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We suffer from a collective bipolar disorder, we South Africans. We can move from glowing optimism and an outpouring of goodwill and generosity to a deep depression and a turning on each other in days or weeks.
This is not healthy. Eighteen years into our new democratic order we really should be a little more balanced and stable in our emotions. Already our ups are gradually becoming weaker and our downs stronger.
Last week, we momentarily basked in the glow of the greatness of our founding president, Nelson Mandela, when he celebrated his 94th birthday and we recalled some of the glory of those sweet post-1994 years.
But by the time the sun came up the next day, we were moaning and bitching and blaming as if we’re about to become a failed state.
This is our pattern: feel upbeat and glorious when a positive occasion presents itself, but descend into depression and self-loathing as soon as the moment is over.
I wonder if there are any other nations out there who are as negative about themselves as South Africans. No wonder a recent study found that even Zimbabweans are happier citizens than we are.
Visitors from abroad are surprised at our level of social cohesion, especially given our history, demographics and levels of inequality. Human resources managers at corporations and big businesses say relationships between employees of different ethnic backgrounds are fundamentally sound.
And yet we pretend as if we’re at each other’s throats every day; that whites face an uncertain future as black resentment grows in militancy; that life is hell for most blacks because the white racists have not changed and they still have all the wealth and privilege.
We haven’t learnt to decode each other. Of course there is anger; fear and insecurity also.
But we’re lending our ears to hotheads, populists, political opportunists and sociopaths instead of looking a bit deeper, beyond the insecurity and anger, to what is behind people’s eyes and in people’s hearts.
I think I’m beginning to get the hang of it.
As a public commentator, I am faced on a weekly basis with accusations of being a racist and apartheid disciple as well as being a “race traitor”, an enemy of Afrikaners and as someone sucking up to the ANC government.
After my column last week warning against putting lipstick on the apartheid pig, I received many insults and several threats to my personal safety on Twitter and Facebook.
But I also noticed a few correspondents agreeing with me and thanking me who a month or two earlier had insulted and threatened me as a “counter-revolutionary”.
Other people seem to get us better than we’re getting ourselves.
An Asian visitor on business in SA told me two weeks ago that he was so blown over by SA’s sophisticated infrastructure, general efficiency, lack of bureaucracy, great hotels and restaurants and friendly people, he was flying his family in for a month’s holiday – and considering living here for part of the year.
I spent the weekend revelling in SA’s remarkable sporting achievements – rugby, cricket, golf, athletics, hockey, swimming, Paralympic sports, even soccer (okay, I’m only referring to the draw between Ajax Cape Town and Manchester United). We’re punching way above our weight and we take it for granted.
I recently had lunch (at a brilliant, world-class Cape Town restaurant, drinking brilliant, world-class Boland wine) with a South African who had just come back from living and working in Canada for nine years.
His excitement and sense of adventure at being back home and spending the rest of his life here was infectious – we have so much hope and energy and spirit, he says, this is where he wants his children to grow up.
His children are now at a state school where they’re very happy – his only reservation was the amount of money he had to pay for home security and insurance.
I felt compelled to tell him that we have a weak president, an inefficient government and a lot of corruption.
Yes, he replied, but we have an entrenched democracy, a functioning judicial system, independent media, vibrant civil society and exceptional people, and that’s more than one can say about most other places. (He added: “Did you notice how the mighty Brits have screwed up security at the Olympics? If that had happened here, we would all have said it’s typical of Africa that we can’t get anything right.”)
Yes, I know, there are many “buts” to be added to all this.
My concern is that we as a people tend to highlight these, all the weaknesses in our system, the crime, the angry rhetoric, the bad management, and that we stop noticing the magic around us.
I think if we start noticing our own strengths and potential, it will energise us to fight our real enemies, unemployment and poverty, and take politicians less seriously.