Facing our reality, without flinching

Jeremy Gordin asks whether it is time to pack his bags, just after he's watched the rugby

My grandparents, one set Latvian, the other Lithuanian, arrived here at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th, respectively.

According to family lore, my maternal (Lithuanian) grandfather, an Awerbuch, accompanied by a relative, arrived in Cape Town in the late 1890s at the tender age of 14 (he never saw his parents again); worked as a smous in the Cape hinterland; liked to show off his proficiency in Afrikaans; got married; became the owner of a successful retail shoe business in Cape Town; and told my mother (the second of his six daughters) that he was inordinately proud of having received his (Cape Colony) naturalisation papers.

My paternal (Latvian) grandfather, a Gordin, having arrived at Cape Town, travelled straight to Johannesburg, where he’d allegedly been offered a job as a rabbi [i]. But, having discovered the job was no longer a reality, he became a hawker of eggs. Later, having made some money, he brought his wife and two children to SA; he’d have two more children, one of whom was my father. He also purchased a horse and cart in which to carry the eggs and himself around the nascent city but was never financially prosperous [ii].

In short, the Awerbuchs and Gordins have been at the southern tip of Africa for more than a hundred years. Those members of both families who remained in Latvia and Lithuania would, with a few exceptions, be murdered by the Nazis and their helpers – in the 1940s.

So, the two families in SA, who paid their taxes and performed the other “duties” of conscientious citizens, were by and large more than happy that their immediate forebears had chosen to go to South Africa in search of security and prosperity.

The problem is, however, that the good ol’ world keeps turning and “history” keeps changing – and my parents’ generation found that, although the country (in its various manifestations, colony, union, republic) might be beloved, there was also much to cry about, as suggested by Alan Paton in 1948.

Regarding the crying side, Wikipedia presents a good enough, albeit bland, summary: “During the 20th century, the black majority sought to claim more rights from the dominant white minority, which [has] played a large role in the country’s recent history and politics. The National Party imposed apartheid in 1948, institutionalizing previous racial segregation.

“After a long and sometimes violent struggle by the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid activists both inside and outside the country, the repeal of discriminatory laws began in the mid-1980s. Since 1994, all ethnic and linguistic groups have held political representation in the country’s liberal democracy [sic], which comprises a parliamentary republic and nine provinces. South Africa is often referred to as the “rainbow nation” to describe the country's multicultural diversity ...”

But, following what has just happened in KZN and Gauteng, we’ve come to a point in 2021, though we’ve been getting to this point in various ways for some time, a point at which I find myself wondering what I ought to be saying to my offspring (aged 27 and 23) – especially as both seem very attached to Seffrica – about where they ought to think about settling.

Actually, we’ve come to a point at which I myself need to do some thinking (or perhaps, rather, take some action) about where I should live out my years until it’s my time to shuffle off my mortal coil.

An essay introduced to me by my mother during my teenage years, titled “The Ignored Lesson of Anne Frank”[iii], was originally published in 1960. It was written by Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990), an Austrian-born psychologist, scholar, and so-called public intellectual who spent most of his academic and clinical career in the US, but who had been imprisoned for 10-and-a-half months in Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps before being released in April 1939, whereupon he immediately went to the US.

The essay got Bettelheim into a great deal of hot water (as did many things in his life [iv] but these are not our concern now). The reason this particular article did not go down at all well in the US of the 1960s was that Bettelheim wrote – and I paraphrase – that it was a mistake to sentimentalize the story of Anne Frank because her father, Otto, had badly failed himself and his family by not trying to flee Holland, owning firearms, or hiding more effectively.

“In such times [as the Nazi invasion of Holland],” wrote Bettelheim, ... “one has to take a stand on the new reality – a firm stand, not one of retirement into an even more private world”.

I’m not suggesting that we are about to face an onslaught tantamount to the Nazi invasion; what interests me is Bettelheim’s insistence that one needs to look unflinchingly at “reality”.

And what is our, or my, reality? Why ought someone like me – a white person, whose family’s been here for a century or more – be thinking about going to another country, if s/he can, or suggesting to his family that they ought to do so? What are the indicators that the time has well and truly come to think hard about such matters and/or to make such suggestions?

I’ve pulled together seven points off the top of my head, but of course they are inter-linked.

1. One wants the state to provide safety and security – peace of mind if you like. Manifestly, this state cannot.

2. One wants predictability; one wants to know, as much as possible, what will be happening in the economy, when you go shopping, and so on. As of two weeks ago or so, there is very little predictability in SA.

3. One wants to be confident about accountability and due process. One wants to be confident that if someone does something wrong, s/he will be punished and that s/he will be punished according to the laws of the land. Such confidence is no longer to be found.

4. SA is a failed state – even if it is not quite one yet, according to certain strict economic data, it is a failed state because of the absence of safety, predictability, and confidence regarding accountability and due process.

5. The present government, or large swathes of it, is venal, corrupt and out-of-control – demonstrably, there is no accountability. Moreover, as Ann Bernstein has put it, the present government is in any case “characterised by drift, incoherence, incompetence, inattention and complacency”.

6. In the suburb in which I live – a so-called upmarket one – the infrastructure (electricity, water, roads) is failing badly, and in many places in this country, it has failed.

7. If one is a middle to low-income earner (as am I), the cost of living has become simply unplayable. Besides the cost of utilities, check out food prices; they have literally skyrocketed.

It seems bizarre and laughable, doesn’t it, to think that one’s life in SA could turn into what RW Johnson has called “a Mad Max post-apocalyptic wasteland”? But to consider the thought bizarre or to laugh is to suffer from the same malady as Anne Frank’s father.

Joining an armed militia of sorts has also been discussed by Johnson, who points out that such organisations can’t “do anything to guarantee, for example, a reliable supply of water or electricity, let alone provide a stable currency, passports etc.”.

Besides, can you see me at the ripe old age of almost 69 running around shooting at people and being shot at? And who’d wish such a life on their children?

Time to haul out and dust the suitcases? Well, maybe I would if my offspring hadn’t taken most of them for their various travels.

Also, there are important issues that require my attention. For example, will the Springboks – notwithstanding having Rassie Erasmus interfering with them on the playing field and thereby undermining their confidence and confusing them – be able to defeat the British & Irish Lions on Saturday? Like Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu or our Jacob Zuma, Rassie thinks he’s still in charge.

We could call Rassie Bibi or Jacob. As for me, well, you can, at least for now, call me Otto Frank – though I won’t like it much.


[i] “Allegedly” – because my father mostly didn’t like to spoil a good story with the facts, and so one doesn’t really know if my grandfather was in fact a rabbi. His later demeanour, dress, and attitude to matters religious suggests that he probably wasn’t.

[ii] I haven’t mentioned my grandmothers, which seems sexist. I don’t mean to be. I’m fully aware of the roles they played as homemakers and as those who took care of their families.

[iii] Surviving and Other Essays by Bruno Bettelheim, Thames & Hudson, 1979, pp. 246-57.

[iv] Much of Bettelheim’s work was discredited after his death due to fraudulent academic credentials, allegations of abusive treatment of patients under his care, and accusations of plagiarism.