Proudly South African (and English)

I have a friend whose granny taught her to play the “Glad Game”. Whenever she felt like complaining she should think of 10 things to be grateful for. Now this has always struck me as a form of denialism, but I also like the positivity that it generates.

So in the spirit of my friend’s granny I want to think of 10 reasons to be proudly South African: 1. Nelson Mandela; 2. Desmond Tutu; 3. the Springboks; 4. Mamphele Ramphele; 5. Johnny Clegg; 6. Natalie du Toit; 7. the Drakensberg; 8. the winelands; 9. Table Mountain National Park; and 10. the Parlotones.

As a Capetonian, I just had to slip in a reference to The Mountain. As a psychologist, I like to see things in balance. I’ve never been completely comfortable about the “Proudly South African” campaign, perhaps because it seems a bit one-sided. Some people might say that I’m too attached to the opposite emotion, that of shame but I think you can’t do justice to South Africa without acknowledging that shame. I wanted to put the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation campaign) in my list but it didn’t seem right.

No-one in their right mind would start a campaign called “Shamefully South African” but there is a lot of negativity attached to life here. Ask me to rattle off 10 reasons to be ashamed of being a South African and I will immediately give you: 1. Xenophobia; 2. Aids (and Aids denialism); 3. Thabo Mbeki; 4. Zimbabwe (and Mbeki’s failures in that regard); 5. Crime; 6. Jacob Zuma; 7. corruption; 8. the ANC youth league; 9. Apartheid and 10. poverty and unemployment. Not to mention alcoholism and a general propensity towards violence.

Now some of these things are not uniquely South African but they are cause for a lot of heartache. Mbeki’s biographer Mark Gevisser says that as South Africans we have a tendency towards a form of national manic-depression — we alternate between euphoria and despair. The euphoria of our First Democratic Elections in 1994 and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as our first democratically-elected president was closely followed by winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Then we lurched into the despair of Aids, Zimbabwe, the Arms deal and corruption. And underlying a lot of the negativity was the collapse of the Rand and our comparative economic decline. Watching the petrol price go up every week – and realising that our chances of economic prosperity are getting dimmer – is depressing.

Now the book that prompted this national soul-searching on my part, strangely enough, has been The English by Jeremy Paxman. It’s probably a bit dated now since it was written in 1999 but it got me thinking about the links between the individual and the social, the personal and the political. I like the way it starts:

Once upon a time the English knew who they were. There was such a ready list of adjectives to hand. They were polite, unexcitable, reserved and had hot-water bottles instead of a sex life: how they reproduced was one of the mysteries of the western world.

Now I found Paxman to be funny, informative and thoughtful but, to be honest, also smug, irritating and a bit stand-offish. Anna Tomczak writes about the book:

It’s a work of many different hues and shades – sarcastic and critical at times, humorous and witty but also passionate, full of empathy and dedication. And yet, it’s a portrait with a flaw. Out of eleven chapters only one is about English women, the last one, and it’s mainly about prostitution in England. Some females are briefly mentioned. Florence Nightingale and Mrs Thatcher appear in passing. Betty Boothroyd features in one of the anecdotes. What about others? Emily Pankhurst, Vivian Westwood, Mary Quant, Mary Whitehouse, the women of Greenham Common – didn’t they make any impact?

That’s a good point. Perhaps partly because I’m busy with a lot of other work, I found it difficult to just relax and read the book. He moves too quickly from the personal to the national for a start. For example, he mentions going to a funeral of a friend in South Africa and being impressed with the “sweet passion” with which the choir of cleaning ladies sang “Nkosi Sikelele iAfrika”. When it was time for the English to sing their hymn, Jerusalem, he felt embarrassed. “We couldn’t manage it with any conviction,” he says, before commenting that the English don’t have a proper national song. Now, it seems pretty obvious to me that the discomfort with singing “Jerusalem” with great gusto has a lot more to do with being at a funeral than anything else.

But I like the idea of thinking about national identities and teasing out some of the links between the individual and the social. I would certainly like to read such a book about South Africa, but perhaps the scope is just too large. Personal stories tend to be more interesting.


9 Responses to Proudly South African (and English)

  1. I am proudly South African for all the reasons you mention, and ashamed for all the reasons you mention. I have read the Paxman book on the English, but I have also recently read Watching the English by Kate Fox, which is subtitled The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, and is far better. Fox is an anthropologist, and takes a scientific look at what makes the English tick. It is funny and insightful.

  2. amandzing says:

    sometimes all i can do is despair, we’ve come so far, how much further do we have to go 😦

  3. Pete says:

    Charlotte – thanks for the suggestion re Kate Fox, and for the SA connection.

    Amanda – yes I think a bit of despair isn’t a bad thing. But a breakthrough with regard to Zim can’t be too long off surely – although I suppose we’ve been saying that for years.

  4. Emily Barton says:

    I’ve always felt that being South African is sort of like being an American Southerner. Lots to be proud of and lots to be ashamed of. I have great hope for South Africa, though, based on this analogy.

  5. Pete says:

    Thanks Emily – that’s an encouraging way of looking at it.

  6. Lungiswa Nkonki says:

    Hi Pete et al

    Thanks for the Proudly South African (and English) posting. I enjoyed reading it. I then asked myself what makes me Proudly South African (and Xhosa)

    My top ten is 1. Josiah Thugwane (The first Black South African to win a gold Olympic medal) 2.The late Steve Biko 3. Roef Meyer 4. Mmatsilo Motsei 5. Beyers Naude 6. Zackie Achmat 7. Miriam Makeba 8. John Kani 9. Cape Fynbos 10. All the people who have lived in township houses and conditions (designed to humiliate and dehumanise them) who have defied those conditions by creating soulful and successful lives.

    Society as a whole is in crises all over the world. But in South Africa it shows more. I think its okay to notice the things we do not like. Therefore a shamefully South African campaign might not be amiss. Maybe you have started one (Ha ha ha!!!)

    My only disclaimer is that such a campaign should not be used as breeding ground for hopelessness. I think facing our reality (good, bad and the ugly) offers an opportunity for change. Final thought, good things will happen even though the situation might get worse.

    So here is my shamefully South African list
    1. Black South Africans attacking and killing other Black foreign Nationals 2. University of Free State incident (where students degraded middle-aged Black women) 3. The fact that the complainant in the Jacob Zuma’s trial is in exile. 4. Child abuse 5. Gender-based violence 6. J Arthur Brown (Fidentia) 7. Poor service delivery 8. Crime 9.Rape

    Keep Well

  7. phumeza says:

    I find your entry interesting. I know that September is the proudly SA month, and I like to your take of us being proud whenever we feel like it. I view myself as an African who was born in South Africa.

    The following makes me proud to be South African: 1. my fellow South Africans who continue to teach children under trees in rural areas of the Limpopo province; 2. My friends – young independent women who have grabbed opportunities that their parents were denied by apartheid; 3. The Market Theatre; 4. Guybon Sinxo’s Unojayiti wam; 5. Our vibrant culture; 6. Our constitution;7. Creative forces such Stoned Cherrie, Craig Native, Akin Omotoso, Kgomotso Matsunyane, James Ngcobo; 8. Thabo Mbeki; 9. Sunshine; 10. My fellow South Africans – those who live peacefully with Zimbabweans, knowing that Zimbabwe is sovereign state;

    The following makes me feel ashamed: 1. that we are the rape and murder capital of the world; 2. child abuse; 3. Xenophobia; 4. Apartheid and those who voted for it; 5. Our sense of entitlement; 6. Racism; 7. corruption in both the private and public sectors; 8. Poverty; 9.Inequality; 10. High rate of illeteracy

  8. Pete says:

    Lungi – Thank you very much for your lists. And I totally agree with you about facing up to reality without hopelessness and looking for change. I should definitely add more strong SA women to my list of reasons to be proudly South African!

    Phumeza – Hi and thanks so much for your comment. I definitely felt proud when I read your list and thanks for reminding me of all the positives. Your list also reminded me that I was once proud of President Mbeki and perhaps I will be again. I think it’s great to talk about these things.

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