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Is it easier to feel South African when you’re not actually in South Africa?

Hands up who remembers this ad for Castle Lager?

It appeared in 1998, after Thabo Mbeki’s “two nations” speech which in many ways marked the end of the Rainbow Nation as a national myth. It’s telling that Castle Lager, then the self–proclaimed beer of the nation, chose to feature South Africans who are a long way from South Africa, as if genuine national unity, a willingness to move beyond the labels the Nats so successfully sewed into the very fabric of our being, is only possible outside the borders of the country.

A couple of years ago, I remember my husband telling me how, when he heard North Sotho being spoken on a bus in North London, he felt both a pang of longing and the joy of recognition. He chatted to the passengers speaking Sotho and they were thrilled to meet someone from their part of the world. Would that sort of thing happen back in Limpopo? Of course not; back in Bela–Bela there would be nothing remarkable about it at all. Distance and a sense of being outsiders in a big, unforgiving city helped to overcome differences that would have assumed far greater significance within a more familiar environment.

It’s a sense of common knowledge — sometimes a common threat — within the context of a wider community that brings people together. Benedict Anderson famously defined the nation as the “imagined community”, and communities are easiest to imagine when collective attention is focused on a major sports event, for example. South Africa defeats England in the Rugby World Cup and for a moment, we indulge in a fleeting sense of pride in our collective allegiance. Allegiance to what is — a notion that is, for the most part, quite abstract except when it comes to choosing which queue to stand in at the arrivals hall at OR Tambo International.

At the other end of the figurative scale, sometimes it seems to me that being in a relationship with a nation — as individuals inevitably are whether they like it or not — is a lot like being in a relationship with a person. Some of us rebel, some are indifferent, some are utterly and unquestioningly in love. And still others need a little space to figure out who they are and what they want out of it all. I class myself as one of the latter. Things were getting a little intense and it’s frankly quite a relief to be able to sit eight hours away and view goings on from a distance.

Thinking about Castle Lager, another ad campaign comes to mind, this time for Standard Bank, dating from around 2003. “There’s more holding us together than keeping us apart,” was the message, along with visuals that communicated the way in which South Africans were basically similar despite their apparent differences of race and affluence.

There are times when I fervently believe that. And then there are times when I see an image of a man on fire and cannot imagine what might cleave me to people capable of doing this – and doing it ostensibly because they distinguish those who are South African from those who are not.

I love South Africa. But there are so many times when my imagination fails me.


  • Sarah Britten

    During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.