South Africa & Michael Poliza

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 15.11.35My years of working side-by-side with German wildlife photographer Michael Poliza taught me much, challenging my thinking about media and technology and how we engage with them, both personally and professionally, both as creators and publishers. I collaborated with Michael and his publishers, teNeues, on a number of books – helping with image curation, project management and the text that would support his iconic imagery. This piece below is from my introduction to his book South Africa, which was published to co-incided with the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.


I am an African.
I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land.
My body has frozen in our frosts and in our latter day snows. It has thawed in the warmth of our sunshine and melted in the heat of the midday sun. The crack and the rumble of the summer thunders, lashed by startling lightning, have been a cause both of trembling and of hope.
The fragrances of nature have been as pleasant to us as the sight of the wild blooms of the citizens of the veld .…
I owe my being to the Khoi and the San …
I am formed of the migrants who left Europe …
In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East …
I am the grandchild of the warrior men and women …
I come of those who were transported from India and China …
Being part of all these people, and in the knowledge that none dare contest that assertion, I shall claim that – I am an African.
– Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, at the adoption of the country’s new constitution in May 1996.

To thunderous applause and the noise of vuvuzelas – and a certain element of surprise among Afro-pessimists – FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, opened an envelope and announced to a watching world that South Africa had been awarded the opportunity to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The year was 2004, and it was a significant one for another reason: it marked the country’s tenth year of democracy and the culmination of the peaceful transition that was widely regarded as a miracle. The greatest show on earth, the most watched event in the world, the prize of “the beautiful game” would not only take place for the first time on African soil, but a country that was a mere teenager in human terms would also play host.

This teenager would welcome the world back to its ancestral home.

Over three days towards the end of April 1994, nearly 20 million people had stood patiently in lines waiting to cast their votes in South Africa’s first truly democratic election. To the boredom of the world’s attendant press, peace prevailed and power was handed from the former whites-only National Party to the African National Congress, with Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela voted in as the new democracy’s first State President.

Mandela – or Madiba, the honorary title bestowed by elders of his clan and adopted by his billions of fans – has subsequently received more than 250 awards, most notably the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. In November 2009, the United Nations General Assembly announced that his birthday, 18 July, would be known as “Mandela Day” to mark his contribution to world freedom: after nearly three decades of imprisonment he walked free. And, from day one, Mandela preached peace, forgiveness and reconciliation to a people famous for separation and hatred, thereby fulfilling the very words he had so famously spoken at his trial 27 years previously: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Even the doubters dubbed it a miracle: the infamous apartheid – literally separateness – the system of legal racial segregation, under which the rights of the majority black inhabitants of South Africa were curtailed and minority rule was maintained by whites, was at an end. The New South Africa was born.

It is still, however, a place of ancient history. “To visit South Africa is to also connect with something deeper that resides somewhere in our ancient memory. It is to visit a place that may well have given rise to humanity as we know it,” explains Brett Hilton-Barber, author of a number of books on what is dubbed “The Cradle of Humankind”. “Some of the most critical landmarks in our evolution as a species are to be found in South Africa. There is convincing evidence that everyone on this planet is genetically linked to an ‘African Eve’, a somewhat romantic way of describing a small group of modern Homo sapiens who occupied South Africa’s coastal plains over 100,000 years ago,” he writes in Discover South Africa (Art Publishers).

“Their descendents in a successive number of migrations – known as the Out of Africa theory – gradually colonized the planet replacing the prehistoric populations they met elsewhere. Obviously any evolutionary theory is contested and this may be an over-simplification of a complicated story, but what is not disputed is that the San – or Bushmen – who were South Africa’s first inhabitants, have the oldest genes and the earliest recorded language on earth. In this respect to visit South Africa is to reconnect with one’s earliest ancestors. At a genetic level, we all may be originally South African.”

While “Mrs Ples”, the name given to the ancient fossil Australopithecus africanus found at the Cradle of Humankind UNESCO Heritage Site near Johannesburg, lived in South Africa about 2.3 million years ago, the bulk of present-day South Africans’ ancestors arrived more recently. From white, black and the array of rich shades in-between, was forged the “Rainbow Nation”, a term coined by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu to describe post-apartheid South Africa. In his first weeks as President, Mandela elaborated on this phrase, explaining: “Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Archbishop Tutu’s term very quickly became a metaphor for the drawing together of so many people, groups and the unity developing in a place of multiculturalism – and that, ironically, in a place previously symbolized by two “non” colours: black and white. A popular television interviewee, this Nobel Peace Prize-winning cleric spoke frequently of the “Rainbow People of God”, referring of course to the biblical story of Noah and the flood, with the ensuing rainbow of peace. Within South African indigenous cultures, such as that of the Xhosa people, the rainbow is associated with hope and a bright future.
Blatter’s announcement that the hosting of the FIFA World Cup would be granted to South Africa certainly yielded visions of the legendary treasure chest of gold, said to be found at the base of the rainbow. It was a fitting accolade for the Rainbow People, as football had long provided apt portraits of the state of the nation. Soccer, after all, was not immune to the apartheid system, in which nothing escaped the classification of people by race. South Africans played and managed every sport in the way they lived: divided. So there were organizations for whites, for Indians, for “Bantus” and for “Coloureds”. And of course the wealth was not distributed evenly. Clubs in the white suburbs played in segregated stadiums, and it was from their ranks that the national team was selected. “Non-whites”, on the other hand, had very little funding and very few facilities. But the Beautiful Game is one of passion. In dusty or muddy fields often devoid of grass, teams of players in borrowed and mismatched kit and no shoes or hope of a better life played their hearts out in the true spirit of the game.

The period of reconciliation that began in 1990, when President FW de Klerk announced that all apartheid legislation would be repealed and bans lifted on the African National Congress and other organizations extended to more than just the political sphere. Even the sports administrators saw the writing on the wall and, in 1991, football’s racially divided organizations came together as the South African Football Association, based on the non-racial, democratic principles that were at the heart of the ANC and would later underpin the country’s remarkable constitution. The group’s mission statement vowed to promote Africa’s ascendancy in world soccer through the hosting of major events, while aspiring and striving to become a leading soccer nation. (Today, of course, not a single critic can argue that this first point has been achieved, while few Bafana Bafana fans could convince anybody of the success of the second point.)

The forerunner, of course, to the success in being selected to host the most major of the sport’s top events was the country’s great achievements in the white man’s sport of rugby. When South Africa was awarded the rights to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the country had been notoriously divided. Rugby was the sport and passion of the Afrikaner, the symbol of that race’s prowess. But Nelson Mandela, in one of the greatest tactical political acts of all time, used it to bring all the races of the nation together. Clint Eastwood’s biographical drama Invictus tells that moving story. “Newly elected President Mandela knows his nation remains racially and economically divided in the wake of apartheid,” explains the film’s blurb. “Believing he can bring his people together through the universal language of sport, Mandela rallies South Africa’s underdog rugby team as they make an unlikely run to the 1995 World Cup Championship match.”

As it transpired, the South African Springboks beat New Zealand by a hair and the country erupted into wild, unanimous and prolonged celebration. The enduring images of that game and time are of Madiba: wearing the captain’s green jersey and handing the William Webb Ellis trophy to the Afrikaans Francois Pienaar.

Blatter’s 2004 announcement was met with similar screams of delight and shows of unity. The defining image of that day is again of Madiba, this time somewhat frailer, fighting back tears as he lifts the FIFA World Cup Trophy. “I can see my grave now. I shall be withdrawing from public life at the end of this month,” he told reporters.

It is those moments, so iconically portrayed by Mandela, that define the elusive attraction of South Africa – the intangible element tourists try to describe when they return home. Yet the soul-searching and self-doubt the nation inflicted on itself once the FIFA-announcement celebrations were over are indicative of this teenage democracy’s typical angst: could South Africa match Germany’s efficiency as a host? Did South Africa have the required transport capacity? Suddenly South Africa was plunged into an identity crisis: situated on a primarily Third World continent, could it deliver First World facilities and services? Would the country appear under-dressed, awkward and red-faced at the opening ceremony?

The World Cup is the nation’s Coming-of-Age ceremony. With sport as the national religion, this event is the equivalent of the Jewish bar mitzvah, the Xhosa circumcision rite of passage and the American debutante ball all rolled into one, with FIFA playing the role of the legendary Swiss finishing school. Typical of any debutante, a lot of beautification and preparation is crammed in at the last minute. In the year leading up to the World Cup, South Africans were subjected to every kind of delay while being kept motivated by every type of hope. As the cranes and scaffolding filled the skyline, roadworks slowed the traffic and controversy clogged the newswires. But when ten new or rebuilt stadiums, glitteringly beautiful, stood inspiringly tall, when previously unimagined transport systems kept pace with the schedule, when highways took shape and fed onto the byways, when airports blossomed and became things of delightful efficiency, when the beauty of construction emerged from the chaos of doubt and disorder, South Africans finally started to believe that the rainbow’s pot of gold was a tangible thing – and theirs for the taking. At last they were really connected to the broader world – what could be more proof of this than the new high-speed fibre-optic cable that would soon connect Cape Town to London and the world and push up the country’s bandwidth capacity 120 times?

Though at times they might doubt their own ability, one thing South Africans of all hues and social sectors have always believed in is the value of a good party. After all, it’s the country’s chutzpah and spirit that pulls it through. Though this debutante might be a tad late for the ball, break a heel on the red carpet and be found to have dirt under her nails, the guests leave infatuated with her charisma, retelling fantastical gossip stories and having had the party of their lives.

For South Africa certainly is a colourful nation. One established on a soil full of glittering things: gold, diamonds, precious stones, customs and beliefs. And her geography is just as varied: desert dunes, tropical forests, ragged mountains, wide open spaces, thundering shores … and home to elephants and ants, whales and barnacles, predators, prey and politics. But it is the people who make the difference. On this point, the country’s most famous citizen has always been adamant.

“The tourism product South Africa and the rest of the continent offers is recognized internationally as one of great potential. In particular, our own country, as part of Africa, is justly renowned for its thousands of kilometres of largely untamed coastline; its varied and spectacular terrain; the wealth of its animal, plant and bird life; and the unparalleled variety of its climatic regions,” Mandela told the tourism community in a 1995 speech. “But our natural beauty only offers a fitting setting for our country’s most valuable asset: its people.
“Ours is a nation of warm and generous people. Its great variety of culture and heritage, once exploited to divide our people, has been turned by them into a source of strength and richness in every sphere of life. Indeed our cultural diversity is increasingly, I am told, becoming one of our major tourist attractions. It is in tourism that nature and humanity meet most equitably and profitably. Like with other countries, not only does the tourism industry bring the many cultures and nations of the world to our doorstep and so expand our own world-view. It also provides the resources for the conservation of our natural heritage.”
And South Africa remains a land of contrasts. That’s the cliché that every brochure, every book spouts about the country, whether discussing the scenic, geographic, political, even artistic aspects of the place. There are the contrasts of skin colour, but now more recently of socio-economic status: “Cape Town is impossibly beautiful, improbably clean, and overrun in summer by crews shooting international TV commercials. Parts of downtown resemble London. The Atlantic seaboard is easily mistaken for the French Riviera. Out in the Winelands, the oak groves and pastures are somehow Dutch in their gentleness, and the arid west coast easily doubles for Spain. As for the better suburbs, frame your shot to exclude smoke from the shacks where poor blacks stay,” explained novelist Rian Malan to his readers in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph and more recently in his book Resident Alien (Jonathan Ball Publishers). The great contrast now is in disparity of income, best exemplified by the “Black Diamonds” – the new black wealthy elite who are not averse to flashing their bling jewellery, big-name fashion brands and status cars in the face of the poverty-stricken millions who remain in the overcrowded townships that surround each city.

More than 12,000 Black Diamond families, about 50,000 people, are moving from those townships into the suburbs every month, according to a University of Cape Town study. But that does not help the unemployed millions who remain in squalor, though the government is focusing on service delivery and attempts to ensure the basics of electrification, water supply and sewerage disposal for all citizens.

Johannesburg has always offered no less contrast, this time in terms of philosophy, belief and cultural way of life: “The juxtaposition has never ceased to amaze and elate me – witch doctors entering one building, accountants exiting the other, and mingling on the street between. It seems extraordinary, but it isn’t, because this is the nature of the city: at once an outpost of Western ‘civilisation’ and a point of entry into a parallel kingdom of African consciousness,” wrote Malan, once again for the Sunday Telegraph, back in 1999. It remains that way today: “Prophets dance around fires in the shadow of the skyscrapers. Ancestral cattle sacrifices are conducted in suburban gardens. Mud huts and nuclear power stations occur in the same landscape. University professors smear lion fat on their faces as they set forth to settle faculty battles. In the cafes of Hillbrow, exiles from all over Africa gather in expensive dark glasses to plot coups and comebacks in undertones.”

Exiles aside, South Africa and its 47 million citizens is the epitome of multiculture, with nearly a dozen official languages and countless other groups of people – a place of plurality, where even the South African president has a handful of wives. “Ethnicity and cultural identity are thorny issues in South Africa. The former National Party government used ethnicity, race and culture to justify apartheid and discrimination against black South Africans,” explains Hilton-Barber. “However, each of the cultural and ethnic groupings in the country has a proud heritage that is different. South Africa’s constitution – launched with the advent of democracy in 1994 – recognizes, and celebrates, the diversity of South Africans yet attempts to forge an overall national identity.

“There are 11 official languages that are recognized, although English is dominant. Of the 10 other languages, Afrikaans can be described as an indigenous language even though it is derived from Dutch, while there are nine languages of Bantu origin. During apartheid, the term ‘Bantu’ was used to denote inferiority, but in its true sense it is a descriptive of a branch of the broader Niger Congo linguistic tradition that is spoken by over 100 million black Africans from southern to central Africa. There are four major sub-groups of the Bantu language tradition that are found in South Africa – the Nguni languages (predominantly Zulu and Xhosa); the Sotho, Shangaan/Tsonga and Venda traditions. Within these language groups there is a fascinating array of sub-cultures and traditions that together form a rich tapestry of the broader South African heritage.”

And so, in the end, we return to the Cradle of Humankind, just as in Malan’s description of the sounds and tastes to be found in certain Johannesburg suburbs: “The ether is full of strange languages. The pavements are clogged with al fresco barbershops in the Ghanaian style and traders from Zanzibar and Timbuktu. When the sun goes down, we set forth to eat and drink from the smorgasbord laid out by our many invaders. You can dine on mopani worms and English roast beef, pasta and curry, Congolese delicacies, Mozambican peri-peri and absolutely authentic Szechuan cuisine …. If you have the stomach you can repair to Melville in the small hours and argue with black-jacketed intellectuals in a miasma of liquor fumes and marijuana smoke while old African jazz cats blow marabi in the background .…”

Welcome to the party. Now kick off your shoes and dance.

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