SIGNS FOR THE TIMES

SIGNS FOR THE TIMES

Right after a tornado, in the US, emergency teams put up street signs in the rubble. The signs help rescuers: here was a school, there was the hospital. They also help residents: this particular patch is where my house was, with the swing in the garden and the yellow kitchen. I am sure there are also those who think – good riddance to the slum that was on this corner.

The importance of the street signs is that they speak to the heart as well as the head.

Not everything that guides us through known/unknown territory is written in words. We need to look out for the signs that speak to the heart, that tell us where we are, in our own changed country.

One of the confusing things about South Africa is that change came both very quickly and quite slowly. In the 1980s, black trade unions came in, and pass laws and the Immorality Act went out. 1994  brought democratic government. Now in 2013 we still haven’t got rid of all the apartheid legislation on the books. We still live with poverty and inequality, which are even harder to change than legislation.

In this confusion there are markers, if we care to see them. Not things a tourist might notice, but pictures that gain their significance from our knowledge of what went before. Everyone will find their own signs. Here are some of mine.

For me, the first visual marker, heart-marker, for change is the South African parliament. It is a lively, colourful and clearly South African body. Yes, apartheid parliamentarians used to answer questions. They also told Helen Suzman that “if you were my wife, I would give you a good hiding”. Unthinkable today. I do not miss the dour ranks of pin-striped white men who purported to speak in my name.

My next marker is a young black man, walking to school, wearing a red blazer. I live not far from Greenside High, an excellent state school which hands out, sparingly, red blazers for exceptional achievement. Twenty years ago, the young man in the blazer couldn’t have been walking down that pavement, to that school. Thirty and forty years ago I would only have seen him on television or in newspaper pictures, in gun battles with police. Now his red blazer brightens my neighbourhood, and my day.

Integrated queues are another marker, at the Pick ‘n Pay till or at Home Affairs or the post office or the polling station. And someone at the end of the queue who can attend to citizens in their home language. Officials might still be obdurate, but they don’t yell in English and Afrikaans only.

Integrated queues, and black assistants, are not the only change in the post office. The sombre, detailed posters informing the general public what limpet mines looked like are thankfully gone. We were genuinely afraid of bombs in those days. Now we are afraid of other things, but not of unattended packages.

Those television and newspaper pictures of township battles included white boys in army uniform, their fear sometimes masked by expressions of rage. The wounds they inflicted, the scars they carry, shape our society still. I am glad not to see them on our streets any more. I am glad that today when our soldiers die in foreign countries we know about it, and rage and mourn together.

Army uniforms and casspirs would have us glued to our television screens; military helicopters overhead would send us rushing out to see where they were going, watching with sinking hearts as they took the inevitable route to Soweto. Now we barely look up at a camouflage-painted helicopter, perhaps speculating briefly that the cabinet minister so conveyed might benefit from walking more.

The New South Africa is a cliché. It is also the truth. Without ever proferring a passport to a border guard, we have all become immigrants into a new country. We need to pay attention to the markers telling us where, and also who, we are now. We need to learn the new country’s language, which has nothing to do with official languages.