Today I am traveling to Johannesburg, South Africa, where I will speak of what little I know to citizens of a nation I don’t really understand. The things I do know about their nation include its gross national product, the status of its relations with China, the staggering unemployment rate and the crime that follows it. But I confess to not understanding why South Africa is the way it is, nor do I understand why it won’t be what I imagined it would become ten years ago, when I wrote that only South Africa could, in the long run, transform sub-Saharan Africa to realize its potential. All of the well-meaning philanthropists and NGOs can’t do much; it will only be the power of South Africa, a complex African nation that can set things in motion.
So, I turned to a book published in 1948, a few months before apartheid was imposed. The book is “Cry, the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton, a South African author of English descent searching for what it means to be South African. It begins with a vivid and yet gentle description of the beautiful valley of the Umzimkulu. The description of the valley speaks to what he truly intends to write about: the people.
He does not delude himself about the nature of the Afrikaners or of the Bantu. But he doesn’t declare one the victim and the other the victimizer. He doesn’t anoint himself the judge because he understands that we are all guilty simply by being alive in this time and place, and that we all do what we are compelled to do by the circumstances we are in. It reminds me of “War and Peace,” in which Tolstoy describes Napoleon giving the orders he must because those are the only orders he can give. But Tolstoy didn’t live in South Africa, and therefore not in a country where judgement and anger at those they hold responsible was the inevitable result of all wanting to live in the same beautiful valley, and it being owned by the strong. There is a saying whose source I can’t recall: “His virtue is in the weakness of his limbs and not in the strength of his soul.”
For Paton, the terrible things we do to each other must not be compounded by self-righteous judgment. Paton reminds us of Nelson Mandela, for whom he spoke in court before Mandela was sent to Robben Island. I don’t respect many men, but I respect Mandela for the attempt he made to put apartheid behind him, convince most white South Africans to stay, and convince black South Africans that they now had hope. The past was past, and the obligation was to the future. We don’t yet know whether he failed or succeeded, but for political reasons, rather than moral ones, he refused to judge.
Mandela undoubtedly knew what I learned in reading this book. The Dutch arrived in the 17th century, and the British and Indians in the 18th. The Zulu had arrived in the 16th century, not long before the Dutch but centuries after the Bantu. Imperialism, it seems, had many colors and causes.
I grew up in the Bronx, so my sense of South Africa, based on little true knowledge, is that it is what the Bronx would have looked like had it been a country, and had millennials arrived seeking lower rents and nannies at reasonable wages, thus forcing the natives out of their homes. Since that is what has happened, I await the outcome. But then we all return to what we know when facing the things we don’t. And this is what is most human about Paton’s story. Underneath it all, Paton loved South Africa, but he can’t forget his home in England and wonders where he ought to be. Wondering is much harder than condemning.
George Friedman, chairman