/ 28 October 2016

#OnlyInSA: We’re not that special

Not unique: Brexiters
The UK is due to leave the EU on March 29 2019, almost three years after it voted to leave the bloc. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)


“Only in South Africa”. It’s a phrase you encounter a lot. Often you witness it as a comment on a photo of, for instance, a fat police officer sleeping at a desk or someone pushing his friend along the road in a wheelbarrow. It is of no consequence that these photos are often from Zimbabwe, Nigeria or Jamaica. “Only in South Africa!” people exclaim and shake their heads in mixed frustration and amusement.

Such people are frequently white, but not exclusively. Believing that something could only occur within the borders of the republic is a national delusion that spans all races. I just confirmed this by typing #OnlyinSA into Twitter’s search function. Here follows a random sample of results, all posted within the past month or two by South Africans of every hue:

“Our oppressors & beneficiaries of such oppression now parading as our liberators. #OnlyinSA”

“Some rain and the traffic is a nightmare. #OnlyinSA”

“Throw rocks at police and then get upset when they shoot back. #OnlyinSA”

“Saw a guy walking and drinking a Black Label at 6am this morning. #OnlyinSA”

I also found the observation #OnlyinSA appended as a caption to a photo of two zebras fighting, a picture of jacaranda trees in bloom and an article about an HIV hoax involving bananas.

Perhaps it bears spelling out: none of these things is actually unique to South Africa. I was particularly tickled by the notion that a rain-affected traffic system is our cross to bear alone. If you’ve ever spent any time in London, you’ll know that sometimes the train system grinds to a complete standstill because of “leaves on the track”.

I’m sorry to break it to you, South Africa, but almost nothing that we experience here is not replicated daily throughout the world.

The myth of South African exceptionalism is a curious one. No doubt it owes something to the “miracle” of the “peaceful transition”. For a society forged in the crucible of racial hatred to “transform” into a democracy without full-scale civil war did, indeed, make it seem like a remarkable place.

Here’s the thing about prodigies: they often cannot live up to their early promise. Take the case of Sufiah Yusof, for instance. Yusof, from a conservative British family, was a young maths genius. She made headlines in 1997 when she won a place at Oxford at the age of 13. Three years later she ran away, blaming the intolerable pressure placed on her by her parents, and was subsequently found to be earning a living as a sex worker. Being a prodigy can actually be a pretty shitty position to be in.

But South Africa embraced its extraordinary status. A Business Day columnist recently wrote acerbically: “Many exiled ANC leaders never recovered from being the cocktail circuit darlings of the international anti-apartheid scene.” The reality is, however, that 22 years after the birth of the so-called rainbow nation, South Africa has revealed itself to be a country much like many others.

We hang on to the notion that we are special even if we now often interpret our uniqueness as negative: extraordinarily corrupt, extraordinarily violent, extraordinarily hate-filled. I was reminded of this recently in the responses to the now infamous #ScienceMustFall clip, showing student protest leaders denouncing the Western establishment of science.

Howls of derision from many middle-class commentators followed, together with expressions of astonishment that anyone could think this way. But the snapshot that the clip offered into the thinking of some South Africans was, again, far from unique globally.

We see its echoes all around the world currently. When Britain was set to vote on whether it should leave the European Union, the consensus from the finest minds within economics, international relations and global security was overwhelming. Brexit would be disastrous, they said. Voters ignored it. Polls before the referendum repeatedly showed that disenchanted Brits simply didn’t care what experts had to say on the matter. They were gatvol with “elites” telling them what to do and think.

This same direction — a turn towards anti-intellectualism, a rejection of traditional authority and learning — is exactly what we have seen in the United States too, with the rise of Donald Trump as presidential contender.

A man who very clearly knows nothing about international affairs or even domestic policy has a legitimate shot at the White House because he has tapped into a growing anger with the status quo that reason, expertise — and, yes, science — cannot provide a sufficient bulwark against.

What #FeesMustFall student protesters seem to be expressing is something similar.

Theirs is an anger with the ruling classes that finds expression in the ridiculing of authority figures in universities and government, with a rejection of received wisdom and a desire to burn it all down and start afresh. It’s not #OnlyinSA. In fact, they’re bang on trend.