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Op-eds

Are the phoenixes rising?

  • Geoff
Can we yet be bold enough to celebrate South Africa? Amidst our thirst for good news after the depressing news of the past decade, green shoots are visible. Not yet on the economic front, which remains dire, as finance minister Tito Mboweni outlined in his mid-term budget, but elsewhere, vigour is gingerly starting to show itself.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Nov 07, 2019

The obvious big event of the past week, which gave a gigantic boost to South Africans, is the Springboks’ win over England in the 2019 Rugby World Cup under the captainship of Siya Kolisi. The image of him holding the golden cup aloft amidst ecstatic celebration will resonate forever as a triumphant moment.

Sport is often a measure of a country’s mood. Joburgers of all colours and classes, and many others from elsewhere, joined together in another celebration last Sunday in the 42km Soweto Marathon, nicknamed The People’s Race, whose route can be compared to a lesson in South Africa’s history. The marathon, which attracted about 40 000 runners from across the globe, takes participants past heritage sites that were key in the fight against apartheid. This includes Vilakazi Street and the one-time homes of former President Nelson Mandela and his neighbour, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. The former has become a site visited by tourists worldwide.

The race passes the brightly painted Orlando Towers, and is within eyesight of everything from the colossal Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, reputedly the third-largest in the world, to the colourful Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, where the African National Congress Freedom Charter was adopted in 1955 as the ideological cornerstone of the liberation movements. The marathon provides a glimpse into the possibilities of this country. Can it be a counterpoint to the gloom?

Sport is a culture which thrived during apartheid in spite of racial separation, and now freely embraces every race and creed. Contrary to common perception, culture as a whole, whether white or black, was something the apartheid government took seriously. But it forcefully kept black and white cultures separate, and exploited this separation for its racist political agenda.

Seats at venues showing high quality European ballet, opera, theatre, and fine art were traditionally occupied by Jews and the Afrikaans-speaking community. Today, Jews are fewer, but Afrikaners are still present. And a phoenix is rising in Pretoria. Once the heart of apartheid, where ideologues plotted their reprehensible deeds, this city hosts an opposite concept.

A multimillion rand art centre of world-class standard opened in September with several exhibitions of South African works from the past century of such high quality, the Museum of Modern Art in New York could just as proudly have hosted them.

The Javett Art Centre is a green shoot in the cultural sphere, as important as a world-class rugby win, particularly for its location and inclusive approach to who is showcased.

Current collections show signature works from 1912, including the cream of the crop – the likes of Helen Mmakgabo Sebidi, Irma Stern, Steven Cohen, David Koloane, Jackson Hlungwani, and more.

We cannot be naive about the effect of these examples. They will not solve the mass poverty, crime, and corruption which pull this country down. The pitiable beggars who stand at street corners in Johannesburg will never see them. Yet, many black Springboks came from impoverished backgrounds and fought their way to the top. Is hope again possible?

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