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Foreigners sometimes

2014-01-22

From the outside looking in

Foreigners in SA are well worth listening to – they show us a picture of ourselves and make us face some hard truths

Foreigners do us a service by holding up a mirror to reflect our condition more clearly, sometimes helping us to face unwelcome truths. I am in regular contact at my Melville guest house with people from every corner of the globe, whose perspectives are often enlightening. During the first weeks of the new Jozi-based Financial Timescorrespondent’s stay in the city, for example, he was shocked to see hunger even among working people: virtually everybody he met on the streets or doing menial tasks was sooner rather than later pleading for food, he said, whereas such pervasive want has become a thing of the past in economically-challenged Brazil, his former posting.
If so disconcerting an observation means that even the employed half of South Africa’s patently struggling masses is undernourished, social discontent amid worldwide recession may be about to strike us with a vengeance. The whole country has watched labour unrest becoming a feature of our political landscape this winter.
On the other hand, a British journalist who worked in Johannesburg during the euphorically hopeful Nineties recently answered my routine probe about South Africa’s progress in the intervening years with a reassuring shrug: “It could have been worse; it could have been better,” he said.
A French couple, clearly delighted to be back in South Africa after ten years abroad, had a similar view. Previously based in Pretoria while he took charge of Alliance Francais during the Mandela presidency, they now live in Cape Town, where she steers the same organization and he tackles a Philosophy masters. Both expressed surprise not only at how much the racial dynamics of Johannesburg and Pretoria have progressed over the past decade, but how little Cape Town has changed during the same period.
“Eet ees still two worlds,” she declared, a tad contemptuously, of the Mother City. “They do not want to mix. You meet white people who say they are learning Xhosa but they attend only one or two lessons in a superficial gesture of conciliation; a mere fashion accessory. ” Her organization’s branch in Mitchell’s Plain is, meanwhile, putting together a book about the famous area’s history, which is emphatically not about District Six, she says, but a look at how today’s youth sees its past and future.
She and her husband were excitedly swopping insights on the neglected story of the Cape Coloureds with Playing the Enemy author John Carlin – in town from Europe to film a documentary spin-off from the Clint Eastwood-directed movie of Mandela’s legendary 1994 rugby foray – when a young American on a two-year writing scholarship arrived bearing an unlikely magazine she’d picked up during her day’s research: Soweto Homes and Property, a glossy beamed at township residents. Apart from tips on design and décor, it discussed property ownership among the youth and seven reasons to become an estate agent (despite 40 percent of the country’s realtors having thrown in the towel this year, tra la).
Sipping chardonnay, the aforementioned US media star of tomorrow, Eve Fairbanks, noted Soweto’s fashion flair and seamlessly changed the subject to updates on the gender revolution in her own country. Apparently, people of Eve’s age are being assailed with relationship despair by columnists such as Sandra Tsing Loh of the Atlantic Monthly, who hates marriage and her fennel-growing, diaper-changing, paella-making, soon-to-be-ex-husband. On the same terrain yet hopeful, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has been calling for more “excess” in love. Both are mourning the demise of passion between “partners”, an indirect result of women obtaining the emancipation they full-bloodedly craved but, hey, not at the expense of masculinity.
Such nostalgia for manly men represents the disillusionment of a small group in an advanced society. In South Africa, by contrast, the well-defined outer limits of unlamented masculinity remain grotesquely evident in soaring domestic rape statistics due in part to a culture of male sexual entitlement as well as to the impunity that characterizes South Africa’s typically violent gender relations. If there is one way in which we trumpet our social backwardness (and to hell with the political incorrectness of saying so) it is in our stalled gender evolution.
A German guest joining The Melville House’s wine-swilling discussion, an HIV/Aids researcher, didn’t mince her words in describing South Africa’s unreconstructed gender attitudes – the single most obstinate barrier to life-saving sexual behavior change in her field. “Zey just cannot control their urges,” she sighed.
But not everyone with a degree in evolutionary psychology subscribes to the notion that people are hard wired to behave in this or that way. Individuals aren’t formed before they enter society; they are created by social interaction, aren’t they? Proudly South African, and all that?
Yes and no, replies an Italian paleoanthroplogist from Florence, who has lately reworked the lectures he’s been giving for years and years because his subject has begun to merge with human genome research. What is currently engrossing his students and attracting scholarly support in Europe, he says, is not the brain’s rigidity but its extraordinary adaptive qualities.
For those of us who’ve noticed – notwithstanding deep emotional attachment to our offspring – that babies start life as little more than digestive systems, there is, for example, the fascinating discovery among  the world’s human evolutionists that we are born prematurely, our heads being too big beyond nine months to fit down the birth canal. The human brain, growing bigger and bigger through the ages, has adapted even our life cycle.
Hardly a day passes when I don’t learn something rivetingly new from my international guests. South Africans tend to love to hate foreigners, our daft rugby coach de Villiers being a case in point in the anti-British rant he started recently. But foreigners with a genuine interest in us are well worth listening to.
From the margins of society that they occupy, outsiders don’t battle to see the wood for the trees as they aren’t in the thick of the forest. They are often charmingly wide-eyed, unlike the many South Africans who remain programmed by the blinkers apartheid forced upon them.  Most foreigners want to be here, chose to be here, and enjoy being among us to appreciate our good qualities, as well as damning our failures.

 

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