Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Markers of change

The daughter of a friend of mine - a beautiful, lithe Lesbian aged 20 – recently went on that mandatory trip to Europe, which every student is supposed to do. You are supposed to visit every art gallery you possibly can. You are supposed to party till dawn in a foreign city. You are supposed to starve, because you don’t have enough money over there. You are supposed to hitch rides, because you can’t afford the train. You are supposed to be wild. You are supposed to be free. That is all part of being a student.

So she went. And she had a ball. And she spent her last penny. And she was standing in a long queue at Heathrow airport waiting to catch her flight home. There were mostly South Africans standing in that queue. Behind her was a large-bellied, shorts-wearing, Afrikaner. He had a greying, nicotine-stained moustache. The lithe student had made up her mind that this was not the kind of person she would see herself associating with. She was fairly certain about that.

Some way in front of them, also standing in the queue was a woman in full Purdah, wearing that suddenly controversial garment which covers the face, the Burka. She was called out of the line by the security officials. In full view of the other people in the queue, she was ordered to take off her head-dress. At first she resisted, but then complied, when it became clear that if she did not, she would not be allowed to board the plane home. There she stood. To her, she could have been stark naked. She tried to hide her face. She squirmed in shame and embarrassment.

My friend’s daughter felt the blood rise to her head. She felt utterly powerless and utterly outraged. And then she heard the man behind her, muttering under his breath these few words: He said “Dis nie reg nie”. (That is not right).

She turned to him and they spoke to each other in Afrikaans. They both agreed that what was happening was outrageous. Why was the woman not taken into a private space, if they were so desperate to search her? Why was she allowed to be so publicly violated, in a so-called liberal country?

So there were these two individuals. A pot-bellied Boer and a young Lesbian student, bonded together in their disgust for what was happening to a Muslim compatriot. And their whispered converse left them both with an extraordinary pride in what they were and how far we as South Africans have journeyed, to become what we are.

During the World Cup, my job took me to every corner of the Western Cape Province. I have had detailed negotiations with virtually every municipality in every District. And this is what I have seen: I have seen white people and black people and coloured people working together, and working hard. I have seen honesty and integrity. I have seen competence and I have seen government officials willing to work overtime, without recompense. (I have seen idiots and crooks as well). But in general, I have to say, that what has impressed me the most are the white officials, mostly Afrikaans speaking, who do their jobs and do them well. And who have changed beyond recognition. They are comfortable in their own skins and the people around them are comfortable with them.

Transformation has happened and it is a wonderful thing to see. And it is things like this that should give us as a nation, real pride in the journey we have taken and the point we have reached. But besides anything else, I would want to say that it is very likely indeed that it is because minority groups like the Muslim community feel not only respected in our society, but integral to it, that we could host a totally safe World Cup.

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