Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Back from South Africa

In a week on a business trip one can barely scratch the surface of a big and vibrant country like South Africa. We were taken good care of by the National Library of South Africa. That meant staying in safe hotels, transportation in shuttle buses, and minimal contacts beyond our own group. My first impressions of the land include: professionalism and dedication in our African colleagues (I heard the same appraisal from a colleague who has a tendency of cynical realism), a feeling of visiting a country of the future, and of a thoughtful optimism. Africans have a positive spirit, and they are puzzled by the European crisis of the spirit. In the Africans I met I was struck most by a cordial and spiritual disposition. I had the pleasure to join a table of African film-makers, and when I asked which South African film they would recommend they answered: "wait for ten years", and: "no, wait for five years".

I have found apartheid disgusting as long as I have been aware of it, but The Apartheid Museum, one of the best museums I have ever visited, opened my eyes to understand much better both the "grand apartheid" and the "petty apartheid". On the other hand, South Africa has been the home of two of the greatest heroes of social justice. The young Gandhi was for ten years a civil rights activist in South Africa, where he developed his concept of satyagraha, "the soul force". Mandela was a great fighter against apartheid and a great reconciler after apartheid.

Even in our secluded existence we could not ignore the social injustice of unemployment, homelessness, and inequality. The young unemployed men hanging out in the streets. The constant potential of violent crime. Where inequality reigns, no one is free.

I'm happy that our single excursion day was dedicated to social reality (Soweto: a view into the way in which most Africans live) and history (The Apartheid Museum).

Every African I met hoped that I would return for a holiday, and South Africa would indeed be an inexhaustible holiday target with its multiple wonders of nature. I flew to Johannesburg next to a pilot on holiday who said he's lived all his life in South Africa but that he's still constantly amazed by its many-sided and breathtaking beauty. He also said that South Africa is less dangerous than Paris. Once you get there it is not an expensive country for a European tourist.

My favourite Nelson Mandela story: having been convicted to the lifetime sentence, on arrival into the prison, Mandela adopted the attitude of a generous host, even politely introducing a guard to another by name.

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