Flavor of the Month

The UK Observer, despite its best attempts, does not have its finger on the pulse of the South African literary scene. The World Cup didn't help.

Mallix, via Flickr CC.

With the World Cup around the corner, reports about South Africa (the hosts) are coming  think and fast in the British media. Even the South Africa fast-food chicken chain, Nando’s, gets some love in The Observer (the Sunday paper of The Guardian) today. Nando’s, started by Portuguese South Africans in Johannesburg in 1987, is fast becoming the national dish of the UK these days. Also, noted The Observer’s Miranda Sawyer, “it’s interesting that so many black and mixed-race kids are into Nando’s: that combination of spicy, almost jerk, chicken and the space and respect each customer is given is a winning formula for the kind of people that most restaurants choose to ignore.” So far, so good.

The Guardian took an interesting approach for a feature in their “Review” section this weekend, by asking several South African writers how they see ‘South Africa today’.

For the most part, the writers presented the familiar mix of careful optimism and gloomy realism about a country full of complexity and contradiction. The feature had the potential of providing a more creative and textured view of the country unlike the usual travelogue-type reports about which restaurants to visit or the kind of stereotypical “holiday in hell” reportage (like the risible “warning to fans” in The Sun or the equally  atrocious Australian tabloid TV version).

But The Observer could have worked a bit harder in trying to get some more interesting writers on board? Or at least have thought a bit more about where to cast their limelight?

The piece by Judge Albie Sachs,  who served on South Africa’s highest court (the Constitutional Court) between 1994 and 2009, is good.

For all its mixed-up character and its many grave defects and contradictions, the fact that South Africa is a country at all, and that its forward-looking constitution plays a central role in its life, is, I believe, one of the greatest stories of our times. Clearly, the constitution by itself does not provide jobs, build homes and enable people to walk freely everywhere in the land. Nor does it eliminate inequality and unemployment. But it does create a coherent, functional and value-based framework in which all these problems can be dealt with.

The playwright, Mpumelelo Grootboom, is the only one speaking to the political economy of the World Cup rather than its symbolism:

Now there is the World Cup, holding great promise for many people. But what will it do for us? What will it do for the poor? Will it solve the many troubles that countless South Africans continue to face? An acquaintance of mine recently said: “If I’m still poor after the World Cup, then there’s no hope for me.” It made me realise just how many of the disenfranchised have actually pinned their hopes on this tournament. But will the unemployed miraculously now have jobs? Will the poor stop being poor? This is a fantasy. Just as many were mistaken in thinking that democracy would solve all their problems, the World Cup will come and go and little will change.

But it is Rian Malan (these days probably better known in South Africa for his music than his writing, and that says something), who The Observer puts on the front page of their section and whose photo is again splashed over a full page as the leading piece, while Grootboom is cramped into a small corner at the back of the section.

Perhaps it’s because Malan with his sense of inflated drama who provided more quotable soundbytes about how to manage the country’s schizophrenia (“It’s a sunny weekday afternoon in Jo’burg, and I am lunching with friends at an outdoor restaurant. The joint we’re in was hit by armed robbers earlier this week”).  Grootboom, by contrasted, pointed out less palatable realities about who stands to profit from the event.

Overall, the special edition does not exactly leave one with the impression that The Observer’s has its finger on the pulse of the South African literary scene.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.