October 11, 2008


Some of you may have seen this recent article in the New York Times, chronicling the disappointment and frustration some South Africans feel with their country, as the 15th anniversary of the 1994 election approaches.

Fourteen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa — the global pariah that became a global inspiration — has lapsed into gloom and anxiety about its future, surely not the harmonious “rainbow nation” so celebrated by Nelson Mandela on his inauguration day.
I don’t have enough Xhosa to be able to plumb the depths of the feelings of the people I see in Itipini every day but I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed in English in my time here. The most stunning perhaps was as I waited in line at a grocery store. The young black man behind me pointed at the picture of then-President Thabo Mbeki on the cover of the paper and said to me, “I don’t want him to be president anymore; I liked it when people like you” - meaning white people, not, I presume, tall people or people with a large gap between their front teeth - “were in charge.” There was also my first South African friend who told me, “One thing about the previous government - yes, we were mistreated, we were disrespected, but we had jobs. Now we have a government that promises jobs - where are the jobs? Where are the houses?”

A (white) friend of mine in Mthatha drew a striking parallel once and I’ve been waiting for the opportune moment to steal her comment and post it here; this seems like it. She said that South Africans now are a lot like the Hebrews were as they wandered in the Sinai for 40 years after leaving Egypt. Did they “grin and bear it”? Did they keep their focus on the Promised Land that awaited them? Nope. They sat around and complained to Moses that life was better in Egypt - where they had been slaves! - than it was in the desert. This is a repeated theme in the Exodus story, like in 16:3 and 17:2-3.

The parallel is correct I think but it must be cold comfort to present-day South Africans who still have to wait 26 years to arrive in their Promised Land.