QA 5. (June 08) A Canuck in Cape Town


A friend in Vancouver asks me to “say in three lines why you would rather live there than here, not counting weather”. There are several ways I could answer, but my first quick response was: The people. Something about light. Something about deep. Something about real. Which means something like this…

It is beautiful here, and the people are beautiful. Their expressiveness, the way they talk with each other. I would like to send my friend a recording of women laughing. Or the way someone will sing on the street, just going about his business.

You may know that most of my philosophical writing has to do with Emmanuel Levinas, who was always going on about our interdependence and responsibility for others. But I can see this kind of humanism (called ubuntu here) in action with my South African friends. They’re not “do-gooders” – other people’s trouble just is their business, finish en klaar. Even when they don’t really feel like it, even when they know it’s not enough.

Once, in my early days here, my boss at the time saw a man come staggering out from a pub and try to get into his truck. He went out and asked this complete stranger to hand over his keys, saying he’d be glad to drive the guy home, but he couldn’t let him on the road.

And it’s not just my enchanting circle of friends. Someone in the paper was explaining why he’d moved back here after emigrating to California: “When I phoned American friends for help,” he said, “they always asked what was going on. South African friends would just say, where are you? and come.”

I met an Australian recently who had travelled the world in his youth, but had never wanted to spend time in Africa. He had the uneasy sense that white people could only live in Africa on sufferance. But, I said, isn’t that our basic human condition? We all depend upon the kindness of strangers, trusting that others might accommodate us, or at least tolerate us. What an astonishing gift, these strangers who acknowledge us with a glance or a smile, who offer hospitality and goodwill.

The kind of racism I learned in Canada disapproved of blatant bigotry, insisting instead that people of colour were “just like us” (us people of pallor). But twenty years ago, I discovered Africans getting on with their own lives, in their own way, in their own languages – none of which had any particular reference to me and mine. A revelation! (Remember the old joke that women who want to be the same as men lack ambition?) And if there were many ways to live, there were choices to be made. This was a liberating thought for me. The world got a lot more interesting.

And so, it turns out that maybe I choose to live here because it makes me a little less complacent, a little less stupid, a little more appreciative. (Thanks for asking, Meredith!)

© 2008

cropped metrorail train

3 thoughts on “QA 5. (June 08) A Canuck in Cape Town”

  1. I sometimes wonder whether those who are not native to South Africa have an over optimistic view of life here (such as the one you express here Helen) or whether we South Africans simply do not appreciate how special a country and people we are,and are hence too cynical to see the greatness of this place and its people. Much as I love the sentiment expressed in your posting, I wonder about it when thousands of South Africans are murdered by their compatriots, when our fellow Africans are expelled and/or murdered by us South Africans, those who preach Ubuntu. How do we explain this – not politically, as in ‘its about poverty and service delivery’ – but philosophically, as in what is happening with the thinking and value systems that underpin people’s actions. Have we abdicated our ‘responsibility for others’?

  2. Hi David,

    It seems to me that a lot of the negativity and Afro-pessimism indeed comes from the South African-born. Nostalgic whites use present difficulties to justify apartheid for themselves, but I think there’s a lot of sincere disappointment and despair as well.

    I found that the question of “why I choose to live here” shifted my focus from all the crap in the media to my own experience, which actually has its daily dose of joy. Who knew, hey?

    Levinas, speaking of the Holocaust says that man had “lost his identity”, meaning European humanity and civilization. Steve Biko, speaking of oppressed black people, said that it’s these people who have “lost their personality” who are the only vehicle for change.

    When you talk about these murders, it is most often one terribly vulnerable person attacking another terribly vulnerable person. I don’t think there’s a lot of mystery about how that comes to be.

    What I wonder is how we can all get our human identity back. Here’s the full Biko quote, from I Write What I Like:

    “It becomes more necessary to see the truth as it is if you realise that the only vehicle for change are these people who have lost their personality. The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth.”

  3. When I read about the preoccupations of people in the US and the UK, even those of people who are genuinely and deeply concerned about global issues of poverty, inequality and environmental destruction, I nonetheless feel, even with all the middle class privilege I have here, that I am gazing upwards at an airship passing overhead. The passengers on that airship gaze down with compassion, they tut sympathetically at the misery that is much of what they pass over, they go home and raise funds for the inhabitants of these lands – but they have never touched the ground. Nor do they comprehend that to this day, the agents of their comfortable countries continue to manipulate and plunder where they can.

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