(Un)becoming an African

African 'sky-scapes', Johannesburg

Airplanes are always a great time of reflection for me. It’s always on a flight — over these ten-or-so hours of middle-ground on my bi-annual milk run from Europe to Africa and back to Europe again — that I get thinking about things like home, and ubuntu and all that sentimental, ‘rainbow nation’ kak.

The sad thing is: I did not miss Africa this time round. I missed the people, yes. I still desperately miss the people. But for some reason, I had not at all missed the place.

This time round, South Africa was not the fairy tale, hearty Mama Afrika I have known and loved all these years. This time round, Mama Afrika came across as a woman with great historical baggage; an angry, fearful, exhausted woman with dark rings under her eyes; a country in desperate need of societal and moral resuscitation.

It was obvious from the moment I landed at O.R. Tambo International in Joburg, where I was immediately greeted by that stale, familiar black-white feeling that hangs around at Passport Control. It’s that ‘them’ and ‘us’ feeling that is so deeply ingrained in the furniture of the place, it’s hard not to notice it when you arrive.

This time round, Mama Afrika came across as a woman with great historical baggage; an angry, fearful, exhausted woman with dark rings under her eyes

For the first time since I left, I felt uncomfortable with people packing my shopping bags or filling up the car or washing my clothes. And for the first time, I felt like I stood out for having an education, some money and a life of opportunity.

I saw the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in a very real, in your face kind of way: the Porsche Cayenne and the guy selling beaded key-rings at the traffic light; the deaf man accosting me for coins while I stood picking chopped salad onions off the shelf in Woolworths. The divide between those with money and those without is so glaringly obvious, so grossly obvious, you would be blind not to see it.

Suddenly, I felt very spoilt and very privileged and very uncomfortable about the whole thing. But I also felt frustrated that I should be made to feel sorry for how my country’s life story is panning out when really, why is this my responsibility?

For the first time, I realised how life in France has started to iron out my creases and cut me down to size. In Europe, I no longer think in black-and-white. In Europe, I no longer think in terms of class. Europe has thrown me onto an equal playing field, where I work bloody hard for my money and I don’t feel bad about it.

Coming back to France, November 2015
Coming back to France, November 2015

Because privilege — if it’s education or money or time — is a gift that you get to use wisely to the great benefit of others, not something you should hide in your closet in case anyone catches you throwing it around.

Europe encourages me to share my talents and grow and contribute to society without being constantly beaten down by the deeply entrenched divisions of history or corruption.

European society has high expectations of its leaders: public transport, hospitals, roads, water, electricity… all of that stuff must work. In South Africa, I noticed how numbed tax payers have become to the degradation around them: the unpainted roads, broken traffic lights, littered public areas, crime, electricity cuts, water shortages. There’s always an excuse: “South Africa is struggling, but…”

Europe has thrown me onto an equal playing field, where I work bloody hard for my money and I don’t feel bad about it

I noticed how South Africans have replaced their gut feelings with optimism; I was reminded how humour is our nation’s coping mechanism.

Call me one of those ‘grass is greener on the other side’ expats who deserves a life of dark winters and great depression overseas; but for the first time in a long time, South Africa unsettled me. The romantic, Madiba rhetoric has long left, and in its place is a wound that’s battling to heal.