SA and that Time cover

Alex Perry’s story about Oscar Pistorius and South Africa’s culture of violence has inevitably attracted a great deal of attention from the Twittering classes. The general consensus is that the piece, which draws a link between Pistorius’s shooting of Reeva Steenkamp and the endemic violence that characterises our national culture, is poor journalism and full of unfair generalisation.

“The new South Africa has turned out to be no harmonious band of colors,” Perry writes. “Behind the latest in intruder deterrents for the elite, or flimsy barriers pulled together from tin sheets and driftwood for the poor, South Africans live apart and, ultimately, alone.”

Perry certainly errs on the side of the poetic. The connections that Perry makes, between the Battle of Blood River and gated estates, between internecine ANC battles, xenophobia and Afrikaner mistrust of English-speaking whites, are reminiscent of the kind of writing that emerged in the first flowering of rainbow nation mania after Nelson Mandela’s release. Still, there is a current of truth in lines like “If South Africa reveals its reality through crime, it articulates its dreams through sports”.

Nothing Perry has written is especially controversial. We say far worse things about ourselves all the time. But we are stung. Though we routinely engage in collective handwringing — Marikana, Anene — we do not like to read about ourselves through the eyes of others, not when those eyes are narrowed in criticism. Americans should look at themselves and their own culture of shooting little kids in classrooms is the most common response to the piece, the typical “Yes but they’re worse” retort we cling to when self-soothing in the wake of yet more bad news. When Piers Morgan tweeted that our gun violence is worse than that of the US, many South Africans were outraged. Poes Morgan, he was renamed, inevitably.

We crave the attention of the world and resent it in equal measure. We want to be loved, and we mourn the loss of the adulation to which we once felt entitled. We are confused and conflicted: that one of our sporting heroes was a big enough star on the world stage to dominate headlines offers us reassurance that we matter, even as we wince from the pain of seeing one of our heroes become a symbol of our collective failings.

But even if it hurts, I think that criticism by outsiders is a good thing. For one thing, it reminds us that, in the words of a Standard Bank ad that appeared more than 10 years ago, there’s more holding us together than keeping us apart. Perry was right: we are very divided. But are we in a state of dissolution, as he suggests? And if it’s not as bad as he says it is, then why not? Sometimes it’s easier to define ourselves but what we are not rather than what we are. By looking at how others see us, and in rejecting their version, gaining a new understanding of what needs to be done if we’re ever to embrace a sense of national identity beyond the flag and the performances of our sports stars.

As Khaya Dlanga tweeted in response to the piece, “The SA narrative cannot be dictated by others. We need to overpower the naysayers with our own voices”.

– Sarah Britten. First published in the M&G Thought Leader, 1 March 2013