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7 June 2010

Why South Africa cannot fail

There is a young generation of South Africans who see in their country an opportunity to realise the

By Zukiswa Wanner

In Afrikaans there is a saying: Jou se maak plaan, meaning “You make a plan”. It has become common usage in South Africa to encourage people when the odds seem stacked against them, or when people are convincing themselves and others how they will get through a particularly rough period. It is a beautiful statement.

I am the child of a former military wing operative of the African National Congress, so it may seem odd for me to begin by using a phrase in a language I grew up being told was the “oppressor’s language”, but it should not. For all our differences of language, race and culture, that saying is, for me, the best way to explain why South Africa will not fail.

In 2003, my father died and I returned home after seven years abroad. It would not have been surprising if, as an only child and with my mother in Australia, I had packed up after the funeral and never returned. Instead I saw a country of hope, where it was OK to be a dreamer and, even better, where there was opportunity to realise those dreams.

I spent the early months after my return searching for a job. With nothing in sight, I started working as a volunteer for a community-based organisation in Soweto that worked with Aids orphans and people living with HIV and Aids. The “pay” was a food parcel consisting of beans, mealie rice, tea, sugar and a few other imperishables. And yet I can honestly say I have never worked with a more committed team. Many of the volunteers were unemployed school-leavers, but they believed in this country enough to want to make it work, high rates of disease and unemployment not­withstanding.

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For the past four years, I have been a full-time writer. In 2008, I received phone threats for speaking out against the government’s silence on the anti-immigrant riots that swept Johannesburg, but I have never regretted returning to stay. I have become friends with many South Africans. There is Chris, a guy of Zimbabwean origin who is now a citizen and debates the pros and cons of South African democracy with me. Solange is a Cameroonian who has opened up a shop near my house in Johannesburg and whose three-year-old daughter was born here.

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Sarah once left for greener pastures in Australia, but she returned after realising that, whatever its problems, South Africa was her home and she wanted to give her skills to this country. Kevin is of Jewish origin. When some of his family members were brutally murdered by criminals, he would have been justified in leaving, yet he found reasons to stay.

What all these South Africans share is a love for this country and a wish to see that it does not fail. With so many like-minded people of different classes and cultures, how could it?

A few weeks ago, when I was returning to South Africa from the London Book Fair, I sat squeezed on a plane between an elderly lady from Amanzimtoti and a priest from Durban. The woman was on her way back from visiting her daughter in San Francisco, while the priest was returning from a religious conference. The lady from Amanzimtoti said to me, by way of conversation: “Terrible things are going on in our country.”

It was shortly after the murder of the right-wing Afrikaner leader Eugene Terre’Blanche and after the ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, had kicked a BBC journalist out of a press conference, calling him a “bloody agent”. I feigned ignorance. “Really? What has happened?”

The old lady (who, as you may have guessed, was of Anglo-Saxon origin) started telling me that terrible things were going on because there was a call to kill white people. At this point, the priest (who was also white) put his headphones on, winked at me, and gave me the floor.

“Have any white people you know been killed following the call?” I asked. No, but she was worried and did not know what would happen to her when she arrived home.

“Mind you, I am not being reactionary,” she said. “I love black people. I have 300 blacks working for me.”

“Madam,” I said, “I am still looking for my white maid, but I have some white friends who I talk to on a regular basis and none of them are worried.”

By the end of the trip, this woman knew at least one black person who was not her servant and we exchanged phone numbers, with me promising to visit. That she was open enough to articulate her prejudices but also willing to talk about her fears is, I think, another reason why South Africa will not fail.

Those who believe it will, or who want it to fail, are those who lead cocooned lives, harbouring fears of the unknown because they have not been willing to cross to the other side of this multicultured nation. The rest of us watch, question and sometimes act when we feel that the political or corporate leadership is failing the democracy so hard fought for by so many. Those are not the actions of a losing nation. And what if we should fall by the wayside sometimes? We make a plan.

Zukiswa Wanner is the author of the novels “The Madams” and “Behind Every Successful Man”.

She blogs at: