Word on the street: just how well or otherwise is the country doing?

Word on the street: just how well or otherwise is the country doing?

The adage of the half-empty half-full glass applies. Perceptions are indeed strange things; even stranger when they become someone’s truth.
A team and I have been going around on the streets with a camcorder, doing some research for a new show we are putting together. The question we posed to people was: “Since 1994, how have things changed for you in South Africa?” When people are confronted with a camera and asked to give opinions on the spot, strange behaviour comes to the fore from some, while others simply freeze up.

Needless to say, while some people are very willing to offer their opinions, others walk away as soon as they hear the question. The interesting thing is that those who walk away are mostly white or coloured folk. Black people seem to have a lot to say. Perhaps it is because they feel now they can or may (?), since they were denied a voice for so many years? Responses range from the very optimistic (albeit banal) “new opportunities” and “access” to the very pessimistic “violence/crime” and “corruption” ones.

But, most interesting, is the racism that still exists out there – especially from the mouths of coloured people, who clearly feel they are “not black enough” to be a meaningful part of this country. Is it just me, or is this cause for alarm? Since we only spoke to about 20 people, I guess I can’t use it as a good yardstick.
And then there are the very different responses one gets from the more affluent coloured folk as opposed to the “blue collar” ones. It certainly opened my eyes to the huge class distinctions that exist (and is growing) around us, and to the number of people whose lives are directly affected by their wrong perceptions of what is going on around them.

Now this, I know, is cause for alarm. And I guess the media is the major role player in this regard.
“The rich are just getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” screams one flower seller into the camera. “The politicians are running away with all the money of this land,” yells another. “They are all corrupt and skelms (thieves).” Is this what the people on the streets think of their country – the very one that is supposed to be so visionary and should be saving Africa from extinction?

I must admit, it’s very difficult to get “intelligent” responses on the street. But then again, that is why we opted to go there and ask random people. We didn’t want to set it up with a bunch of intellectuals who will bamboozle us with jargon and witty repartee.
One woman said she has never lived such a paranoid life in the “old” South Africa. “I look over my shoulders constantly, always expecting someone to be there ready to mug or hijack me,” she says. And we wonder where they get the information? “The media is full of it,” she replies. “The TV and newspapers are only telling us about rapes, murders, corruption, tik and hijacks,” she explains. “There is no good news,” she adds. And so the list of negative responses just grew on our footage.

Later, we decided to add a preface to the initial question: “Tell us at least one positive and one negative thing about this country since 1994.” Again, we struggled with intelligent responses. It reminded us of the old gag about why Jesus wasn’t born in Cape Town. Answer: they couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin (sorry, couldn’t resist…). Then I spoke to a neighbour – a white pensioner – she can “no longer afford to buy meat or nuts” – the latter being a snack she apparently loves.

My heart sank. But then, just as soon, one meets a kind old soul on the streets – one that clearly is not affluent by any stretch of the imagination, but who has all the hope for this country, saying things like, “It is reassuring to know that we are constantly developing as a nation. I may not be benefiting as yet, but my children certainly are. Just by them getting a proper education that I can afford, means there’s hope for their future. Isn’t that what the struggle for freedom was all about?” One can, and I guess should, live in hope, right?

rafiek@mweb.co.za