I'm goin' ta ignore Gunther, as there's good too
We may dwell on the headline-horrors of life, but there are many thousands being carefully, quietly excellent
This isn’t the column I wanted to write. Which is probably for the best because that one, which I started writing on Sunday, would have been heavy going.
I blame Gunther. I don’t remember what his real name but he struck me as a Gunther.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, because before Gunther there was Nic Spaull.
Nic Spaull is not a Gunther. Rather, he is an articulate and passionate expert on South African education, whose columns on the subject are essential reading.
In this country we tend to discuss education from about 4pm on the day before the matric results come out until about 10.30am on the day itself. And by “education” I mean, of course, secondary education, with a brief segue into tertiary education, depending on whether the EFF or the ANC are talking about it too at that exact moment. About primary schooling – the factory in which functional humans are manufactured – there is simply a vast silence.
From time to time that great stillness is disturbed by a distant voice, like a park ranger appearing at the top of a canyon wall, yelling down: “It’s not safe here, folks!” And Nic Spaull is one of those rangers.
A week ago, Ranger Spaull hollered at us from the high ground, explaining, in a column for Business Day, the extent to which the chassis of South African education is being scraped to pieces. (Because the wheels have already come off, the axels have snapped, and we’re skidding along on our belly.)
You can read the whole piece here but the figure that shook me was the revelation that the state has reduced spending on pupils by 8% in seven years.It would have been depressing enough on its own. But that week we were deep in the grip of the far left’s idiot frenzy around “Stratcom” spies in newsrooms, with keyboard warriors revealing, with every fresh leap of non-existent logic, a staggering ignorance of our recent past.
Indeed, one Twitter account regularly retweeted by the EFF’s senior apparatchiks furiously outed spies whose activities had been public knowledge since the TRC. If the twitterati had bothered to crack a book any time in the past 20 years they might have come away looking less ignorant. But then again, when has anyone let facts get in the way of a good retweet?
Thus depressed by the general intellectual state of the nation, I was about to meet the final straw. And the final straw was Gunther.
He appeared, as all final straws inevitably do, on Facebook, commenting under a column in which I had called Steve Hofmeyr an “apartheid apologist”.
Gunther had found this absolutely hilarious. Hofmeyr, he told me, had never apologised for apartheid. The fact that I thought he had was proof of my incompetence as a columnist.
Ordinarily, I would have fought with Gunther. I quite enjoy arguing with people who come at me online because I find them quite useful as an antidote to the seductive belief that deep down we are all the same person. When I encounter someone who studied at a university and who is employed in a company – instead of, say, as a test subject for biological experiments – and learn that they are ardent proponents of genocide, or believe in fairytales that would make a toddler roll her eyes, it wakes me up a little bit.
This time, however, I simply felt glum. It was all so wretched. It wasn’t Gunther’s fault that he doesn’t know what “apologist” means. We know what we know, and very few people try to learn more beyond childhood. But it reminded me of Nic Spaull’s column the week before, and how most South Africans are pretty much illiterate, even some of the ones who can read, and I thought about all the Gunthers, and how not understanding words hasn’t stopped them from throwing those words around or forming entire worldviews founded on mental lint.
So that was the column I wanted to write: a gloomy thing about how the combination of inadequate education and self-righteousness was not going to take us anywhere good.But then something happened, between Sunday afternoon and today.
I encountered South Africans being superb.
One of them was a nurse, quietly tending to a sleeping patient, being kind and gentle not because anyone was watching but because it is her job.
One of them was an idealist, painstakingly putting aside pessimism and setbacks to find the best in people.
One of them was an elderly stranger, carefully helping a blind man across a traffic intersection before patting him stiffly on the back and walking away.
None of them were on Facebook. None of them are in the news. And I suppose that’s telling.
Almost without exception, our media – whether social or news – are only interested in performers who are good at self-promotion (entertainers, pundits and writers who are also entertainers, and politicians) and victims. And when all you’re shown is buskers and corpses, it’s easy to start believing that they are all there is.
Which is a great pity. Because beyond the headlines, and the bitter and ultimately pointless arguments about the headlines, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of South Africans being carefully, quietly, excellent.
Our problems are fearsome. It is inevitable that we will, from time to time, feel the deep gloom that comes from the fear that we might be overwhelmed by them.
But if we are going to dwell on random terrors and potential horrors, then I think we owe it to ourselves to acknowledge, also, that there are a million kindnesses happening every day, and a thousand astonishing steps taken by extraordinary South Africans we’ve never heard of because they aren’t sexy, noisy, rich, tragic or dead.
They are out there. And every day they are going to work, and, in very small, very precious ways, they are trying to push us towards something better.