In the memory of Nelson Mandela: notes about a journey in South Africa

by Mariana Thieriot-Loisel | december 2013

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Recently, during my journey in South African in March 2009, I discovered a book written by a very interesting journalist and photographer from Poland, who travelled all over the world, and particularly in Africa: Ryszard Kapuscinski. I bought the book in Cape Town and read it once while returning from Africa, and I warmly recommend it: The Other (Verso, London New York, 2008). I learnt that the author died quite recently, in 2007, and that this book was his last; it was translated after his death in 2008. I also read that a major part of his work was still in the process of being translated.

In his book, Kapuscinsky quotes very often the anthropologist Malinowsky and the philosopher Levinas. He speaks of the necessity of developing an anthropological view in journalism, and has a very interesting understanding of the concept of “the other”, and what he calls «My other». According to him:              

«At this point of a period of accelerated, increased migration had set in, when millions and millions of people moved to the cities, and that main stay of tradition, the village, was depopulated  as its people was decimated by famine, civil war, droughts and epidemics. The person we meet and get to known the big cities of the third world is already another Other-the product of an urban, hybrid culture, that is hard to define, the descendant of various contradictory worlds, a composite creature of fluid, impermanent contours and features. Nowadays is exactly this kind of other we are usually dealing with» (p.33).

Similar to the author, I too discovered, with the help of our tourist guide, the existence of the large Capetownian Township where about 2 million people are living; they seemed to me nearer and similar to the favelas of Sao Paulo, the township resembling the place where I taught for several years in a University located in the suburbs.  Those zones of poverty and despair near the urban centers are venues of violence, drugs market, corruption, and they are now a global phenomenon, which according to the author, tends to develop itself and spread all over. He describes « The archipelagos of all sorts of ghettos and camps spread about our planet » (p.74) He also noticed as I did, observing the commercial relationship between the Chinese and South Africans that “a new other has been born”: a non-European who is “other” in relation to another non-European. According to his observation, such relationships and exchanges are developing between people from Africa and Asia for example, or between people from Pacific Islands and the Caribbean. Trying to fully participate in the international dialogue and the world economic future, the author notes that:

«The stranger, the other in his third world incarnation (and so the most numerous individual in our planet) is still treated as the object of research, but has not yet become our partner, jointly responsible for the fate of the planet on which we live» (p.61).

Explaining to us his desire for an anthropological interpretation of our world, he observes the important role played by the “masses”. Thus, there is a mass culture and a mass hysteria, mass tastes (or rather lack of taste) and mass paranoia, mass enslavement and finally mass murder. The only hero on the world stage is the crowd, this mass, with its anonymity, its impersonality, lack of identity, lack of face. The individual is lost in the crowd, the mass had engulfed him, and the waters of the lake have closed over him. To use Gabriel Marcel’s term, he has become «the nameless anonymous person in a fragmentary state»

Returning to Canada after a 28-hour journey during which my husband and I had an uninterrupted flight of 20 hours and waited on 3 crowded airports, with a long stop in Holland. And I said to myself that this world has really nothing to do with a global village. I was simultaneously impacted by the amazing beauty of South Africa, and the crisis that is shaking the African continent, with the disappearance of the tribes’ habitat and the end of the “village” era and this new form of slavery in the poverty zones of the big cities and in its modern factories.

Malinowsky’s problem was how to get close to the other if he is not a purely abstract creature, but a specific person, belonging to a different race, with his own beliefs and values that are different from ours, his own culture and customs. According to the author: «culture is becoming increasingly hybrid and heterogeneous» (p. 89). With regard to the expression “the global village” that he considers, as I do, as one of the greatest mistakes of modern culture, he comments:

«the essence of a village depends  on the fact that its inhabitants know each other well, commune with each other and share a common fate. Meanwhile nothing of this kind can be said of our planet»…

In this sense « we are all in the same boat. Every one of us living on this planet is an Other in the view of Others » (p.86)

My last impression of South Africa is that in order to understand a culture as Malinovsky says, you have to be there.  And I was not there long enough. There are at least 6 languages spoken in South Africa, many tribes, different kinds of apartheid which is in fact a very ancient and European phenomenon, and as Nelson Mandela beautifully wrote: it is a “long walk for freedom”. I was fascinated by this country, I miss South Africa somehow, as if a treasure was hidden there, that I wasn’t able to find in the very heart of the people with whom we shared some time of our life, even if only for a few days.

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