That’s one of the disadvantages of soak pits, or French drains as I was taught to call them. On an island with a high water table, any crashing downpour and all is revealed, so to speak.
When I challenged a Francophone acquaintance on the basic flaw to this Gallic innovation, he sniffed dismissively. “Primitive things. But, French? Non! In France we’ve always known them as English drains.”
Whatever the national origin of the name, successive periods of French and British colonisation of the island have failed to perfect their use here. When it rains, the scent is unmistakable. Upon having to wade knee-deep through a deluge, there comes a sense of dread, lest one encounters that which one can smell.
Sometimes, though, it’s attitudes, not things, which stink. This week I was seated at a restaurant table next to a bunch of rowdy, demanding and obnoxious South African tourists. When they left, the waiters rolled their eyes at one another and one mock-wiped his brow. I kept my head down and my accent neutral, but tipped lavishly just in case.
Of course, no nation en masse is a pleasant experience. But it’s true that, as a nation, we have never much endeared ourselves to our fellow Africans.
That’s hardly surprising. During the apartheid years, white South Africans largely made themselves known to their neighbours through expeditions of murder and pillage. At the same time, our black exiles in the camps, known for their boorishness and indolence, didn’t exactly charm their reluctant cross-border hosts.
Nothing much has changed. Our mostly white corporates try to use their size to obliterate their competitors on the rest of the continent, albeit only commercially. And our mostly black governing class, with its ostentatiousness and condescension, continues to irk.
There is not much attempt to be modest. Some years ago, president Jacob Zuma warned at an ANC manifesto launch that “this is not Rwanda” and that we shouldn’t “think like Africans in Africa”.
In similar vein, my suggestion last week that little Mauritius could give SA some lessons on how political pragmatism and modest ambitions can, over time, deliver astonishing economic results, elicited some interesting reactions. The tenor of the comments ranged from widespread bemusement at such an outlandish idea to occasional irritation at my stupidity in failing to comprehend that SA is innately different. We lead, we do not follow.
That’s a way of thinking not unlike the belief by many in the United States of their country being exceptional and superior.
Ian Tyrrell, an Australian historian who has written a definitive account of the phenomenon, notes that American exceptionalism is not about differences or the unique aspects of the US. “Exceptionalism requires something more: a belief that the US follows a path of history different to the laws and norms that govern other countries.”
Substitute US with SA and that is a fair description of our own hubris. The Afrikaners, who shaped the pre-1994 form of the country, had an unshakeable belief that they were God’s chosen people and that, by definition, anything and everything they did was preordained to be blessed and exceptional.
Now, post-1994, the national ethos is imbued with magical thinking organised around our very own, secular deity, Madiba. It’s the heady but mistaken feeling of invincibility that comes from being fêted around the world for stepping away from the brink and apparently reconciling the hitherto irreconcilable mix of races, ethnicities, religions and languages.
American exceptionalism is wearing thin, exposed to winds of global change that most of the US seems unable to conceive, never mind counter. SA exceptionalism is no different - the burnish is turning to tarnish and it’s happening at an accelerating pace.
Bemoaning the paucity of Mauritian birdlife, I remarked that this was probably not surprising, given that this is the island where the dodo was driven extinct. The Mauritian put-down was quick and caustic: “Our Dutch wiped out the dodo, a bird. Your Dutch almost wiped out the Bushmen, a people.”
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