The whippet-thin guy in a tight wife-beater and gold platform sneakers gasped dramatically and went limp in the stocky denim-shirted arms. As he was gripped tighter he stared down mournfully at the boarding pass in his partner’s hand, and let out a loud sob.
There they were outside the coffee shop in Terminal A; lovers in the anguished final moments before separation. One young and black, the other white and in his late 50s.
The man in the denims whispered softly and began kissing the platinum dyed head buried in his chest. The teardrops rained down. Nobody stared. Nobody averted their eyes.
They could have been any other lovers at any other airport in any other country in the world.
Except, of course, at any of the airports on the African continent.
Or in any of the 72 other countries where being gay can result in jail time or even a death sentence.
The scene outside the departure gate at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on a Tuesday evening is but one of many reminders that South Africa is an infinitely better place than it was 25 years ago.
On a continent that is a sea of hostility towards gay rights, South Africa is a beacon of equality.
Our Bill of Rights is a shield of protection for all who live in our country regardless of race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion or political affiliation.
At the end of 2018, nearly 200,000 men, women and children fleeing conflict and persecution in the lands of their birth sought refuge within our borders.
Every day, planes land at our airports, disgorging hundreds of tourists who are welcomed by the dozens of tour operators holding up painted boards in the arrivals lounge.
In 2018, around 4.5 million tourists from around the world came to the country between January and May.
Such has been the influx of tourists from countries like China (aided by a new visa regime) that you can have chow mein and steamed buns at the breakfast buffet in some of Cape Town’s leading hotels.
Chinese tourists stay an average of 15 days and spend an average of US$6,200 per trip.
Add to this that South Africa is one of the world’s booming destinations for the multibillion-dollar halaal tourism industry, attracting increasing numbers of tourists from the Middle East and Asia.
Besides the world-class shopping malls, many if not most of the tourists who visit have come to experience one of the most biodiverse countries on earth, and to see the wild animals they have only seen in books and museums back home.
Along the biodiversity wall exhibition at Naturkundemuseum in Berlin, the glassy eyes of a stuffed Quagga stare solemnly through the glass. The plaque lists the characteristics of the species and its historical range, and the word “Ausgestorben” – extinct.
Except it isn’t. This animal, which the museum cites as one of its most valuable objects, was brought back from extinction by South African scientists and conservationists nearly a decade ago.
It was also South Africa that saved the African black rhino from extinction. Despite our problems with poaching that is coincidentally on the decline, we are donating rhino and other animals to African states whose own populations have been decimated.
In 2015 lions from South Africa were re-introduced to Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, a country whose own lion population was killed off by poaching.
This country is known around the world for its conservation excellence, its commitment to human rights, its music, its art, and its successful companies.
Ask anyone who has seen the Shoprite and MTN billboards in Maputo and Lagos, and the Oryx GTL (a Sasol subsidiary) signage along the gas fields of Qatar.
Only the most hardened expat cannot feel pride to see piles of South African naartjies stacked in a Sainsbury’s in London or a bottle of Rust en Vrede on a Walmart shelf in Jacksonville.
Travel broadens the mind, so the saying goes.
And to hear of South Africa being spoken of in terms of honour is a source of great pride.
Like the hot afternoon spent in a dusty marketplace in Bamako, Mali, trying to decipher the stream of Francophone praise being heaped on us by a trader who learned we were South Africans on our way to Timbuktu.
It was South Africa, through the personal intervention of President Thabo Mbeki, that saved a centuries-old Timbuktu manuscript archive from destruction.
Or the time we were given special tea by Yasser Arafat’s aides at the Muqatta in Ramallah and asked to thank the South African people for their support of the Palestinian people over the years.
Or the time the minibus taxi driver careening through the hills of Cartagena, Colombia flashed a toothy grin, turned Ma Brr’s Vulindlela on full blast and started crooning away in “Spano-Zulu”.
A leading local journalist recently put out a call on social media asking followers what gave them reasons for hope in the current climate.
The star-crossed lovers of Terminal A gave me reason for hope.
As we struggle to look beyond the fog of pessimism, and the burdens of growing inequality, rising unemployment and political strife collectively weigh us down, it can be hard to see the good news.
It was South Africa that gave hope to the struggles of oppressed peoples everywhere when we won our freedom in 1994.
It is our army that is part of peacekeeping missions in some of the world’s most troubled regions and is saving lives from cyclones and floods in Mozambique.
It is our country whose musicians and artists are making waves internationally.
It is South Africa that, regardless of where we may stand on the issue, attracts thousands of migrants in search of a better life for themselves and their children because they see this as a land of hope and opportunity.
We have a stable democracy rooted in constitutionalism, where we hold free and fair elections, and where everyone has a voice and the right to be heard – even to stand up and chastise the President in public meetings like during the recent campaign season.
Anyone who thinks these are hardly exceptional attributes would benefit from a bit of travel – and not even too far up north.
The notion of South African “exceptionalism” has come to be derided in recent years. Some say we are “just another African country” – with all the derogatory connotations that suggests.
If being “just another African country” means we are committed to the African agenda and to deepening our ties with our neighbours through investment, culture, and other forms of exchange; if it means we aspire for African countries to be the primary destinations for the export of our goods and services, if we want most of our tourists to come from Africa, and for our citizens to travel on the continent more – then we should be proud to be called “just another African country”.
As we look back on the past 25 years, we should be justifiably critical of our shortcomings. But we should also be proud of how far we have come, and what has been achieved.
South Africa’s international reputation isn’t limited to our “Mandela miracle”. At a time when the public discourse is thick with the fog of pessimism, we could do with a bit of hope, audacious as it may seem. We are still a country to be proud of. We are still That Nation. DM
This article was edited after publication to add sourcing to the claim that the quagga was brought back from extinction.
"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer