We live in 'interesting times,' but have much to celebrate

My good friend Kanthan Pillay likes to quote Samuel Johnson who said that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. I agree with Pillay and Johnson, but only slightly.

I believe that there is true patriotism and then there is patriotism that is often an excuse for something else, such as hiding the faults in society.

I have never been ashamed to declare myself a patriot, but I have never believed in being blind to the problems that exist in South Africa.

I suppose it is how one defines patriotism. For instance, I am extremely loyal to our beautiful country. I believe that we live in one of the most amazing countries in the world and that we have some of the warmest people that one can find anywhere.

As we prepare to commemorate Human Rights Day on Monday, we have to admit that we have many faults and, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, many of our problems can be traced back to 300 years of colonialism and 50 years of apartheid.

It will probably take almost as long for us to sort out many of the problems that have been created in the past 350 years or so.

It is difficult to understand how some people can wish away the problems created by apartheid when it is still surrounding us on a daily basis.

The homelands might not exist anymore but we still have migrant workers today because there is no work in what used to be homelands which have, for all intents and purposes, become provinces in democratic South Africa. But unemployment in general remains a major problem.

Our education system is still skewed and our housing crisis has not even been mildly addressed in the past 22 years of democracy. Even our justice system still has many flaws that need to be ironed out. Our crime situation is still out of hand and needs drastic action. It remains one of the biggest problems that we face as a society.

Despite all these problems, there is no other country in the world where I would rather live.

I believe the Chinese have a curse that says something like “may you live in interesting times” and one can argue that we are never short on interesting times in South Africa.

Sometimes South Africans can be our biggest critics. There are many South Africans, especially those who have left the country, who feel vindicated when things go wrong. Whenever they read a story about someone being murdered, they appear to silently rejoice because it proves their theory that South Africa is going to the dogs.

But South Africa is far from going to the dogs. If some people looked beyond their hatred of certain public figures, then they would see a large number of people, both in the public and private sector, working tirelessly to improve conditions for the majority of South Africans. Unfortunately, the efforts of these people are never celebrated.

In my book, patriotism has never meant blind loyalty to the government of the day or the ruling party and its leadership. Patriotism for me has always meant being loyal to the people and the Constitution of our country.

This column was inspired by a recent Facebook post by my friend and neighbour, Kashif Wicomb, who questioned why South Africans could not be as patriotic as Americans always appear to be. I followed the subsequent discussion with interest because it is something that I have also always thought about.

Americans can be blindly patriotic, despite their political differences. It is not only Republicans who proudly display the American flag at their homes, but also Democrats.

A few years ago I visited one of my best friends, Buck Belmore, who lives in Las Vegas. Buck’s daughter Sarah was graduating at the time so we attended the graduation. After the academic procession entered the hall, we were all asked to stand and pledge allegiance to the United States of America. Everyone put their hands on their hearts and loudly recited the American pledge of allegiance.

I thought at the time that we needed something like that to bring South Africans together despite our perceived differences. But a pledge in South Africa’s volatile political climate might not work, because it would be dismissed by the opposition as an attempt by the ruling party to force people to become loyal.

The closest we have come to patriotism was when we hosted major sporting events like the Soccer World Cup, the Rugby World Cup or the African Cup of Nations. But we need to find a way of developing patriotism when there is no hype, when South Africans are merely going on with their jobs and building a better society.

South Africans should not feel ashamed to be patriotic. We have a lot to celebrate as a country and we should celebrate it. But at the same time we should continue to try and deal with the many issues still bedevilling our society.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed Column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 19 March 2016)