The other day during the Presidential debates a South African Twitter follower commented how she wished their elected leaders would debate each other. That made me pause for a second until I realized that most countries in the world don’t have debates per se as they’re parliamentary. South Africa is different though; their system isn’t strictly parliamentary but their President isn’t directly elected either. Even so, it made me think about politics in this nation that although I just met I fell in love with instantly. Then, just the other night I was at a promotional event for South African Airways and instead of being regaled with photos of safaris and Table Mountain, all of the conversation that night was political in nature. I blame the room full of expats for the trend of the talk, but it still made me think and realize just how intense and complicated South Africa and her people really are.
It’s easy to forget that the modern country of South Africa is less than twenty years old. It was 1994 when apartheid ended and a new era in the history of this patchwork nation began. That’s not very long ago and while the young adults of today may only have dim memories of life before Mandela, it’s shaped every day of their lives.
I say South Africa is complicated because it is. Even though it’s only slightly less than twice the size of Texas, the population is about 1/6 that of the United States. Within these borders eleven national languages are recognized and there are three capital cities. For the outsider, South Africa is not an easy place to readily understand or even get to know.
Sure, it’s easy to travel there and see the amazing sights, go on safari, have some wine and leave. But every conversation I’ve ever had with a South African has revealed glimpses into certain truths I’ll never truly understand. A simple lunch in Johannesburg with a friend introduced the topic of racism within five minutes. A coffee with a colleague in Cape Town brought into play a conversation about civic awareness even faster. Even a drive through the countryside had our driver discussing the merits of the country’s electoral system and certain population segments. South Africa is intense in every way; especially when it comes to politics.
The speaker at the South African Airways event I mentioned was a gentleman by the name of Gareth Cliff. Although I hadn’t heard of him before, he is a media personality in South Africa and seemed to be keenly attuned to the moods of the day. He was asked a question about the role white South Africans play in modern society and Gareth said something I found quite interesting. He said that many people seem to forget that freedom isn’t something you earn then place on a mantle to admire. It’s something that takes work, hard work, to grow and cultivate and that is the responsibility of every member of society. If you don’t, he continued, then you deserve the government you get.
His were poetic words absolutely dripping with truth, a truth that many people in modern day democracies forget; I know many here in the U.S. have forgotten them. But it again revealed a little more insight into the complicated mosaic that is the South African national soul, a soul that has been so wounded over the years but which is fighting for its future.
South Africa is a special place, yes, but not for the reasons you think. Sure the parks and animals are great and there’s no denying that Cape Town is one of the best cities in the world. But even if these things went away tomorrow it would still be a special place; because of the people who live there and because of the incredible potential the country has to erupt as one of the most dynamic and strongest in the world.
South Africa has some elections coming up in the not so distant future and I’ll be watching with keen interest. Not because I understand the political system or even know the players, because I don’t. I’ll be watching to see what direction the country decides to take itself at this important crossroad and to see how many people choose to exercise their right to freedom that was so hard won rather than see it grow dusty on the mantle.