Opinion

JUDITH FEBRUARY: What does it mean to be South African?

JUDITH FEBRUARY: What does it mean to be South African?

opinion

"Ours is a country lovely beyond any singing of it."

Alan Paton coined those words in his iconic opening lines to Cry the beloved country. Helen Moffett further clarified our vision in her 2006 book, Lovely Beyond Any Singing: Landscape in South African writing.

But - and there is always a but in South Africa - it is also a terrible beauty. Driving along the N2 highway out of the Cape Town CBD and further along the R43, the full contradictions of our country are on display. The drive is sadly not unique in its contradictions. Amid the infinite natural beauty and richness of the landscape, there lies a malaise and lack of care inevitable in a country deeply divided and one in which the price of corrupt governance is being paid mostly by the poor and most vulnerable.

The deep injustice is everywhere.

Along the N2, children, black and poor, consigned to the claustrophobia of shack lands play precariously near the highway amidst the dust. It’s an informal football match or a cricket match being played using makeshift stumps and bails. The deep injustice dictates that the poor are consigned to the dusty wastelands on the fringes of our cities and that children are denied the basic right to play safely.

And so in Heritage Month 2020, we could ask ourselves the complex question, "What does it mean to be South African?". The answer demands complexity beyond the ubiquitous braai.

As a weary President Ramaphosa told an equally weary nation to put on its dancing shoes and do the Jerusalema, a dance which has now made artist Master KG an overnight global sensation, in typical South African fashion, we duly did. Living in the moment is also a South African characteristic, after all. It helps us swing between the highs and lows of country often at war with itself.

If we danced we would forget the kleptocratic state of the Zuma years which continues in a different form today, we would forget the outrageous testimony just delivered by Former Minister of Mineral Resources, Mosebenzi Zwane, to an increasingly frustrated Judge Zondo. If we danced we would perhaps forget about our economic and social crises and the inability of the governing ANC to deal with them constructively or honestly.

If we danced, perhaps we would forget about the degrading poverty and the deep inequality which is pervasive. Perhaps we would forget about the shameful acts of gender-based violence women in our country face on a daily basis. Perhaps if we danced we would forget about the violent language we often visit upon each other in this ‘rainbow nation’.

The dance itself is joy, the dance itself is the very essence of our contradictory lives in a country filled with what is good and bad in almost equal measure.

To be South African is to live the sum total of all of these contradictions, discomforts, injustices and joys fully and fiercely.

In the recent passing of George Bizos, we look back on the life of this refugee who became one of our country’s greatest sons. Bizos is our heritage too; one of the better angels of our collective nature. We look to Bizos’s life and know that there is unfinished business as regards the making of our democracy.

Bizos, as President Ramaphosa said:

"…was indeed the son of the soil, not born of it, but a part of it."

For it was during the darkest days of apartheid that Bizos himself, a man with refugee roots, came of age, representing Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia trial in 1963. That was a near hopeless time, but as Martin Luther King Jr reminded us:

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

And so it was that Bizos, along with his client Mandela and other trialists, saw that arc bend towards justice in 1994. The laws that were enacted during apartheid exposed its vast tentacles which permeated into every aspect of South African life.

Yet Bizos, in his fight for justice for the miners at Marikana, his opposition to the Protection of State Information Bill (or, the ‘Secrecy Bill’ as it became known) and in his support of the fight for human rights in Zimbabwe, knew that all rights are won through struggle alone.

In his principled life, Bizos showed us all that the work of building a democracy is continuous and complex.

We are grateful to George Bizos for keeping watch. In his life we understand what it means to be fully human and indeed fully South African.

British journalist, Gavin Bell, in his book Somewhere Over the Rainbow, covered South Africa during the transition to democracy and retells the stories of his return here in 2001. He wanted to find out “what makes this country beloved and why do people cry over it?” What he found then was “a hauntingly beautiful country strangely confused by its multiple identities, struggling to come to terms with itself and swinging between hope and despair”.

This remains true in 2020.

On Heritage Day, President Ramaphosa declared that:

"Monuments glorifying our divisive past should be repositioned and relocated. This has generated controversy, with some saying we are trying to erase our history. Building a truly non-racial society means being sensitive to the lived experiences of all this country's people. We make no apologies for this because our objective is to build a united nation."

And so another uncomfortable reckoning awaits us and we will ask afresh what it means to be South African in this place of many stories.

The Surinamese poet, Michael Slory, was right when he said:

Makandra nomo
un sa brasa dan damgra
di tergi wi kra

Or, as translated by Vernon February (1984):

Only together
can we come to terms
with what nibbles at our souls

Much nibbles at our souls in this beautiful place, home of the Big Five, wide open spaces and sunrises and sunsets that words cannot fully describe.

At Michael Lutzeyer’s Grootbos nature reserve, guide Jo de Villiers condenses it all when she says simply:

"South Africa is the beginning and end of my rainbow. Everything else in between in just life."

Just life - messy, with joy and pain in equal measure - and just home - ikhaya lami.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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