South Africa Journal: Extraordinary Generosity

As a corollary to my earlier post about crime in South Africa, it is only proper to point out another element of the South African national character that coexists, both tragically and ironically, alongside this society’s more violent tendencies: extraordinary generosity. South Africans of all backgrounds are capable of the most striking acts of selflessness–and perhaps it is that trait that helped the country move through its difficult transition.

An anecdote: yesterday, we found that someone had accidentally taken one of our suitcases, leaving behind their own identical suitcase. The same thing had happened to us once in Chicago, so we did not panic but began making plans to buy necessities for the day or two we expected it would take for us to recover our belongings. It took mere hours: the owner drove across town with the suitcase–and a cold bottle of sparkling wine besides. 

There is a decency in ordinary social interactions–a gentle, regulated politeness, a sense of ritual and propriety–in South Africa, some of which is undoubtedly British, but much of which has roots in indigoes traditions also. The great mystery about South Africa is how such sweetness persists in the face of so much bitterness and fear. Sometimes they co-exist in the same people–which is true of other societies, but seems particularly acute here.