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Identity

2014-02-02

Testing the limits of a tyrant
South Africa’s and Zimbabwe’s personalized politics have invested too much power in leaders

Now that our leaders have trashed the Mandela legacy abroad, insulted the saintly Dalai Lama and screwed justice at home, a bewildered citizen like me is left pondering her identity.
I used to be a “polecat of the world”, as the international media dubbed whites under apartheid. Going to London in the Eighties as a pale South African and a smoker in those days was quite frankly a nightmare. If anyone asked, I’d pretend to be from Oz. Once, sitting next to an Englishwoman my age on a flight to Dublin, both of us silently sipping gin and tonic, I was caught unawares and answered honestly when she asked, “Where are you from?” To my astonishment, she physically recoiled on hearing I was South African. It was such an absurd response that I got the giggles, and she eventually laughed too.  As it turned out, we were both journalists.
A ditty that was popular in the UK at the time featured a silly insult first aired on the famous Spitting Image show: “Never met a nice South African”, it claimed. This seemed to damn not only us polecats but the oppressed multitudes as well. It was confusing.
When Madiba was released from prison and graciously, astonishingly pardoned the polecats, I became a rainbow national. Proud of my country’s universally revered constitution, a unique peace and reconciliation process that was to spawn forgiveness projects around the world, and my adored leader’s global heroism, I quit smoking, dropped the Australian drawl and assumed we’d never look back.
But now, according not only to the author of a new book called After Mandela, the Financial Times’ world news editor, Alec Russell, but to my own logic as well, we no longer have any authority at all beyond our own shoreline. We’ve blown the finer features that distinguished us among developing countries.  Although we’re neither as bad as we used to be nor as good as we promised to become, we are just another nondescript country struggling with a lot of problems in what the Irish used to call the turd world.
Our hallowed constitution, which countless law students in distant lands have studied reverentially for  the past decade, is apparently under threat from a leader who narrowly escaped imprisonment on corruption charges and, according to Alec Russell at his recent book launch , “…doesn’t have an ideological bone in his body”.
It’s impossible these days to get a clear picture of exactly who we are, never mind where we are in democratic terms. Not only do we have to find ourselves without much guidance from the awesomely principled Mandela, but South Africa’s compromised new president may not be even the dancing populist we think he is. I realized this with a jolt when a respected academic asked me recently if I thought Zuma’s leopard skin and gumboot moves were genuine or just a cynical identity ploy to secure the support of the masses. That got me thinking.
It has taken a year since Polokwane for some of us to accept the nakedly ethnic image of our new leader. To take on board the idea that he is not, after all, a culturally-charged Zulu warrior but just an ordinary bloke in a grey suit is not going to be easy. Only this week, the thought of finally becoming a real African inspired me to dig my old jungle prints out of the jumble box. But now what?
Do we need another president in a Western suit, we ask ourselves? Couldn’t Zuma rather invent a Madiba-style shirt if his animal fur routine is fake? Former president Thabo Mbeki was so tailored and indeed so grey that he ended up being neither black nor white. Like Mugabe and me, he didn’t seem to know whether he was an African or a wannabe Brit.
I think I’m finally beginning to get the hang of identity confusion, though. Growing up as colonials, we looked to Britain for excellence, feeling inferior by definition because we lived in the sticks. And Africans have tended to internalize apartheid, inevitably. I pray we’ll get over our collective self-loathing someday soon. By contrast, Afrikaner loyalists, according to Zuma, are defined simply by their passport options, or lack thereof.
What we long for more than anything else in this crazy country is another father figure like Madiba, with a tough mind and a tender heart. In Mbeki, what we got was all head but no heart. And now vice versa in Zuma.
However, I’m tired of all the apocalyptic predictions of recent election months. Helen Zille is being hysterical when she warns that we will shortly become a failed state. Has she ever been to Somalia? Britain’s departing high commissioner, Paul Boateng, observes that South Africans are sometimes too hard on themselves, which may be true. It’s all that self-hatred, you see.
Let’s hope the eagerly awaited 2010 extravaganza gives us a fresh chance to shine as a nation. After all, the Germans used the same event four years ago to conquer their self-doubt by displaying nationalistic fervour for the first time since World War 11. I’m guessing that, once South Africa is in the limelight for reasons other than politics, we bewildered citizens will grab the opportunity to blow our own vuvuzelas full blast.

 

 

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