Just over two decades ago my family landed in South Africa, just in time to witness the tail end of Apartheid. As we took root here, so did democracy. But now, the same challenges that threaten to uproot democracy are shaking the foundations we built here as people.
Sometimes I imagine my family as the parachute-like seeds of a dandelion flower, snatched up by the winds of change in Russia, blown across the Mediterranean Sea and down the African continent, landing in South Africa in December 1991.
My parents, the two bravest human beings I know, decided they wanted a new life. They wanted to give my sister and me a new beginning. They didn’t know where they would end up, but they knew they needed to leave.
My mother was born in Omsk, the frozen Siberian city where Fyodor Dostoyevsky spent several miserable years. My father grew up in an industrial town on the outskirts of Moscow, living in a glorified commune where families shared a small kitchen and toilets. They met while studying in the capital, where they sculpted their careers and started our family.
Despite the suffocating grip of communism – a political and social experiment which brought untold horrors to the Soviet Union – my parents kept their minds wide open. They took us to art galleries and forced us to sit through ballets, introduced us to authors and musicians who were banned by the government and taught us, in their own way, to see through state propaganda and brainless nationalism. They taught us not be hypnotised by a flag.
When the iron walls around the Soviet Union fell, my parents packed our bags. They took a massive gamble, denouncing their citizenship and heading for unknown lands. When they looked out of the window of the airplane as it descended over Johannesburg, they were seeing South Africa for the very first time. They had no relatives or friends here, no jobs and could barely speak English. They were adventurers on their grandest and most terrifying adventure.
My parents sacrificed a great deal. They survived a gruelling immigration. They clawed their way up from a tiny flat on the 18th floor of a Hillbrow high riser to a middle-class life on the West Rand. One of the prizes they won was seeing my sister and me make unrestricted choices about our lives.
My sister became an amazing artist, living mostly off the grid and getting stuck into various forms of activism. She covered her skin in tattoos, dyed her hair an electric red and found new ways to express herself. She never joined a punk band, but I’m pretty sure that had she still been living in Russia, she would face a very real danger of being harassed for some of her work and opinions, along with the kind of information she disseminates. Here, in South Africa, she is free to explore her creativity and consciousness, from illustrating anarchist newspapers to feeding the poor in her local park.
A few years behind her, I finished my schooling in Johannesburg, oblivious to the violence which engulfed the country in the early 1990s. I was too young to be politically awake, and was far too preoccupied by carving my name into school desks or hanging out at the local shopping mall. Later, I stumbled into journalism, which proved to be a fountain of meaning and purpose. My parents had passed on the adventure gene to me, so media was a natural fit. I also had a lifelong passion for writing and a growing love of literature. In journalism, I found a way to blend all of these life components into a paying day job. Luckily, I had also managed to escape the brutal Russian army.
Because of the immigration, I found myself in a privileged position as a reporter. Since my parents had to give up their Russian citizenships, I was completely invested in South Africa. It is my home. My ID book shows my nationality as South African. But I was also removed from the past, having arrived in 1991, as the Apartheid monster bled out.
I learned about the country’s painful history both through literature and through my work. My assignments took me to Alexandra, Diepsloot, Zandspruit, Kya Sands and Soweto. I also worked in Sandton, Hyde Park and Sandhurst.
I would interview the first African in space the one day and would then find myself in a mining hostel, reporting on how a 76-year-old man (mistaken for a foreigner) was dragged out of his room and beaten to death with steel pipes during the xenophobic mayhem of 2008. I covered elections, trials, protests, disasters and corruption scandals. I investigated senior politicians and was called a “troublemaker”.
Being a journalist in South Africa proved to be like riding a fierce rollercoaster which never stops. It rockets you to great heights, showing you the beauty of a country which delivered the closest to a miracle an atheist like me will ever experience… and then plummets you to the depth of despair. I will never forget the feeling of watching how the Marikana miners were mowed down. I will always remember how angry I got when blind busker Goodman Nono was beaten and dragged away by the police. I recall the frustration of watching my lights go out when Eskom was forced to load shed the nation. And most recently, I can still feel the fury swirling in my chest when I listened to Jacob Zuma’s security cluster try to explain away how a quarter of a billion rand was spent on his private “township”. (Do any of us actually comprehend how much R250-million is for a single individual?)
The feeling of riding a rollercoaster comes from a deep love for this land. It’s like a fiery romance where emotions are amplified. I remember how, coming off a long shift during which we broke news of Nelson Mandela’s death, I wept in my car and couldn’t fight the tears at a Spar supermarket, which had placed a small photograph of Madiba at the front door. Mandela was, and remains, a symbol of this country’s magnificence.
As I continued to report on South Africa, I also began laying down roots. I got married, bought a house and welcomed my son into the world. I pay taxes, create employment (in my own tiny way) and cast my vote. I am a part of this democracy and economy.
To better understand the world around me, and how South Africa fits into it, I travelled as much as I could. From China to America, from Qatar to Canada, from Libya to Haiti. Some of the things I witnessed will haunt me forever, others will inspire me for the rest of my life.
For all these reasons – from everything I have experienced and reported on – seeing even the slightest wound to South Africa’s democracy is a painful, personal and emotional experience. Unfortunately, despite the amazing gains of the past twenty years, I have had to watch many new wounds being inflicted by President Zuma and his administration.
I keep thinking about the sacrifices my parents made to bring me to a country where the media is remarkably free, at least for now. In Russia, journalists like Anna Politkovskaya are assassinated for challenging the state. Others are hurled in prison. There is widespread censorship and the propaganda – around Ukraine, for example – infests even educated minds. In countries closer to home, journalists and editors are currently in prison for doing their work.
In South Africa, there are now reports of an “Information Ministry” and the shadow of the “Secrecy Bill” hangs over us. These will prove to be deep cuts if they come to pass. And there is so much at stake…
Politically, the South Africans are preparing to line up again on 7 May to elect their leaders democratically for the next five years. Our democracy is far from perfect, but it exists, protected by the most wonderful constitution in the world.
The wind that blows now is not of change, at least not this time around, but of poor governance, corruption, a lack of accountability and ever-increasing state secrecy. It’s important for us all to stand against this wind. DM
Dubbed a "troublemaker" for his investigative work, Alex Eliseev is also an award-winning hard news journalist who has reported from Haiti, Japan and Libya. Currently an Eyewitness News reporter, he's worked for South Africa's top newspapers, including The Star and Sunday Times. To quench the thirst of his soul, he writes human-interest features. He also collects shirts with birds on them.
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle