Penny Sparrow has gone from being an insignificant KwaZulu-Natal estate agent to a personification of the state of our nation. Crass racism, contestation for the country’s resources, class division and spectacular conceit colliding in a general swirl of self-hate. We love to hate what we are. The honeymoon years of our democracy was a grand delusion, the diversity we once celebrated is now at the core of national discord and we are plunging downhill, following the stereotype of every good African state gone bad. It is easy to see Jacob Zuma and Penny Sparrow as the champions of our regression. But South Africa has a general penchant for self-sabotage. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
In December, Daily Maverick ran an editorial following President Jacob Zuma’s firing of former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene calling the move “an act of wilful sabotage”. We summed up the president’s actions as follows:
“It’s an act of wilful sabotage, an act that will have catastrophic effects for everyone, but mostly the poor. It is the act of a leader who despises those he leads, a leader who has no respect for his office, a leader who is there to serve a closed network of friends, advisors, backers and loyalists. It is an act that resembles a Hollywood terrorist plot (take out the minister of finance, plunder the treasury); it is an act that hews so close to treason that it becomes difficult to give it another name.”
A few weeks later, Penny Sparrow took to Facebook to share her thoughts about the invasion on KwaZulu-Natal’s pristine beaches by New Year’s revellers. She had the elegance of suicide bomber as she detonated a compendium of racism, white privilege, arrogance and vulgarity. Sparrow probably assumed her rant would attract a round of “likes” from her circle of Facebook friends, affirming her revulsion for what she called “black on black skins”. Instead it provoked a surge of racist incidents and introspection of the ugly reality of racial inequality and prejudice in our society.
Perhaps we owe some gratitude to Sparrow for pulling away the fig leaf to expose the true state of dissonance in our nation and stopping the constant denialism about our problems. There was denial about our Aids crisis, the crime rate, that xenophobic violence was what it was, that corruption has infested into the fibre of the state, that state institutions are abused for political purposes and that the pace of transformation is too slow. Thanks to Penny Sparrow and her fellow travellers, the prevalence of racism in our society can no longer be denied.
It is easy to blame Zuma and Sparrow for our problems. They are obvious mascots for our economic and social decline, turning wilful sabotage into an Olympic sport. But what do the rest of us do as our nation continues the downward spiral? Are we content with washing our hands of culpability or exhibit our activism through hashtag revolutions on social media?
The truth is our country is being sabotaged, every day, in so many ways.
From the wastage of water and electricity when both are in short supply, to bad driving habits that result in thousands of people dying on the roads, to abuse of the environment and general disrespect for human rights and dignity, our country is an unhappy place. It is becoming less attractive to live and visit here despite the fact that we enjoy relative stability compared to other parts of the world, have an abundance of natural beauty, and our tanking currency makes South Africa an attractive tourist destination.
For months now, a tussle has ensued between the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Tourism about whether onerous visa regulations had negatively affected travel and tourism to South Africa. Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba and his officials insisted the regulations were not negotiable and were necessary to preserve the security of the state and to curb child trafficking.
Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom reacted to the pushback from the industry and fought against the regulations. In October, Cabinet announced that the inter-ministerial committee on the immigration regulations accepted that there were “unintended consequences” and made several concessions to ease them. This includes inbound travellers accompanied by minor children no longer being required to produce unabridged birth certificates and changes to the regulations requiring visitors to apply for visas in person.
But a 7.6% increase in foreign arrivals over the festive season has been used by Gigaba’s department to justify the stringent regulations, despite Cabinet pronouncing otherwise.
Over the weekend, Home Affairs spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete tweeted: “The only unintended consequence of visa regulations was an increase in tourism.” This appeared to be directly challenging the Cabinet resolution. Hanekom responded on Twitter calling Tshwete’s tweet “unacceptable” and said he would take the matter up with Gigaba and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who chairs the inter-ministerial committee.
While the carping continues, the amendments to the visa regulations have not yet been implemented. Surely the priority should be to boost tourism figures even higher to help the ailing economy, not to be smug about a marginal increase in visitor numbers from some overseas markets?
The other question is how do we treat tourists who are here.
The day after Christmas, I was sitting at the top of Signal Hill in Cape Town, enjoying a panoramic view of the city and watching paragliders take off and soar over Sea Point. The place was teeming with visitors from all over the country and the world, taking selfies or waiting excitedly for their turn to go on a tandem ride off the hillside. For several hours my mother and I watched the paragliding companies doing a roaring trade, the ice-cream man making a killing and tourists taking pictures of themselves against the spectacular backdrop of Table Mountain and the seascape below. It was heart-warming to see so many happy people loving South Africa.
Suddenly people started racing to their cars and driving off. The metro police had arrived and had fined almost every car parked on the road and in the parking area. My car in the designated parking area had fine on the window for R1,000 for “causing an obstruction”.
When I tried to enquire what the ticket was for, the officer pretended not to hear me. Another officer said they were sent to ticket everybody so they were just following orders. When I asked what was obstruction I had caused, he looked at where my car was parked and said it was wrongly issued. The ticket should have stated that I was parked in a non-designated area, he said. The absence of no-parking signs had nothing to do with him, apparently.
When I asked whether they realised they had chased away dozens of tourists from a prime tourist spot on Boxing Day, they said they didn’t care. The officer who had initially refused to speak said the tourists should have parked at the bottom of the hill and walked up.
What happens to people who are elderly or with small children? How would they know to do that in the first place? Why do we make people’s lives difficult?
I intend challenging the ticket because I can. How would foreign travellers do so? It is not that we should allow tourists to get away with illegality but how would they know they are committing an infringement when there is nothing to indicate this?
This is, of course, one bad incident. But every time we subject someone to poor service, behave badly on the roads, take things that do not belong to us, are insensitive to other people’s troubles, litter the streets, engage in drunken brawls, insult people for being different or disrespect someone, we make our country a little worse.
And why do we insist in treating people coming to visit this beautiful country as, first and foremost, potential criminals and not welcome guests? Why do we have to be so negative? Why did the metro police feel the need to ticket mostly tourists whose cars were parked on a dead-end road, not bothering anyone, and doing what people do all over the world over the holidays: have fun, enjoy the fact that they are in an insanely beautiful place and hope to return many times in future, helping create sustainable jobs in the process?
Why are we a country that repeatedly tries to, and mercifully missed so far, hit the self-destruct button? Perhaps one day soon, we might just succeed.
South Africa is not Jacob Zuma or Penny Sparrow’s to make or break.
We all have a little share in this place and therefore have to take responsibility for its success or failure. Patriotism cannot be activated only when our sporting teams do well. It is about making our home a little more bearable for ourselves and for those who come here.
It is about realising that hitting the self-destruct button is a terrible idea. DM
Photo: Cape Town’s Lion Head and the rainbow. (Daily Maverick)