SA exceptionalism is headed the way of the Dodo

William Saunderson-Meyer says that we are not a country that has endeared itself to its neighbours


Ahh! There’s nothing quite like the occasional aromatic waft of sewage as one sips the day’s first coffee at a Mauritian street cafe.

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, successive waves of French and British colonisation of the island failed to perfect their use here. When it rains, the scent is unmistakable. Upon having to wade knee deep through a sudden 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 cross-border camps, known for their boorishness and indolence, didn’t exactly charm their reluctant 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 now only commercially. And our mostly-black governing class, with its ostentatiousness and condescension, continues to irk.

There is little attempt to be modest about our historical advantages. Some years ago, President Jacob Zuma warned at an ANC manifesto launch, while extolling the virtues of toll roads, that “this is not Rwanda” and that we shouldn’t “think like Africans in Africa”.

In similar vein, my suggestion last week that tiny Mauritius — one six hundredth of our land mass and a fiftieth of our population — 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 the 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.

“Countries, like people, are all different and unique, even if many share some underlying characteristics,” writes Tyrrell. “Exceptionalism requires something more: a belief that the US follows a path of history different from the laws and norms that govern other countries.” 

Substitute US with SA and that is a fair description of our own hubris, which is rooted in our complicated history. The Afrikaners, who did much to shape 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 centred around our very own, secular deity, Madiba. It’s the heady but mistaken feeling of invincibility that comes from being feted around the world for stepping away from the brink, and appearing to reconcile the hitherto irreconcilable mix of races, ethnicities, religions and languages.

American exceptionalism is wearing thin, exposed as it is 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 — there are barely a 100 species, while SA has more than 800 — I remarked that this was probably not surprising, given that this is the place where the Dodo was driven to extinction.  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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