David Cogswell | April 29, 2015 1:30 PM ET
South Africa's Beacon Still Shines
So now once again I find myself heading somewhere that elicits comments like what someone just wrote to me on Facebook: “What? You’re going there? Don’t you know what is happening there?”
Lately it’s beginning to feel like this happens almost everywhere I go, like I’ve got a hellhound on my trail. Is there nowhere you can go anymore without encountering this kind of thing?
Considering the headlines from my own country these last few days, I guess not.
Oddly enough this time my destination, South Africa, was not a place that elicited such comments when I planned the trip. Even two weeks ago it would have been hard to find anyone with any bad words to say about traveling to South Africa.
On the contrary, practically everyone wants to go there. And people who come back from there want everyone else to go there.
In a world full of bad scenes, news reports rife with violence and murder every day, South Africa has been a beacon of positive energy and hope for two decades.
South Africa, which has been the embodiment of brotherly love across all racial lines and the burying of deep divisions, was deeply embarrassed recently by behavior that is the point-by-point opposite of the national character South Africa has presented to the world.
That same South Africa, the country that the world loves and admires so much, has not changed. But it did suffer some extremely unfortunate incidents involving attacks on immigrant communities in the cities of Johannesburg and Durban and two villages in the province of Kwazulu-Natal.
Say It Isn’t So!
Still in the glow of the legendary Nelson Mandela, and now 20 years into its existence as a democratic republic, South Africa has shot to the upper reaches of the list of aspirational travel destinations in the world. Practically everyone who engages in world travel today has South Africa on the list.
Everyone talks about the Cape Town cityscape sparkling in the harbor waters against a wall of mountains, the serenely pastoral Cape wine district, the magnetic metropolitan presence of Johannesburg, the eternal majesty of the great wilderness areas, the beaches of Durban, the radiant smiles of the people, and the diversity. Yes, the diversity.
Perhaps South Africa’s greatest gift to the world is a culture of not just tolerance but of the celebration of diversity. This newly-formed country was crafted from the vision of Mandela, a vision tempered through nearly three decades in prison. South Africans take that vision very seriously and have cast their collective lot on belief in those ideals.
The new South Africa has arguably the most advanced constitution in the world. Its framers established firmly in the bedrock of the country principles of fairness designed to prevent a tyranny like the historical apartheid government from ever rising again.
Socially and politically South Africa is the scene of one of the greatest social experiments ever conducted anywhere: to base a society on the proposition that a country can thrive on the principles represented by Mandela, a country where “never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another, and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.”
Considering what it was up against, charged with building a new country and a new economy that could support the population and raise the poor from poverty, South Africa has done a stunning job. The fact that the incidents of xenophobic violence the world observed recently are so strikingly out of place in South Africa speaks to how remarkably free of such division the South African renaissance has been.
Throughout the 2010 World Cup, in defiance of doomsayers who predicted problems, practically none surfaced anywhere in the country. It was a remarkable record for any country to achieve. South Africa deserves credit. For its 20 years of existence it has stayed close to its vision. It has been a remarkable success on the world stage.
Waiting for the Economic Renaissance
But it turns out that creating a democratic renaissance is actually easier than creating a corresponding economic renaissance. There are many South Africans who cannot find employment, who are struggling to maintain themselves and their families. In the recent incidents their rage bubbled over into hatred of immigrant groups from elsewhere in Africa who have moved to South Africa and formed communities.
When some struggling South Africans saw immigrant groups that seemed to be getting a larger share of the new South African dream than they were getting, they blew up in rage.
The recent wave of mob violence cast a pall over the hope that South Africa represents. Now at the dawn of the post-Mandela era, those who love and root for South Africa will not accept that the recent incidents are a sign that the belief in Mandela’s vision of a Rainbow Nation is on the wane. It is clear that the violent incidents do not represent the vast majority of South Africans, who feel worse about them than anyone, because it is their dream that is threatened by these negative forces.
It is increasingly apparent that the world needs to address the underlying social and economic issues that are leading to mob violence in many places around the globe, including quite dramatically in the U.S.A., as we unfortunately experienced in Baltimore in recent days.
The world needs to band together to oppose and condemn those activities and support the South African dream. What South Africa has achieved through its democratic renaissance is important to the world.
Governments, NGOs, private corporation and other associations need to come together to address these international problems of economic growth and poverty. But individuals don’t have to stand around waiting for the larger entities to do something. You can help. One of the things you can do is travel, support the emerging travel economies of countries like South Africa, where you want to go anyway and enjoy what everyone who goes there is raving about.
The people who have committed these acts are obviously frustrated, desperate people whose rage has taken over and they don’t realize the extent to which their actions can hurt all the people of South Africa.
The last thing South Africa needs is for the recent incidents to harm its tourism industry, which is booming and represents the country’s greatest hope for economic growth that reaches into all strata of society. It would be very sad if the one thing that represents probably the greatest hope for South Africa to raise itself economically would be damaged by the outbreaks of violence that were engendered by economic frustrations.
Bad things happen and they can happen anywhere. There is no assurance that nothing bad will happen no matter where you are.
It is not a time to close up in fear and stop traveling. It is a time to open up and lend our support to our brothers and sisters around the world.
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