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Shoot the messenger

March 1, 2007

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I went offline for a long time in the last quarter of last year.

My computer wasn’t broken. I wasn’t any busier than usual. I had just as much to say as always. So why the silence?

Time for disclosure:

In August, I went back to South Africa to renew my British visa. It was my first visit back to South Africa in 18 months. I came away horrified at the state of the country. I don’t know whether things have got worse, or whether, through living in a society where things generally function, I’ve noticed for the first time how bad they are. But it really left me shocked and dislocated, and feeling like an exile – I don’t feel at home in the UK, but equally didn’t feel like I could go back to live in such a – and let’s speak freely here – fuck up of a country.

There is already such a mass of negativity written about South Africa, and I felt I didn’t want to contribute to that, because I love the place.

But people need to wake up and do something about it. Whenever some one points out what is wrong with the country, the response – from citizens and government alike – is as follows:

Denial

Shoot the messenger

Apathy

When I was in South Africa, the Mail & Guardian published an article by a British journalist, Rory Caroll, who’d been here four years. It was called “Why I never really fell for South Africa“. The article has its problems, but overall it’s a useful and very personal critique written by some one who did make an effort. South Africans would have done well to think carefully about what he wrote.

The letters to the paper the next week were hysterical. Caroll was denounced in no uncertain terms, accused of being a eurocentric white male (Since he is a white man from London, I rather think we could expect him to have that perspective – not a crime in itself). While some critiques were more nuanced, overall there was a failure to address the issues. Calling him a sexist, racist and imperialist made it possible for South Africans to avoid dealing with any of the issues he raised. The Left are particularly at fault here: since South African democracy is supposed to be a massive victory for the Left, they are particulalty sensitive to suggestions that it just might not be working.

More recently, there was a short segment on BBC news here in the UK about crime in South Africa. It featured interviews with (Black) South Africans on the streets of Hillbrow, followed by a segment of a dazed looking Mbeki denying there was a serious problem, which is his default response to crisis. It was overly dramatic, but it had to be, because it was short. All in all it was a decent piece of journalism. South Africa intends to host the Football World Cup in 2010, and questions need to be asked about whether the punters are going to be eaten alive.

The ANC, of course, denounced the piece as racist and one sided. More recently, Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz “Dagga” Pahad had a go. He pointed out that there are parts of London that you can’t go into. Aside from the fact that that’s not really true, the British media makes a very big deal about highlighting the crime problems in Britain’s cities. It certainly wasn’t a case of ignoring crime in Britain while making South Africa look bad. Britain has no vested interest in making South Africa look bad, and in fact would probably be very happy to report success stories. Problem is, they’re thin on the ground.

Of course, the denial warranted even more media attention.

Why are we so sensitive? Why do we still want foreigners to gush about our ‘miracle’? Why can’t we take criticism?

Having got that out the way, the next thing I’ll write about will be my impressions of the country. Watch this space.

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