Understanding SA from Rip van Winkle’s perspective
WHEN I returned to South Africa earlier this year after rather more than a decade away, I received a phone call from a friend and former colleague.
"Hello," he said, "is that Rip van Winkle?"
Having moved around quite a lot, I’d gotten used to the attitude South Africans often take to compatriots who live overseas. Geographically, this country is far from the major economic and cultural centres of the world. Even if you maintain contact, if you relocate it’s as if you vanish altogether.
Still, my friend’s question made me realise how long I’d been away. Long enough to justify a comparison to the character in the famous story who falls asleep one day and wakes up nearly 20 years later to find himself in a different country.
In the old story, Rip van Winkle is a Dutch/British burgher of a sleepy feudal colony. One day, escaping work on his little farm and his scolding wife, he goes out walking in the hills. He comes across a party of men in old-fashioned clothes who are playing nine-pins and drinking liquor from a barrel. He takes a drink himself and falls asleep.
When he wakes up, everything is different. Nearly 20 years have passed. The country, formerly a colonial possession, is newly independent; a new and colourful flag is flying. At his old pub the sign with "the ruby face of King George" has been replaced with that of George Washington. "The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it."
He finds that an election is nearing. The citizens are full of patriotic fervour. One of them wants to know which party he votes for. Rip makes a mistake, declaring himself a "loyal subject of the king. He is accused of being a tory, a spy, a traitor. To deflect the hostility, he tells his tale of having been asleep all those years.
Most of us probably think of the story as a simple moral tale. And there’s something to that. But read with an appreciation of its historical references and context, it is more than an amusing observation to the effect that life can pass very quickly, that change can happen in the blink of an eye. As Prof Arnold Goldman argues, it can also be read as a story relevant to a society undergoing rapid and fundamental change.
Its author, Washington Irving, was an American writer and businessman whose personal and family business interests kept him abroad many years in Europe. On the one hand he was deeply interested in his American identity; on the other, he was personally committed to the traditions he found in European literature. In revolutionary America, meanwhile, there was a strong emphasis on patriotic commitment to the new country. Living away from America and involvement in foreign ideas were perceived as a kind of betrayal.
On one level, Prof Goldman argues, Rip van Winkle is an allegory of its author’s personal fear of rejection by his new society. On another level, it was the author’s attempt to bridge his apparently contradictory commitments through humour, wit and insight.
Rip’s explanation of his long absence involves an inventiveness, a "crafty madness" that appeals to the shrewd new Americans. Bustling and disputatious as they are, they can recognise a good story.
And, as it turns out, the insights he can offer actually derive from the fact of his long absence. Rip van Winkle represents a knowledge of the past that is to some degree innocent of the fervent arguments of the revolution. By telling his story, he cleverly invents a role for himself in the new world. (And in the process, incidentally, Irving invents American literature.)
Having read the tale again, it occurred to me to ask what Rip van Winkel — to give him a suitably South African name — would observe if he’d suddenly gone to sleep in South Africa 14 years or so ago, and had just woken up.
The first thing he’d notice, I think, is that the parallels with the tale about his American cousin aren’t exact. The main difference between then and now, for our Rip, is not that people have suddenly acquired a new civic awareness and become busy, bustling and disputatious: they always were. The main difference is in the quality of that disputation.
Back then, the public discourse was full of ideological moralism. Drunk with new power, the new government refused to be held accountable to anyone but itself. It took strange turns that negated the high ideals that had brought it to power. There were dark taboos regarding what might be said or not said. Real debate based on content and not on social markers was not possible. There was a lot of hostility and hot air. The atmosphere was oddly similar to the oppressive system that had gone before.
Now, by contrast, he finds everywhere a new and often vibrant public debate. The government, though still ideological in orientation, is being made to be more aware of the realities of power. There are some exceptions, such as recent episodes involving the current president’s luxurious living arrangements and ubiquitous penis.
But on the whole, the old tone of ideological righteousness, with its atmosphere of entitlement, has become harder to deploy. This, Rip observes, is probably simply through overuse; time will wear any coin away, no matter how thick.
Citizens and civil society have found that their voices can be heard, that their actions can make a difference. Big business is making its views on dubious economic policies publicly known. Art, literature, music, theatre, film, TV drama and sport are burgeoning, despite the difficulties they sometimes face. All of this is translating into a very different atmosphere in society.
Rip took a walk in the park on Gay Pride day, for instance, and found the smoke of a hundred braais rising and hundreds of families enjoying themselves in the sun; no one turned a hair at the sight of him and his shaggy dog. And when the Boks are playing, he knows he’ll find a crowd of people of different backgrounds, colours and persuasions at the Bowling Club happily celebrating the fact of their existence.
Sure, he recognises the problems — manifest problems. Bent politicians. Unqualified ministers. Venal cops. Arrogant civic managers. Ignorant TV news editors. Attacks on freedom of speech. Violent strikes. Unemployment. Ill-considered land reform. Dumped textbooks. And the rest.
Living in the new South Africa ain’t easy; it involves many contradictions. But at least the old sense of political entitlement has been replaced by a new and vital sense of engagement. People from different backgrounds are converging in the same places and on similar points of view. They have not allowed themselves to be cowed into obedient or sullen silence.
Stroking his long white beard, Rip likes to think that his long absence has at least this point — it enables him to see how different things are. He sees a country that is becoming too complex and too sophisticated to allow itself to be dominated by the narrow interests of politicians alone. Urgent, vibrant, informed, energetic and committed challenges to complacency will continue to be necessary. But he observes that this new atmosphere of possibility was not possible before.
• Jurgens was a cofounder and the first editor of Amsterdam Weekly, which won 14 European Press awards.