How it works here in New Zealand is that when a disaster occurs, not even anywhere near as horrendous as the recent earthquake to devastate Christchurch, it floods the news. Regular TV shows and even adverts are cancelled.
There is an enormous sense of a village community in New Zealand. It can be summed up by one of the adverts for the current MasterChef New Zealand competition plastered on billboards and bus stops. The picture shows different, locally renowned chefs modestly grinning above the following caption: “He’s one of us”. The message of unified patriotism is exceptionally simple and crystal clear. He is a kiwi. He’s one of “us”. And kiwis, by and large, with relatively minor differences, are proud to be kiwis. Having been here for a year now, I know.
What if such an advert were run in SA? The slogan would not have the same meaning. If it showed a grinning black face, the message being sent would be puzzling. As the driver passes the billboard advertising MasterChef South Africa she would be wondering, is perhaps the “us” referred to some BEE enterprise devoted to privileging black chefs or, ummm, what? One of… whom? It could come across as a deeply divisive ad. If it were a white face, what would the message be? Or an Indian’s? At best, the advert’s message would be muddled, at worst it could pejoratively suggest different groups or cliques, NOT an all-encompassing patriotism. South Africa, the land of my birth, a divided country I love that aches and breathes within me, simply does not have the kind of unity to allow for such simple adverts.
Kiwi-land feels like Hobbiton because of the camaraderie. I often pass a tennis club on my walks and it is natural to say hello to the players and get back a cheery reply between the clock-clock of tennis balls. It is not regarded as weird to say hello to total strangers or strike up conversations in bus queues. It was easy enough for me to form friendships with the postman as he rattles past our postbox on his bicycle. He stops when I am strolling by and we have a chat. “How ‘r you mate?” he’ll enquire. My typical kiwi reply will be, “Buddy, I’m sweet as”. I know replies like sweet as or great as sounds like names for porn websites, but there you are.
I don’t wish to romanticise the land of the silver fern, a country we will be leaving again soon. But here, right now on the ground, the enormous sense of unity in New Zealand as it faces the formidable emergency of the current Christchurch earthquake is awe-inspiring.
From the start of the crisis, local TV channels have been flooded with live or up to the minute news, interviews with individual survivors and heroes, and teary-eyed reports from many. Here people matter. Enormously. Crowds of people, even school children, have wanted to assist, but some have been turned away as the rescue teams need to made up of professionals. Here the thinking is: “He’s one of us”. It’s not: “He’s one of them”. And of course, neighbouring countries have sent in crack teams to help, as have countries further away, such as the US.
The following are not facile questions, but go to the very heart of humanity. They should be meditated on instead of coming up with a knee-jerk answer. Taking regular moral inventories is important for the collective soul. What if an earthquake of this magnitude were to occur in South Africa? Would Zimbabwe or other neighbouring countries offer aid and/or have the capability to assist? In the case of Zimbabwe the very idea is ludicrous, bitterly so.
Would there be the same sense of enormous community if a natural calamity of this kind were to occur in South Africa? I don’t want to try and answer the question with a simple yes or no. But I think the answer lies in the way language works or does not work in the fractured Rainbow Nation. An advert with “He’s one of us,” regardless of what face is shown above the caption, would be meaningless, confusing or even create dissension in South Africa.
This article first appeared on Rod’s “The Mocking Truth” column on NewsTime.