South Africa Journal: The Dignity of Difference

If the United States is a melting pot, South Africa is a potpie kos–a stew of different ingredients that never quite lose their distinctiveness, even while blending together in the same dish. For a variety of reasons–some good, some bad–South Africans are used to cultural differences, and are less troubled by them than Americans seem to be. It might seem ironic, given the country’s apartheid past, but South Africans excel at tolerance.

An example. Twice in as many days on this visit, I have heard requests on a local pop music radio station go out in honor of listeners whose friends wished them “all the blessings of Allah.” Not only is that kind of thing rare in the western world, where Muslims would be less likely to use distinctly religious blessings in a pop forum, but it is probably unheard of in the Islamic world as well, where pop music is typically frowned upon.

I can think of countless similar examples from my time living here–the Muslim imam with strong Palestinian sympathies who knew the words to the Hebrew song “Shalom, chaverim” because he had heard it at a Christian Sunday school he frequented as a child; the Boers who speak African tongues with the fluency and passion of a first language; the many crossover artists that continue to sustain a vibrant and provocative music scene.

Of course, tolerance has its limits. The country is tired of the antics of President Jacob Zuma, whose polygamy is legendary and who is spending some $20 million of public funds on upgrades to his Zulu traditional-style rural homestead. The spate of injuries and deaths that accompany annual circumcision rituals among Xhosa youth have prompted efforts at greater regulation and calls to update the traditional rite of passage.

Yet there is something effortless and wonderful about South Africa’s embrace of the “other,” which includes a tolerance of public expressions of faith, which the U.S. has abandoned over the past several decades. The edifice of apartheid was constructed on false projections of such difference into a separatist ideology. Post-apartheid South Africa has not reacted by rejecting differences, but embracing them as part of a larger national whole.