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.