Towards Better Democracy

Good words, well written, better the world. Good literature betters the world immeasurably.

For Whom Is South Africa the Home Country?

Is the title question even a valid question? Let’s try and find out.

When I was just a year old, I was moved by my parents from my birthplace, Birkenhead, Cheshire in England, to Fife, in Scotland, and from there to Edinburgh, where I had my schooling. The years immediately after WW2 were difficult years for many Britons. My father had just been demobbed from the British Army, and jobs and housing were scarce. I have wrestled ever since as to whether I am English or Scottish (Scotland threatens rather emptily from time to time to declare sovereignty. Thank Heavens there is little reality to the threat.)

I have settled in recent years to declaring, in response the question, “Where are you from?” that I was brought up in Edinburgh. That resonates nicely with most people.

I have not resided in the United Kingdom since 1972. So, where is home? For me, home is where I live. Duidelike en envoudige, ja?

Anthony Lekhuwana in a piece entitled “SA, a Place I Call Home,” in Thought Leader, at the Mail and Guardian Online, Thursday, November 11th, 2010, raises this issue tangentially. Stating that he does not intend to leave South Africa, he says, “I love my country and intend to stay and fight for this country and to make it a better place …”  He closes a fine piece of writing by making an exhortation, “Will the real South Africans please stand up and make South Africa a place where all will feel proud to call home.

His touching upon the subject of “home,” in a South African context, brought to the forefront of my mind a column I read a couple of months back in the London Guardian. Something said in the Guardian‘s Letter from Africa: Johannesburg literary festival revived, had me tuck the topic into the back of my head, meaning in the future to explore it further.

David Smith’s “Letter from Africa” explained how, after ten years, a literary festival in a country suffering high illiteracy rates came to be reborn. In the course of his letter, he says:

“The following day, questions about identity and indigeneity were at the centre of debate. Curiously, Rian Malan, arguably the most gifted non-fiction writer in South Africa today, was relegated to a seat in the audience and could later be seen pursuing his other artistic talent, the guitar.

“The author Kevin Bloom recalled a Sunday afternoon in Soweto with a group of volunteers, one of whom opened up about how his mother was dying from Aids.

“Bloom recalled: ‘We stopped walking and he cried a bit. And then he looked at me and said, “When are you going back to your country? It remains the most profound thing that has happened to me ever as a journalist in this country, because I lived 15km away from him and so much is asked in that question. What is the notion of home? How do we explain home to ourselves in the context of that question? On the deepest level, certainly for people of my generation, “When are you going back to your country?”  is one of the most profound questions about the concept of home.’ “

I did not, at the time of reading the article, know who Kevin Bloom is, what his background is, or where he is from, thinking that, when I returned to the question, I would find out. Others with whom I discussed the article said to me that he must be British. I kept an open mind.

Why does it matter? Well, if he was speaking as someone from Britain, that gives the question one slant. If he was speaking as a South African, then the question he was asked is much more interesting.

Not only is David Bloom South African, as is well known to the South Africans among my readers, since he has reported well and deeply on the country, but he has explored the question of “what is home?”, “where is home?” more closely than most of us. Rather than simply thinking about it, which is the resort to which most of us, myself included, would retreat, he went out into the heartlands of South Africa and duly reported his findings in his book, Ways of Staying, published in April, 2010.

So, when Kevin Bloom reported from the Mail and Guardian‘s Johannesburg Literary Festival, September 3 to 5, 2010, of the question he had received from one of the volunteers that Sunday afternoon in Soweto, we are not told what his reply was, if any. Did the question come before or after writing the book?

If the question came after writing the book, then, were it me who was the recipient of the question, I have to say I would have been poleaxed. If this is the case, one begins to understand Kevin Bloom’s response.

Whether I can bring more light than noise to this issue, I don’t know. I think the shortest answer is the following: Expressed at its simplest level, the man asking the question of Kevin Bloom lives in one world and Kevin, me, and, perhaps without exception, all of you reading this post, live in a different world.

Of course, I cannot hope, nor do I pretend, to know what the man intended by his question. I can only surmise, as I think did Kevin Bloom.

At the time of the London Guardian‘s report, I exchanged a number of emails with friends discussing various issues that David Bloom’s “Letter from Africa” raised. (If you care to look at the report, you will very quickly spot at least one of those issues.) In one of those emails, I made the following observations:

Christopher Hampton has done post war theatre in English an enormous service: you know him from his translations of, among many, many others, Les liaisons dangereuses.

Long before he got into translations, he was a playwright in his own right. A favourite with me is Savages (1974). You may have seen a performance.

Anyway, there is a passage in that play that I am particularly fond of. So much so, that I have used it as an audition piece. The central character is an anthropologist, and, at one point in the play, he tells of how he had spent time in the Amazon with a tribe who owned nothing, nothing, not a stick nor a stitch. He had been staying with them and studying them. First rule in on-site anthropology: learn the language. Anyway, he tells his listeners – and us – that it came time for him to leave them to return home for a couple of months, and on the final night, he, as usual, is going to sleep in his sleeping bag, and they are a little way off, in a circle, feet towards the fire.

He hears them crying. He gets up, and goes over to them. “Don’t cry”, he tells them, “don’t cry because I am leaving, I shall be back.”

One of them responds, “We are not crying because you are leaving, we are crying because you can.”

(Due to a reordering of my bookshelves, I am unable to lay my hands on my copy of Savages to check the accuracy of my quotation. Comment if you feel compelled to correct me.)

I hasten to add that I do not attempt to draw too much of a parallel between Kevin Bloom’s questioner and Christopher Hampton’s South American tribe. What strikes me, though, is this:

In the present world, no matter where you live, to play a cliche, the world is your oyster. This is so obvious that it needs to be elaborated on for us to appreciate that there are still two worlds. A world inhabited by those for whom this is true, and a world inhabited by those for whom it is not.

Take an example learned of through a friend here in the United States. Some time following his bereavement, after a lifetime marriage, he met a middle aged Chinese woman and married her.

When the woman arrived here in the United States, some years ago, she spoke no English. She worked in an endless series of Chinese restaurants to pay for her attendance at the local university, and eventually gained a degree in Computer Science. I am telescoping the story in the sense that I don’t know how long the process took. It is important to note, nevertheless, that the woman, despite not speaking English, arrived here, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, gained in China. She occupies the same world as does Kevin Bloom and myself, and, for those of my readers for whom opportunities also abound. Opportunities exist for us far beyond the borders of the country in which we were born.

I suggest, and it can only be a suggestion, for I don’t know, that, for the man asking the question of David Bloom, there exist for him few opportunities in his own neighborhood, never mind beyond that.

Now, opportunities come in various forms. I do not know of the present situation, but when I lived in South Africa, the mines in the Witwatersrand were populated with people from other parts of Africa, including those bordering South Africa. I do not know the present working conditions in those mines, but I do not wish upon anybody the opportunity that the mines then afforded in terms of working conditions.

It is possible, and a possibility only, that what the questioner of David Bloom was expressing was of a desire for a simpler life. That if the David Blooms of this world were removed from the landscape of South Africa, with all the complexities of life that such people, regardless of colour, bring, then a return to a simpler life might be possible.

If indeed David Bloom’s interlocutor had this view in mind, then I would have to fall mute in the face of such a question. I fall mute now at the prospect of it. My pain is very great with my muteness. For I sincerely wish it were possible for that man to have his simpler life. But it is not. Wishing away the Kevin Blooms of this world will not bring him such a life.

For, in 2010, were all those South Africans, for whom it were possible, of whatever colour, to leave tomorrow, I fear that living in the land that was left is too awful a prospect to contemplate.

I cannot leave it at than. I cannot. Were David Bloom’s questioner to be among my readers he might too easily misunderstand me.

What we have everywhere in the world is not simply the result of colonialism. Though, that, to a great extent, is absolutely true. What we have cannot simply be described as the Western way of life, though that is where it originated. What we have is a way of life that is being adopted in every corner of the globe. It is being adopted and adapted in places, regardless of religion, culture, background, skin colour.

The simplest term with which to describe it is as a consumerist society. The pursuit of material comfort. No country anywhere seems exempt from its charms. If one views North Korea as one of several possible exceptions, then that only serve to show the rule.

However one views this world, one has to acknowledge that its rise is unstoppable. It may not, in anything other than the shortest of terms, be sustainable, but, for sure, it is irreversible. There is no going back. What results, after we have cooked the planet, I am sure some of us, presently living, are going to find out.

Once again, muteness descends upon me. What am I to say to such a man as my imagined interlocutor? My compassion and my humility render me speechless. Nothing said to such a man, or woman, matters, only action.

But were I politician, I would have to have an answer. I would have to say, were I a politician, bound as I would be to do something about such conditions, “I may not be able to do much for you, my friend, but I shall strive with all my heart to make sure that your children have better opportunities than you presently have.”

So I answer Anthony Lekhuwana’s exhortation with a question: Does South Africa have those politicians? Does it have any like that?

But I can’t leave it at that. What about me, what can I do?

While I lived in South Africa, I wrote a song, the chorus of which went as follows;

Somewhere there’s a place for us, somewhere there’s a place for you and me …
Somewhere there’s a place for us, somewhere where we can feel a tiny bit free.

I can help fight for the freedom that gives my imagined enquirer of David Bloom the opportunity he craves. And my imagined response to my imagined enquirer, for I cannot imagine David Bloom’s response, were he to give one, only he can do that, would be, “This is my country. When is now. I live here. And here I intend to stay.” As David Bloom has, in fact, done. And I would remind my questioner that, among the freedom fighters, those who fought for Azania, for a free South Africa, were blacks, coloureds, Indians, Malays, Khoikhoi, whites. “South Africa belongs to all of them, to all of us,” I would tell him, “This is my country, this is your country, this is our country.”

Filed under: Culture

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