Aug 12, 2011

This is the end

I have just left my village forever. It's been a great time, and an extremely valuable experience, but quite frankly I am sick to my back teeth of South Africa and cannot wait to get quit of the place.  Don't get me wrong, the country has a lot going for it, especially if you take a few steps back and look at the larger picture.  The government is stable, and the political situation, which looked only a few years ago to be heading down a Mexico-style single party state road, is improving.  Macroeconomic management has been head and shoulders above most countries in the developed world, especially the United States.  There is a strong national identity, and very little of the tribal conflict that characterizes many other African countries.

But the average, day to day existence quite often grinds at the soul. South Africa has a concept called "Ubuntu," roughly translated as "a person is a person because of people," similar to other brotherhood-of-mankind philosophies the world over.  It plays almost no role in everyday life.  Interactions with random people—in a queue, going to a restaurant, at the checkout counter, walking around the street—are often characterized by grievance, entitlement, greed, selfishness, and racism.  Even among friends and family, an attitude of naked reptilian calculation—what can I get out of this person?—is not uncommon.

Race is the squat and ugly troll in the collective unconscious, ready to poison any interaction.  I am sick of being called baas, of watching Afrikaners' attitude going from warm politeness to glacial irritation in a heartbeat depending on who is talking, of people making ten thousand incorrect assumptions based on how I look.  I want to blend in again.  US-style political correctness, for all its many annoyances, does have much to recommend it.  Even Rush Limbaugh has to disguise his prejudice in dogwhistles—he's not out on the street somewhere drunkenly ranting about the fokken kaffirs.

Though most volunteers I know here agree about the public culture here, my disgust with South Africa is markedly worse than most.  Like any place with a coarse and impolite public culture (New York City, for example), it is necessary to build strong networks of friends to defend yourself from galloping cynicism.  I did not manage this, which was partly my fault and partly Peace Corps' fault. Officials here put me in a stupendously inappropriate host family, alternately either empty or full of reeling drunks.  My usual instinct is to grit my teeth and bear it, and besides, it wasn't my family's fault.  They aren't bad people.  I wasn't unsafe.  To go to another village, though it probably would have been wise, would have been a sharp insult I wasn't willing to deliver.

Visiting other countries like Botswana and Zambia I was struck by the far friendlier public culture and the sunny positivity of Peace Corps volunteers and officials there,  It's obvious where this difference comes from: Apartheid.  The fairy tale of New South Africa, of Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, of sanctions and divestment and April 27th 1994, while near-miraculous in many respects, can obscure the fact the Apartheid did terrible and lasting damage to the South African psyche.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote, "...having a boot on your neck, while deeply tragic, is not an ennobling experience."


  1. Wow, Ryan. Explains a lot, I think, about how I feel about leaving and about my stay here. I am conflicted, I am supposed to feel the "do good PCV experience thing", but I don't. I am supposed to feel somewhat attached to my village experience, but I don't. I actually feel a little empty, not satisfied, definitely not righteous. Thanks goodness for your articulate thoughts. B

  2. Great post. You are frequently able to capture the essence of things in a succinct, yet thorough way unlike anyone else I know. Aah, SA...