People sometimes ask me, ‘Don’t you miss South Africa?’ ‘No,’ I reply – but in the same heartbeat that answer is given comes my silent question, which South Africa?
‘You’re criticising South Africa Rod, the country you grew up in, that fed and clothed you, gave you an education, everything you have. Not cool.’ The same question rises….which South Africa? The one I lived in where I took for granted flush toilets and easy access to food, water, clothing, education…or the South Africa I never knew at all, which had none of those amenities, which most “other South Africans” grew up in?
The following should be an acknowledged truism. White people with a flush toilet and easy access to water and other amenities did not and do not live in the same “South Africa” that, for example, a squatter camp black person lives in. However, the truism is not generally acknowledged, or is not a part of the subtext of the “South Africa” people speak about.
Eurocentric Christianity as an institution (not as a spiritual path) lies deep in the making of South Africa. From the blood covenant of the Afrikaner volk to the Catholic Church to the Pentecostal and evangelical versions to the many private schools, Christianity is part of the fabric of the country. I was a churchgoer for a long time. However, the congregations of all the churches I attended or visited, before and after 1994, were mostly either entirely white or black or another legislated “race”, with a smattering of people of another “colour” proving the rule. This included Rhema, the Vineyard churches, the Anglican and Methodist churches….the list goes on. I remember a minister whom I still respect saying in his sermon there should be more black people in ‘our nice white church’. To which I silently added the sentence, ‘but many here will not even be able to put up with the smell’. I was too polite to voice this and had I done so it would have been with no intention of being offensive to any person except to goad the white church folk around me who all have nice cars, and smell of expensive soap and deodorant. Soap and perfume are very expensive when you don’t have electricity or running water. I worked in a black township as a teacher in 1989-1990 (Langa High) so I – privileged whitey – do have some idea, though not much.
What that minister said in his sermon about too many whites in the church was followed by a brittle silence. All around me the whiteys looked uncomfortable. I am not trying to church bash, but the churches during the transition from apartheid to democracy often desperately tried to be relevant. This attempt, generally speaking, was to no avail because they lived in a different South Africa. For all the teachings of the gospel about love and inclusiveness, parables inviting the poor, the lame and so forth to the feast, what is at stake here is not so much racism, but that people live in vastly divergent South Africas. This is why whites and blacks even forming close friendships – apparently – is a complex, ambivalent, perhaps even a paradoxical idea, or so argues Sisonke Msimang.
Us “deserters” or “ex-South Africans” here in New Zealand also live in different South Africas. A South Africa of the mind. For some, their South Africa is long forgotten, surviving only in the gravelly accent, some memories seldom visited, and a few hankerings, such as a taste for biltong, pap en sous, and the way we do
braais BBQ’s. These South Africans wouldn’t even know of the university protests “back home”, the egregious decline of education, Nkandlagate or who Juju is. They shrug their shoulders and wonder, for example, how they are going to ever afford a property in Auckland, seeing the invading migrant Chinese have forced up the price of Auckland properties to where only the very wealthy can afford them. How can you compare their (vague, distant) South Africa to the one that I have in my mind and heart where I still write about my old homeland here and here? Then there are the deeply embittered, usually young Saffas whom I meet in New Zealand who are furious about what has happened in their “South Africa”. They are shaken by crimes and BEE-related inability to find work. These immigrants talk about ways to get their parents out. Their South Africa is a frightening place.
That South Africa is like the one we read about in the news. Horror stories sell. According to this South Africa, it is a hellhole of endless crime, people living in fear for so long they no longer realise how abnormal it is to live in such fear. This is the country of violent protests, home invasions, wholesale rape, taxi wars, squatter camps….surely no one will stay alive much longer in this South Africa. This is the South Africa where – God forbid – whiteys now know what it is like to not have a flush toilet or nice soap and all the basics the average white person in another South Africa didn’t even know they were taking for granted.
There is the South Africa the faithful Christians have left in droves. These include ones I know personally, who prayed fervently to know if it is God’s will that they emigrate. That leaving to ensure their children can be raised in safety and with flush toilets and nice soap and so forth is the direction of the Lord. That they are hearing rightly from God they should leave…what place? How do they see their South Africa? A godforsaken place that the godly must leave? Isn’t that where the godly are meant to go to, and convert the heathen? I have respectfully asked them, ‘surely you do not need to ask if it is God’s will to run out of a burning house with your children in your arms?’ I have heard awkward silences after that question. I have heard clever, theological evasions. But I think they do not wish to see South Africa as a burning house. ‘We still pray for South Africa’, they say. I have asked the question, in conversation and on Facebook, ‘have your prayers had any effect? If they have not had the effect you wish (or what you think God wishes), what does that say about prayer?’ My questions are sincere, with the wish to get to the truth. But I have lost friendships over asking such questions. Because their “South Africa” is unclear, perhaps as unclear and of the same dubious substance as their beliefs. They left the South Africa they cannot conceptualise or put into a biblical parable because they feared for their future and their children’s. “God’s will” was tacked on to a decision to leave that was subconsciously already made.
Then there is the South Africa that many people love to live in. I know them too. Ones who have tried the desertion/immigration thing, and returned to their home country, to find roots again and who gush about safaris, braais and gulp down the Karoo air.
There is also the different South Africas of place. I know expats who have left South Africa, but have never been to Cape Town! They go back for a holiday in which they visit Cape Town and its surroundings. When they return to New Zealand they exclaim –no surprise– that the Cape is like a different country. Hear, hear, I say, and time to pop the Stellenbosch wine bottle between naked thighs whitened with genuine Clifton or Llandudno beach sand.
So what does this make of patriotism? When someone is patriotic about South Africa, or rather their particular notion of “South Africa”, what are they being zealous about? Who or what are they being loyal to? Zuma? The ANC? Old memories? The quest for freedom from poverty in a squatter camp? The wonderful unity of all South Africa’s peoples? The Sandton-Rivonia-Fourways 4X4 larfstyle? Getting wasted and sunburned on a beautiful beach under The Twelve Apostles? What is South Africa, man? Is it (and patriotism) only in the mind?