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Happy New Year From Cape Town

January 1, 2010, 9:37 am

For me, January 1 is not only the beginning of a new year, it is when I heave a sigh of relief that the holiday season is over.

Last night, after having drifted off to sleep around 10:15, I woke up as a party at a nearby apartment was chanting “Five! Four! Three! Two! One…..Happy New Year!” I threw on a shirt and stuck my head out the window. Fireworks went off over at the V & A Waterfront and individuals lit Roman candles in the street, sending colorful balls of flame sixty feet into the air. It was about 65 degrees, clear and breezy. I thought about going home soon; about my new South African friends and how I will stay connected to them; about my rowing buddies with whom I have celebrated the last two New Year’s Days by racing in sub-freezing weather; and about the St. Anthony’s Society back in Shoreline, that puts on an outstanding fireworks display outside my bedroom window every year.

Then I went back to bed.

One of the odd things about this trip has been experiencing three holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s — in a South African mode. First of all, it is summer here, and these are all holidays which are either historically American (as in the case of Thanksgiving), or ones on which being cold and spending wads of money make them characteristically American. When it isn’t cold, certainly for Christmas, it seems Not Fair. I recall the Christmas in my extreme youth when I received a sled on a day that was 50 degrees and raining; and an even warmer New Year’s day when I was dashing around the West Village in a tux and a little red bow tie at 5 A.M. feeling like I had been transported to another planet.

Like many people (only some of whom will admit it) I don’t categorically love the holiday season: some of my favorite Christmases have been spent eating Chinese food and going to the movies in a deserted New York city scape. I come from a small family, and although I remember the excitement and fun of many of our holidays with great fondness (including the one where a small black kitten launched himself five feet in the air to steal a turkey drumstick, galloping off to consume it under the Christmas tree as we all laughed helplessly) academic life is not conducive to holiday-making. Thanksgiving? A precious six days to catch up on work, and by Sunday night you would rather eat glass than teach the last three classes and give exams that no one wants to take. Christmas Eve? The day that follows grading season, when you are finally free to do all your shopping at consumer-choked malls. New Year’s? Oh hell — here comes the American Historical Association meeting, and I haven’t even ordered my spring books yet, much less sent my paper to the comment and chair.

You know what I mean? However, this year it has occurred to me that if I only put more thought into it, I could turn this sucker around. This year, my holidays looked like this:

Thanksgiving: a day like any other day, celebrated in a beach community outside Cape Town. No one but us knew it was Thanksgiving. I happily reviewed all the Face Book status updates from my Native American friends who, for obvious reasons, aren’t fooled by the happy Pilgrim and Indian feast thing, checked “Like” on all of them, and made myself a big sandwich for dinner. The two of us watched the sun set as sea kayakers in sleek vessels raced madly around the bay; we then turned on the BBC to watch Barack Obama pardon the turkey. It occurred to me that he should have eaten the turkey and pardoned Leonard Peltier instead. That’s what Nelson Mandela would have done.

Reconciliation Day: this is a South African national holiday analogous to Thanksgiving, but one which graphically demonstrates the difference between South African nationalism and the odd melting pot nationalism that we are used to in the United States. Originally called Dingaan’s Day, December 16 commemorated the victory of the Voortrekkers over the Zulu Nation in 1837 at what became known as “Blood River.” It was the moral equivalent of celebrating the Battle of Wounded Knee as a national holiday, but the reason it is also the equivalent of Thanksgiving is that on the eve of the battle, the outnumbered (but heavily armed) Afrikaaners swore an oath to G-d that in exchange for granting them victory, they would build a church on the spot and always celebrate a day of thanksgiving. In the view of their descendants, G-d came through (so, in a more American vernacular, did Smith & Wesson.) Hence, in 1910, December 16 became known as the Day of the Vow (later Day of the Covenant), when Afrikaaner nationalists rallied the faithful — not against those people who are indigenous to Africa, who they already considered to be permanently defeated — but against their English oppressors.

I know it’s confusing, but it’s a complex country.

On December 16 1961, Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo and others founded Umkhonto weSizwe, or Spear of the Nation, the armed wing of the ANC. Subsequently, December 16 was often a day of tension and violence. While Afrikaaners dressed in kapies and rode around in ox wagons, the Afrikaaner state celebrated its hold over the majority by police beatings of random black people and tear gassing demonstrators when necessary; Africans and their allies contested apartheid by demonstrations and selected acts of terrorism planned for that day. Hence, once apartheid crumbled in 1994, the day was re-named the Day of Reconciliation, in an act deliberately aimed at quelling competitive nationalisms. Shutting the door on a bad past and moving on is something we would never do in the United States. For example, our fear of offending Italian voters and putting a dent in Hallmark Cards’ revenues prevents us from acknowledging publicly that Columbus was the first European to launch the program of slavery and decimation that was eventually extended from Hispaniola to the rest of the hemisphere.

If we were South African, we would re-name it Italian American Appreciation Day, or Encounter Day, and be done with it.

In any case, I spent Reconciliation Day at my work site, and listened to 150 black Africans from many walks of life sing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”with their fists over their hearts. It was very, very moving.

Christmas: Associated primarily with the beginning of summer and the school holiday, as far as I can tell. The South Africans where I was — in Johannesburg and the Garden Route — do not indulge in the mania for decoration that we Americans do. Gift giving did not seem to be a big deal either. I managed to purchase six pre-baked miniature minced pies from Woolworth’s (an upscale food store here, known as “Woollies” by all and sundry.) Prior to a spaghetti dinner prepared on a hot plate by yours truly, we went down to our local beach, where hundreds of African families were holding braiis (cookouts) on the beach. Drinking was heavy, but genial, and you could spot the occasional beach reveler in bathing trunks and a Santa hat.

I will be processing my experiences on this trip for some time to come, I am sure. But one of the things these very toned-down holidays made me think about is that South Africans don’t appear to associate celebration with conspicuous consumption. A holiday is pretty much a day without work, maybe an extra church service, and that’s it. Perhaps there were tree
s, presents and lavish dinners behind the high walls and electrified fences that middle and upper class people invest in here, but if so, you didn’t see these things in public. South Africa, for all the excesses that are attributed to those at the very top, is also drastically poorer than the United States, and people often deliberately refrain from displaying nice things in public lest they become a target of violent envy. I carelessly mentioned to a friend some weeks ago, struggling to articulate the difference between how each country presents its economic public face, that even kids who are poor have iPods in the US. “Then,” she inquired sincerely, “What makes them poor?” I began by saying that I live in a society where there is no felt obligation on the part of the state to feed or house anyone, or guarantee them an education or a living wage (which is why people are poor), but found that I couldn’t explain why US parents will then scrimp and save to give a child the perfect sneakers, a prom dress or a cell phone contract.

Oh well: it’s only the first day of 2010. Happy Radical New Year, dear readers!

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