A young, black South African cashier took a second glance at my unusual looking Southwest Airline Visa card. We struck up a conversation with me informing her that I once lived in Johannesburg and had returned for a two-week holiday. With a tired and bewildered look she sighed, answering an unasked question, “The only good thing about South Africa is the weather!” For sure, it promised to be a sunny Highveld day with a temperature near 70F, yet given my past overwhelmingly positive experience of the rainbow nation’s peoples I queried, “Only the weather? What about the people?” She deeply gave thought to my question before again despondently responding, “No, only the weather.”
A country of 53 million, almost twice the size of my home state of Texas, South Africa is a nation grappling not only to come to peaceful resolution of the residual yet resistant-to-change affects of apartheid, but also to lessen an eon’s old pandemic of violent crime, while simultaneously struggling with the challenges of the rapid onset of a 1980s infectious and second national pandemic—HIV/AIDS.
South Africa’s 2013/14 statistics reflect a sobering daily reported human suffering tally from violent crime: 180 sexual assaults, 50 murders and equal number attempted murders, and 510 assaults with the intent to inflict grievously bodily harm. It was easy, then, for me to be sympathetic to a young woman’s national dismay—particularly when it’s all too statistically likely that she, herself, spoke as either violent crime or AIDS victim. During my family’s 15 year South Africa residence, we had direct and indirect personal linkage with about 15 to 20 murders, and 40 to 60 assaults.
In terms of daily human suffering from HIV/AIDS, if memory serves me even marginally well, I recall the daily infection / death rate to have been in the region of 1500/1000 as of mid-2010.
It’s no secret that those who suffer most by violent crime and AIDS in South Africa are its majority black populace, who, contrary to a too common, wrongful, and high (often “Christian”) moralist, largely Western mindset see AIDS as divine retribution for gross sexual improprieties—or, as I’ve regrettably heard on more than one occasion, “Africans failure to ‘condomize.’” Egg on mostly white faces, however, because HIV/AIDS was an import to South Africa – mostly likely from two (white) homosexual South African Airway stewards, who contracted the disease during a trip to the United States’ West Coast (see Shattered Dreams? An Oral History of the South African AIDS Epidemic, by Gerald Oppenheimer and Ronald Bayer).
To be fair – and more hopeful – during my two weeks in-country I went on to hear more upbeat and hopeful remarks about South Africa’s present and its future, from mostly young adult South Africans, who either idealistically spoke of being part of a national effort to build a new democratic South Africa, or energized by the economic prospect of easy and abundant profit for those with access to cash and credit.
Since my brief exchange with the cashier four weeks ago, her bleak perspective has provoked me to ask myself, “What, if anything, is different or good about my own United States of America?”
It’s a more difficult question than you might imagine because I’m a so-called Third Culture Kid, who grew up, then worked in Africa, yet a U.S. citizen as well. Of my own admission I’m bicultural, “African-American.” Although my birth certificate and passport are stamped with the U.S. official seal, my worldview is decidedly and preferentially African – especially Africa’s underlying ethos of Ubuntu, in which persons, communities and relationships are of far more importance than individualism and consumerism.
It’s a difficult question, too, because like The New York Times contributing op-ed writer, Arthur C Brooks, in his recent piece “We Need Optimists,” I’m more realist than optimist, which makes me an optirealist, I suppose. I know you’re thinking, “There’s no such thing as a realist, only optimists and pessimists,” but I disagree. A pessimist singularly perceives negative.
I recall the humorous story of two hunters (remember: I’m from a gun loving culture). The optimist owned a retriever dog, which he was sure would be able to win over his pessimist friend. The three were sitting camouflaged and crouched among the dense lakeside reeds when some ducks flew by. The friends rose up, shot, and watched a duck fall. The optimist could hardly contain his excitement when he instructed his dog to “fetch.” The dog dove into the lake, but incredibly, instead of swimming out to the bird, she walked on top of the water, gently retrieving the bird. After a moment or two, the pessimist exclaimed, “I see your dog doesn’t know how to swim!”
As to the at times unreal, unhelpful positivism of an optimist . . . well, let me share Brooks’ opening paragraph, which makes light of those who share in common optimistic spouses: “My wife, Ester, and I had just endured a difficult parent-teacher conference for one of our teenage children. It was a grades issue. The ride home was tense, until Ester broke the silence. ‘Think of it this way,’ she said, ‘At least we know he’s not cheating.’”
I’m near overwhelmed at times by what Brooks describes as the United States’ “environment of competing pessimisms” or “competing pessimists.”
Pessimists are distinguished by their negative view of people. People are liabilities to be managed and controlled, burdens and threats to be minimized. Pessimists utilize fear and anger to solicit and arouse support.
A positive, more optimistic perspective and vision is politically less appealing. Presidential hopeful, Donald Trump, is the quintessential model of dour politics’ mass appeal with a sour mood public, as is FOX News.
As Brooks persuasively argues, however, as a nation we are and will pay “a steep price for our politicians’ choosing the dark side,” which, ironically, is a missed strategic advantage for competing candidates. Why? Optimism is not only a highly esteemed character disposition—a proven core trait of successful executives—but also an outlook associated with some of our nation’s most popular presidents, e.g., Reagan and Clinton.
Optimism requires hard work to be effective. That is to say, leaders, especially, must be willing to risk becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. For example, “A positive vision requires the hard work of winning over new friends, which means going where politicians have not been invited, and enduring less-than-adoring crowds.” That is a much more demanding and riskier task than merely regurgitating (sorry for this distasteful yet apt analogy) calloused and hardline perspectives, which one’s followers already hold to anyway.
I regret that I could not convince the cashier that South Africa’s greatest strength and asset is its people in all their diversity—not its weather.
I believe, like Brooks, that people the world over are grappling with a “growing mainstream depression” about their respective nations’ futures, yet simultaneously hoping that public leadership would turn from their competing pessimisms to “a true competition of optimistic visions for a better future.”
In other words, stop telling us what and whom you’re against. Instead compete for the prize of most compelling (transformative) narrative—which, contrary to politicians’ over-inflated egos, will rely not on their singular ability to affect change, but on a belief in and reliance on the goodness, potential and resiliency of each nation’s citizenry.
Politicians the world over should take a queue from teachers, my postgraduate mentor included, who began each new university-level class by standing in front of his students, sweeping the room with his eyes, pausing to catch each person’s gaze, raising both hands in the air, passionately and with zero degree uncertainty declaring the following in a rich South African accent:
“Class, you are not merely human beings . . . You are human becomings!”
It’s what Adam Saenz spoke autobiographically of to returning-to-school teachers in “From Jail to Harvard: Why Teachers Change the World”:
“In a few days you’ll stand in front of a group of students and I can almost guarantee that there will be at least one ‘Adam Saenz’ there, a kid who has potential and doesn’t know it, a soul who could change the world a little bit if they could only get the right instruction and encouragement to lift them out of their false sense of who they believe themselves to be.”
Amidst our own national gloomy environment, let’s individually and collectively commit to support whichever candidate(s) proffers the most tangible, transformative, optimistic and inclusive of national narratives—narratives of what we can individually and as a nation become.