Is multiculturalism dead?

Germany 2005. I was a fresh-faced exchange student, discovering Europe. It was a pre-recession, post-immigration kind of country — courteous to its tourists but weary of its Turks.

If I thought the Rainbow Nation was working badly, Germany’s failed patchwork quilt made me feel pretty good about our own attempts at cultural integration.

“Gastarbeiter”, or guest workers, were brought into Germany during the 1960s from Morocco, Turkey and other countries to fill a labour shortage, fuelled by the post-war economic boom. Two generations later unemployment rose, a politician wrote a popular book about the danger of “new little headscarf-girls” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sounded the death knell for “multikulti”.

Five years after visiting the country, Merkel’s forceful comment that attempts to build a multicultural society in Germany have “utterly failed” were a sad fruition of those xenophobic seedlings I had witnessed as a student. She was speaking at a gathering of younger members of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party two weeks ago.

The video is worth a watch, if only to see the zealous young ‘uns leap to their feet in applause at their fearless leader’s fear-fuelled comments. (A bit like the German version of our ANC Youth League, but with lots more discipline. So nothing like them, then.)

At “the beginning of the 1960s our country called the foreign workers to come to Germany and now they live in our country”, said Merkel at the event in Potsdam, near Berlin. “We kidded ourselves a while. We said: ‘They won’t stay, [after some time] they will be gone,’ but this isn’t reality. And of course, the approach [to build] a multicultural [society] and to live side by side and to enjoy each other … has failed, utterly failed.”

Except that, more than 50 years later, calling these people migrants, “foreign workers” or whatever the latest politically correct term is deemed to be, is a bit like sticking the same label on me or any other Indian in this country. My ancestors were also brought in to fill a labour gap — albeit in the 1860s as opposed to the 1960s.

‘So stasi’
Asking people to kindly get the hell out of your country after you’re done extracting labour from them, and their children have been born and bred there, is SO East German stasi. Even if said people are poorer, less educated and generally a drag.

Don’t get me wrong though. This is a massively complex issue, and questions of migration, integration and Germany’s unique position as a uniform nation state — which may make comparisons moot — are beyond the scope of this column.

But Merkel’s comments strike to the core of the South African project in a jarring way. Social integration models are under threat everywhere. In Europe the yawning cultural gap between Muslims and their secular counterparts is the stuff security nightmares are made of.

I’ve written before about how South Africa is a lesson to the world in this regard. Our significant Muslim minority are part of who we are as a country, while their culture and belief enjoys a high level of respect and autonomy.

But we have plenty of other problems. Obviously. And the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots in South Africa is causing a cultural clash of an entirely different kind.

Two cultures
You’ll hear a lot about a certain kind of middle-class South African. They’re young and passionate. They’re the ones who are Trying to Make It Work, leading SA and appearing in the M&G‘s book of Young South Africans for their dedication to their work and, in most cases, this country.

You’ll hear a lot less about another kind of South African: the ones who are tired of being South African. This is a different spin on the usual cynic making plans to leave the country.

Increasingly I am encountering a new culture of dissatisfied young middle-class South Africans, united by a common thread. They are a growing number who want to be free of the heavy weight of our history and social complexities and — here’s the important bit — explore their creativity on a global stage.

“You’ll never go far in the film/design/folding-of-paper-art field in this country,” they’ll say, pulling on their Italian beer and wearing an ironic T-shirt.

Alex van Tonder characterises this zeitgeist — a head-in-the-sand demand for a funkier and wealthier reality. The M&G‘s interview with the blogger was a disturbing insight for those of us caught up in the other narrative I’ve described.

The small blog star has caused even smaller waves with her blog character, Cape Town Girl (where else?). She posts about her and her friends “fabulous lives and beautiful friends and post pictures of themselves drinking champagne cocktails, getting spa treatments, eating sushi and going shopping”.

All good and well given that it’s a projected image — not what the teetotaller and hard worker is really about, apparently.

But then came the kick in the stomach.

“People who preach about saving the world. This worthy stuff. People don’t listen to that. It’s not accessible,” said Van Tonder. “I’ve been oversaturated with social obligation. The last thing I want to do is save the world.”

Staying power
Those sentences stayed in my head for days. I started hearing it reflected elsewhere — by a video-editing friend who refused to buy property because “this country is going to hell” and he wants to make it big in LA. By the overwrought chorus around Gareth Cliff’s glaringly obvious letter to President Jacob Zuma. And by another friend’s determination to tell a story that has “nothing to do with South Africa”.

It’s the activism backlash and its high priests are creating fantasy first worlds to live in and chomping at the bit of their country’s borders.

They desperately want to be free of the harsh reality around them, oblivious to the richness and joy that comes with living like you mean it in South Africa, engaging with the problems and trying to make a difference. I’d have that over the facile you’re-accepted if-you-act-exactly-like-me multiculturalism of Europe any day.

Will we head down Germany’s path? A gap that becomes a schism? I hope not. I hope the first kind of young South African prevails.

  • You can read Verashni’s Monday column here and follow her on twitter here.

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