In Four Corners Of The World. A Bunch Of University Professors In South Africa

We are four university professors, invited here in the year 2000 (we have started to use this number with a certain panache) for conferences and for negotiations concerning a possible world congress of the International Society for Comparative Literature – one from Germany, one from France, one from Belgium, two from the United States, some of us with our wives. It's our first time here. The split with this country during the apartheid was so severe, that certain professors couldn't even write to their Dutch fellows at work because their letters were returned. (The sins of communism seemed rather gross and the penalties rather trifling, but that's the way politics goes!) Changing the system and shifting to democracy and universal vote still represented there events comparable with the overthrows in Eastern Europe: they opened the country to the world. Will this multiracial experiment succeed or not? Nobody knows it yet. Nelson Mandela himself, the current president, is a man of remarkable human and moral conduct. I would actually place him somewhere up there, next to statesmen like Vaclav Havel; other countries on their way to renewal were not so fortunate. I haven't seen anyone in South Africa, black or white, who didn't cheer him. After 27 years in prison or house arrest, Mandela proves to be of noble generosity. While I was there I saw him paying a courteous visit to Mrs. Verwoerd, the widow of the ex-prime-minister and architect of the apartheid, a perky and little old lady aged 94, and shaking her hand as a sign of reconciliation with her and with the segregated people around her. About two weeks ago, Mandela would attend the Rugby World Cup Finals dressed in the shirt of the national team (Springboks), once a symbol of white supremacy, and cheering enthusiastically its victory. The Dutch-speaking Boer people were thrilled; many of their fears and suspicions were melting away. These are signs that point to him as being a real statesman.Among the reasons for his praise is the delicate and fragile balance between unity and diversity with the South Africans on top of the list. The country now has 11 official languages and a federal structure. The political discord lines crisscross among black and also among white people, since none of them form unitary groups. The Zulus have a vast folklore, a remarkable pride in war, and a sense of identity and separation, and most of them would prefer an independent monarchy. The Xhosas are more urban-industrial, more militant, more interested in politics and organized in unions. The Sothos are folded up and quiet, most of them are small merchants, clerks or farmers. The over 1 million Indian inhabitants of the republic form a robust and affluent business middle-class. The white people are of British, Dutch, Portuguese, Jewish, or German origins. (I have also met an attractive woman from Timisoara, a friend of the people from Orizont magazine, now aspirant for a doctor's degree in literature at the university of Durban.) The Boers didn't seem to me as if they were mean, exploiting and racially biased, as the press described them, but rather kind-hearted, hard-working, environment-friendly, narrow-minded and limited to provincial expectations. Capetown is cultural, snob and banking, Pretoria is conformist and bureaucratic, Johannesburg industrial and brawling, Durban is flourishing, economically vibrating, and oriented towards South Asia.As I was saying, the country is organized in a federal system; I cannot even imagine it otherwise, considering the hundreds of species of birds that cannot be found anywhere else in the world! Uniformity would trigger the catalepsy of South Africa. Then the Cape of Good Hope would become the Cape of storms once again and that intense feeling of catching sight of the Garden of Eden, which you get by walking through the nature reserves (some of them larger than Italy) with baboon-families strolling at leisure around the high grass, undisturbed by the rush of the zebra herds or by the laziness of the rhinos, would wither forever. Now everything seems literally pale, predictable and dull in Europe and America after you have spent at least 2-3 weeks surrounded by the abundant, unpredictable, fantastic and luxuriant natural forms and by the triumphant explosive colours of South Africa. Orizont no. 11, 1995Excerpted from: Tradition and Freedom, Curtea veche, 2001

by Virgil Nemoianu