Charlene Smith
Charlene Smith

My country, my tormentor

Love’s constant companion is heartbreak. And in every enterprise that is spurred by hope, we know that disappointment is shadowing us.

Cynicism is an exercise in futility, it is fundamentally anti-human; it is in the nature of every person to believe that obstacles can be overcome, that healing follows pain and challenges are, as the cliché reminds us, opportunities waiting to be born.

Lovers and children are persistent sources of disappointment but they are usually easy to forgive because their failings are so like ours.

But little can wound like a nation.

What makes us love our country so much? If you ask a South African they will talk of the bush; the dry, red soil and blonde grass that seems to crackle under the sun. Capetonians will always mention “their” mountain. Geography is what seems to bind us.

In the US, the flag is a beloved motif; it hangs from homes, stands crooked in gardens among the tulips and waves as a banner above car dealerships.

Living in the US I felt homesickness when a friend sent a card with an elephant on the cover. When I lived in Japan and Argentina I missed argumentative, energetic, persistently debating South Africans. But now, it’s the bush I miss.

Now there is something about the debate in South Africa that feels tarnished and self-defeating … but perhaps it is I. Perhaps my disillusion smudges a once passionate love.

Reading Stephen Grootes’s excellent piece in The Daily Maverick this week of the conviction of the wife of South Africa’s state security minister for drug smuggling, I felt the despair I felt in South Africa last year as crisis followed crisis.

His closing words resonated: “But that would read like some far-fetched novel where the criminals have actually taken over an entire … nation-state. It would sound too far-fetched. Impossible, don’t you think? Are you going to say the chief of police was doing deals on the side over a new police headquarters? … chuck in a guy from the Czech Republic who arrives under an assumed name, with an Interpol warrant out for his arrest, and yet is allowed to live a normal free life. Or why not a police chief who was just friends, “finish en klaar”, with a gangland boss? And for your climax, write that the country’s president … gets to decide whether there should be an inquiry into the arms deal from which his party, the ruling party, and he, benefitted.

“No one would believe that would they?”

I posted on Facebook — the forum that has replaced the delicious face-to-face banter among friends, but which has also opened us to the insightful views of new “friends” — “What I want to know, to my SA friends, is why don’t you seem as anxious as I do?”

It opened a vigorous debate. One privately messaged me of the ruling party he once voted for: “They are sowing the seeds of division, and truth be told I’m looking to leave SA in the near future. I admire those who wish to stay and ‘fight’ for a better tomorrow, but for me a country should just function and one must be able to live their life. 1994 was 17 years ago. You can’t live your life when you’re concerned about what should be your birthright (equal opportunity, non-racialism, safety etc). It’s a matter of sleeping easy.

“I thank my ancestors and people like Mandela/Gandhi for laying the platform for everyone else … this was meant to be a golden age where we engage in higher forms of human existence. Instead we are fighting for the basics. It’s as if the sacrifices and (the) selflessness of those before us count for nothing.”

In South Africa, it was okay when I criticised, I lived there, but the minute I lived outside some friends became defensive. “Well, things are worse in other countries, you know, we may have crime but they have … ”

And then I came to the US and worked for an institution, which became the first to censor me. It was after I wrote a blog before the State of the Nation address by President Barack Obama earlier this year. I wrote it in the form of an open letter criticising the rutted roads, the filthy rail and bus stations, an inadequate telecommunications infrastructure and a lack of worker rights.

The lesson in South Africa and America? We only tolerate criticism from insiders. And that is how nations fail. It is important to tolerate outside critiques, they are rarely motivated by malice, and are most often simply observation. And instead of scoffing, try to understand the disappointment of those who have left, no one leaves their birthplace easily. And the life of an emigrant is hard; no chicken ever runs, they stay; emigration is only for the tough, and the humble.

People leave their home nations for one of two reasons — money, or because their country has broken their heart once too often. It can include a real or imagined sense that their life is in danger, and that is not only the purview of the political refugee.

When newcomers criticise, it is because they see what you close your eyes to. In the immortal words of Albert Camus (which I have paraphrased) “no nation is ever served by a love that is blind, that will be your defeat”.

This week in Boston Public Library I found these words in Anthony Collings book, Words of Fire: Independent Journalists who challenge dictators, druglords, and other enemies of a free press, he wrote:

“One of the conditions [of] battleground countries … is an imbalance among institutions, with the press corps vigorous and aggressive but other democratic institutions weak … another condition that many of these battleground countries have in common is that they are going through a period of rapid social change, often taking the form of a transition toward a more open, pluralistic society … with that political opening comes a greater openness in the news media … [which] makes for greater tension between reporters and politicians.”

Sound like somewhere you know? Trust me; a vigorous press corps is a good thing, when the media becomes compliant, then you really are in trouble.

But in words that for me, apply to America, with its ballooning debt and a suicidal aversion to dealing with it, and too, to South Africans who refuse to believe it is becoming like those African countries we previously scorned (and with it the dangers of a very violent uprising) were these words by Catherine Gourley in her book, War, Women and The News: How Female Journalists won the battle to cover World War II:

“Trouble doesn’t happen overnight. It swells, like a balloon, one breath at a time. People don’t always notice the balloon growing larger and larger. The one day the balloon bursts.”

None of us want the balloon to burst but sometimes it takes an outsider to note what we close our eyes too, because truth is often painful, and with truth comes an imperative to do something. And action is always harder than speaking, writing or closing our eyes.

Let me end with the words of a man I consider a great journalist, Bill Moyers, an insider who never feared speaking out: “Taking on political scandal is nothing compared to what can happen if you raise questions about corporate power … I believe the power of money in politics has tipped the balance against our democratic institutions … Theodore Roosevelt believed the central fact of his era was that big business had become so dominant it would chew up democracy and spit it out … ”

Problems not dealt with, worsen.

The corrupt in business, politics and our lives persist as long as we allow it, and as we angrily berate those who tender views that most often echo the fear that gnaws away inside us.