

The answer is obviously that we did not.  Much to my surprise, and to the surprise of probably - arguably - most outsiders.  Perhaps we did not expect failure, but we certainly didn't expect things to go so damn well.  So three cheers for South Africa, for hosting so well, and it's brilliant that there were no mishaps, murders or major bungles.

South Africans can be commended for being able to pull together, not under the easiest or simplest of circumstances, and putting on a really decent show, that by many accounts, was enjoyed by most.  A unique event, celebrated by a unique people in a unique way, and thus, uniquely and singularly successful.

I'd like to single out 4 articles for further reading:
In terms of the latter most article, published by the Miami Herald, and written by Michelle Kaufman, I was actually moved to contact her, and wrote the following:
In a message dated 7/11/2010 5:30:34 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:
Hi Michelle

Thanks for your brilliant and insightful article on our country.  It is good to see a balanced view.  So often I encounter fellow South Africans who only want to hear good things, or else are only capable of negativity.  The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and it was refreshing to read a piece that proffers an enthused view with a very necessary critical take on some very real, and let's face it, widespread ills.
Kaufman responded: to me
show details 4:34 PM (8 hours ago)

Thank you so very much for reading, and for taking the time to write.
I have spent five weeks in your country, and I will never forget the experience. I have been fascinated from the moment I got here, and I leave here with such a better understanding and a real place in my heart for South Africans. I have not met a single rude person here, and even the poorest people I met had a wonderful spirit about them. I will be watching news from here like a hawk from now on, and will be rooting for SA to succeed!
Enjoy the final match. Word is Mandela is coming.
Michelle Kaufman, Miami Herald.

This really is the essence of the lesson, both for ourselves and visitors.  The Financial Times has been sensible enough in its reporting to be honest, something that is often uncomfortable, and often raises questions we don't like to ask [or answer]:

But is talk of togetherness just propaganda in a country with some very tangible needs? Shouldn’t those billions have been used to train people for jobs, or to provide impoverished schools with libraries, or even just with teachers who actually teach? We wanted South African answers, but those are hard to find. This is a peculiarly unknowable country.

I think some hardcore South African cynics [including local and foreign visitors] are now able to admit that the country isn't all that bad, and they can actually endorse the place without too many ifs or buts.  I also think that the songbirds singing the praises and being eternally, positively proudly South African may have noticed that you need a sort of rigorous, no nonsense Swiss-Germanic big shot like Blatter to push around his weight, with no frills rules, to get real results here.  No surprise this strict mindset is contrary to the laid back culture in South Africa, and very contrary to the whole Africa-time mentality.  But it doesn't have to be.  We've seen now that when we want something badly enough we can fight for it, work hard for it, and achieve it.  I don't think there is any doubt that one of the reasons this country is so often filled with half-arsed drudgery, lousy excuses and lack of service delivery is that:

1) our leaders have very long leashes
2) we cut our leaders a lot of slack

The problem is our leaders, yes, but the problem is also us - for voting in weak leaders with low standards and little sense of what real leadership is. Poor leadership is akin to poor - or no - goal setting.

It was particularly appalling to see Mugabe today on television at the 1GOAL conference, sitting right beside President Zuma, and Bob later falling asleep midway through the speeches. Did someone, anyone, not have the presence of mind to think that such a controversial figure at such close quarters to our leader sends entirely the wrong, the least appropriate signal? Mugabe playing pals with our President  is Africa at its most two-faced, most under-achieving, and most disgusting.  The single metaphor of putting our President beside someone with such a shoddy human rights/honesty record calls into question everything the country wishes to say about itself, and Africa, and everything it hopes to achieve.

It's also pertinent then to say to those - many - South Africans who do not share a similarly upbeat [but overly saccharine and positive] view to their own, who tell their compatriots to fuck off, that it's my mindset or the highway ['unfollowing' and 'unfriending' anyone who is a little to cynical] that critical thinking is sorely lacking not only in South Africa, but the world at large.  Many things aren't working, and the reason things are so badly out of whack is because too few people are complaining loud enough.  Our shared global issues range from energy, to food, to economics, to the environment.  Who is responsible for doing something about these issues? And isn't the first response to begin to notice, and then complain?

Ferial Haffajee, Newspaper editor: I like that we protest, complain. Communities here protest all the time. I’ve learnt to see that as an asset, that will compel us, I hope, in the right direction.

For those who say, having seen what is being described as the world's most wonderful collection of stadiums [billed as the destination of a future Olympics], and these folks say they are proudly South African, I say: You are wrong.  You're simply happy.  Perhaps you are relieved.  Perhaps you are enjoying yourself.  Because we all know South Africa isn't really a place to be proud of, it is still in the process of forging who and what it is.  It's a place you can sometimes be happy in.  But there is much to be embarrassed about, and be very very careful of being proud when we have perhaps been lucky to avoid misfortune during this world cup.

Bad Press was always just a sniff and a sneeze away.  There was crime, but fortunately nothing serious.  There were breakdowns, in energy and transport, but fortunately people didn't make too big a stink about it.  The Vuvuzelas drowned out further dissent.  But don't come with this pride nonsense. 

Here's why:

Mark Gevissser: I haven’t spent enough time in the poor parts of the country to know how people feel there, but they’re certainly not at the matches. And, to the extent that they are partaking of this zingy cosmopolitanism... I think so much of the negative energy that went into the [Jacob] Zuma revolution in this country was a feeling of not being invited to the victory table. A feeling of: “We should also be ­benefiting and we’re not.” I worry about that as an ongoing impulse.

Be careful, my fellow South Africans, of declaring yourself satisfied and happy and proud of your country.  Because I am not sure you, even now, represent a majority view, even if the view is more cosmopolitan than you're used to.  The average South African, you see, remains mired in poverty, unemployed, hungry, and sick. The World Cup did not really invite soccer players earning multi-million dollar salaries to these poor areas to share their gospel of neediness.  This is because FIFA serves an audience of HAVES, it is a show geared to the middle class.  There is the occasional charitable nod, but even with these concessions, the money making involved is actually quite awful.  Ticket prices of R2000+ are really only for a certain class of people, we all know that.

But we can take heart that visitors now know us and understand us better.  They know we have many problems, and tremendous potential.  They share, perhaps, our preference, or acknowledge, our preference for being uncertain or willing to engage the poor.  And we have also enjoyed the world visiting us, and found that we are not as useless or terrible or fallible as some have said.  But the truth we can take from this is a rather simple one, and, I dare say, a rather humbling one.  Having come out the other side, having had our fun, and spent a few small fortunes, isn't it time that we took a little time and effort and went about dealing with, fully and finally, the great weight in the belly of the beast that is this country.  Isn't it time that we acknowledged and assisted this this country's poor?

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