South Africans just wanna have fun (and fix the country)
The problem is not the people; there is no shortage of skills, imagination, energy. We can turn homophobia and HIV into an opera, nogal. We have all the parts and people, the ideas and institutions, to build a fair and just country. We just don’t know how to make them work together.
This weekend I had the privilege of participating in two events that showed South Africa at its best.
On Friday it was the premiere of Nkoli: The Vogue-Opera at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. This is an opera written by globally respected South African composer Philip Miller about the life and coming out(s) of freedom fighter and queer activist Simon Nkoli, who died of Aids in 1998. It was developed by a team of dancers, dreamers, choreographers, archivists and activists (from then and now). By opening night the opera was a blaze of innovation, colour, music and dance, with a political theme.
Imagine! The opera, a musical form most associated with whiteness, heterosexual love and Europe, subverted to be sung and danced by a predominantly black cast, waving placards of Angela Davis and Steve Biko, all camped up, with the compère wearing a top hat adorned with dildos.
A recipe for revolution, but performed with a joie de vivre as if it was about the most normal things in the world, which it was – striving for freedom, love, self-expression.
But kaleidoscope aside, the performance was full of joy, a celebration of life, diversity, difference; laughing in the face of the enemy, a hymn to the ability of humans to come together in the face of repression and adversity and forge a better future.
The power of Simon is that his legacy is with us today, evident in the treasured equality clause in our Constitution which forbids unfair discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation (and at least 16 other grounds):
“3. Everyone is equal…. The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.”
A couple of days later it was the Virgin Active 947 Ride Joburg cycle tour, which attracted more than 13,000 riders to its 97km course, starting and finishing at Soccer City in Soweto, following a route from the poverty of Noordgesig to the riches of Kyalami, with views to die for of the Joburg cityscape.
A day to take over the streets.
A day to think about the disparities and inequalities of the city.
What was striking again was the race’s growing diversity and the feat of its organisation. People helping each other, marvelling at each other, all shapes, ages, colours, sizes, genders, abilities and disabilities… a feat of organisation and collaboration.
Most people in South Africa prefer to revel in each other rather than to fear each other. They desire equality and social justice.
Declaring Joburg “the city of Ubuntu, the city of flair, the city of community”, this year the race allowed each rider to state on their race bibs what or who they were riding for: The I’m Riding Joburg For – Ride Joburg. It made for interesting and moving reading. Mine said Peace.
Joburg City Council, it seems, can get its act together, sometimes.
Finding joy in social justice
To be a just community or not to be a just community… that is the question.
What is it that makes complex events like these succeed, when South Africa fails at “mundane” matters like delivering on fundamental human rights: Sufficient water supply, ensuring access to housing and food, protecting children, guarding the safety of our streets?
In some ways we asked the same searching question a few weeks ago, when contemplating the formula to the success of the Springboks’ 2023 World Cup rugby campaign, and the public response it evoked.
I think I know, because I saw it in people’s eyes and felt it.
With a few exceptions, most people in South Africa just wanna have fun. They enjoy community. They prefer to revel in each other rather than to fear each other. They desire equality and social justice. They want to overcome historic divisions. They love our land and its cultures.
These are the things that give people energy, fire their imagination. Saying this is not to underestimate the structural problems, the corruption, the existence of elites who profit from inequality, the banks that fleece us. And so on. But, it is to say that without catalysing and harnessing joy and compassion we will never mobilise people at the scale and with the common purpose we need to bring about change.
The question is whether we can tap into this energy to address South Africa’s many and deepening social challenges, before they tip us over the edge. And how?
I ask this question in all seriousness, because it points to the fact that what mobilises and involves people in society is not shallow political rhetoric, faux outrage, and fear-mongering. That, ladies and gentleman, is one of the reasons millions of people don’t want to vote.
The problem is not the people; there is no shortage of skills, imagination, energy. We can turn homophobia and HIV into an opera, nogal.
We have all the parts and people, the ideas and institutions, to build a fair and just country. We just don’t know how to make them work together. Instead, the problem is the people who hold people apart and profit from their division, their often self-appointed guardians and gatekeepers (yes, you).
These events, and others like the Parkrun that gets 30,000 South African all-sorts into our parks every week, show that people can build a better life, if and when we are offered an inclusive vision and the possibility of having some fun and joy on the journey.
At the beginning of the season of political parties vying for our votes in 2024, coming once more with all the tired old rhetoric, snake oil and solutions that are never solutions, this is something those who genuinely want to build a country based on equality and social justice, a country where we can all have fun, should think deeply about. DM