This past week I’ve been writing an essay on, for want of a better term, ‘South Africanness’ for a collection by young South Africans. Being neither particularly young (I’m 31) nor particularly South African (my family emigrated here when I was four), I was pretty anxious about my belonging before I began.
Then I realised, if there’s one thing that South Africans seem to have in common, it’s anxiety. Anxiety about belonging, anxiety about not belonging, anxiety about their belongings…there’s a lot of pretty highly strung people out there.
Before you hit the panic button and escape from reading the rest of this column in case it turns into a political rant, let me ease the tension. Chill bru – crack open a cold one, bring a bit of bacon oppie braai – this ain’t going to be a lecture.
All I’m saying is that we’re an anxious lot. And understandably so, really. Which is probably why, when it comes to something like Heritage Day, which asks us all to think about belonging, we’re a bit confused about what it stands for.
Rebranding it as Braai Day certainly helps making thinking about identity more palatable…at least for those of us lucky enough to have a skottel and something to put on it. But it doesn’t solve the problem of what it means to be South African.
Personally, I hate braais. I realise this might instantly disqualify me for citizenship (the results of which are still pending at Home Affairs five years after filling out my initial paperwork), but it’s true. I’m not one of those pre-dinner conversation types. If we’re there to eat we must eat: none of this standing around a fire drinking out of cans rubbish. This attitude has made me borderline uninvitable at most social gatherings, with a battle-hardened, dedicated group of core friends keeping a stash of emergency snacks to tide me over if required.
This minor culinary quibble aside, though, what makes us South African? Is it our anthem? Our history? Our languages? Our sports teams? Surely each of those provide more examples for division than integration. When it comes to national pride, do you have to be born here to qualify and, conversely, are you still South African if you leave the land when you’re a baby?
Is South Africanness a blood or a soul thing? If it’s a soul thing, where does our xenophobia come from, or our exasperation at black Americans who profess identification with their African roots?
This past Heritage Day weekend, I took a trip up the Garden Route with two Brits and a Portugese woman, all who have adopted South Africa for the past half-decade to do meaningful, socially engaged work. Our weekend included going for long runs accompanied by 200-plus ostrich, all of whom thought we were packing grain. We met an Afro-Druid who runs her very own ‘fairy sanctuary’ in Swellendam, had Heidelberg barley’s intimate relationship to Cape beer explained to us by a farmer called Neels, debated the relative merits of organic produce with the world’s most earnest checkout lady and got plied with birding tips by an octogenarian from Plet.
In truth, it really does take all sorts and boy do we have variety in this country. Whether you’re a black women called Thulisa who has opinions on organic production methods or a white girl called Carla who’s struggling to pronounce the more guttural town names on her holiday route, you somehow fit into the mix.
We’ve got a crazy, chaotic, problematic, precious mix of people here, precariously balanced on the tip of a continent. We share one constitution amongst many million constituents. We finally share one democracy. Nobody’s saying being proudly South African is being blindly patriotic – criticism can be worn with your celebration. But when it comes down to it, we can choose: complain and distance ourselves or muck in and make a difference.
So, back to my original question: what does it mean to be South African? I suppose there’s no set recipe for identity. I suppose it simply means to choose to belong…and act accordingly.
Follow Carla Lever on Twitter (@carlalever)
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