My friend Theresa’s father, an engineer in Oakland, ends every telephone conversation by declaring that he’s glad she’s studying in South Africa now because the country is “headed for shit.” He believes that the moment Nelson Mandela passes on, South Africa will disintegrate into ethnic warfare and sink into the same stagnation that seems to plague so many of the other countries on the African continent.
It is not an uncommon sentiment. For its adherents, this pessimistic view of the future is nothing less than fact, supported by empirical evidence. These people point to the sky-high crime rates, to the stories of rape, murder, armed robbery and general mayhem that so often fill the news here. They point to an HIV/AIDS rate that refuses to decline. They note that the years of economic growth have only widened the divide between rich and poor. More recently, they have pointed to the cholera epidemic threatening to spill over from Zimbabwe. Or they have turned their attention to the political turmoil precipitated by the breakup of the ruling party, the African National Congress.
These people are entitled to their opinions. They may even turn out to be right. However, their view is not one that I share. I cannot deny the examples they cite because they are all true. South Africa faces many challenges, there is no debating that. However, I refuse to see South Africa as nothing but the sum of its ills, because it is so much more than that.
The South Africa that I have come to know over the last six months is vibrant and full of life. Its people are determined, despite innumerable obstacles, to forge a good life for themselves, their families and their country. The quiet dignity with which they face the often-discouraging circumstances of their daily lives is a lesson in courage. Their eagerness to share with a foreign student living far from home, despite whatever privations they may face at home, is a lesson in generosity. Even the scam artists who worked so diligently to separate me from my money have won my grudging respect. When it is so easy to give up on life, they have learned to survive on nothing more than their wits and hustle.
The South Africa I know is a country where trash, which in the United States would clog up a landfill, is re-engineered into key chains and toys to be sold at the market. It is a place where an abandoned mill in the middle of a neighborhood best known for car-jacking transforms every Saturday into a market selling organic produce and handicrafts of local artisans. It is a place where art cooperatives thrive in even the most dismal of townships, where an 18-year-old with a voice like Alicia Keys can be found singing in a provincial music school.
The South Africa I know is a place of scholarship and innovation. At the University of Cape Town, my fellow students and my professors are hard at work, absorbed in the task of educating the future leaders, businessmen and doctors of Africa. Their contributions in areas ranging from health to economics to literature breathe new life and perspective to old fields. Throughout the country, local musicians call upon traditional sounds and rhythms to create a soundtrack that is utterly unique, yet entirely cosmopolitan. Painters, sculptors and filmmakers do the same for canvas, clay and film.
The South Africa I know is a country with one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. It is a country that guarantees the rights of equality regardless of “race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.” It is a country whose Supreme Court is constantly leading the world on issues of human rights. It is a country that has produced four Nobel Peace Prize winners and is home to a thriving civil society of activists who campaign for the rights of the voiceless.
This is the South Africa that I have come to know and believe in. South Africa faces many challenges and tests in the coming years. It needs to confront and resolve the pressing issues of crime, poverty and inequality. It needs to fix a health crisis of which HIV/AIDS is only a part. It needs to learn how to peacefully exist as a multi-party system and to re-evaluate its role as a regional power, especially the support it has given repressive regimes like President Mugabe’s in Zimbabwe.
Despite all of these difficulties, I am confident that the country is not “headed for shit.” South Africans have faced great challenges before and have overcome them.
One day, I will make the 20-hour flight, return to my old haunts and raise a glass of South African sparkling wine to toast Theresa’s dad and the prediction that never came true.