Saffa Shpielby Daniel Gallan / Illustration by Alastair Laird / 22.01.2013
“But you’re… but you’re white!?” she says in that bouncy little Irish accent of hers. “You’re white and you from South Africa?”
“Ja ja” I say, knowing where this is going having danced this dance before.
“But I mean, um, like, are your parents white?” She says, still comparing forearms, confirming that we are indeed the same colour.
“Nope they both black.”
“Oh, are you like adopted or something?”
“Nope, was all natural.” I shoot back keeping a straight face. “We have no idea how this happened. Mom and dad were on the news; I was hailed as a medical miracle and we were all over the papers. It was quite something.”
At this her eyes go big and an involuntary “really?” passes her lips and before her friend’s eyes have enough time to roll back into their sockets she’s dragged away with her jaw barely clearing the floor.
This was a real interaction I had with a drunk Irish girl (is there any other kind) in Chiangmai, Thailand during my gap year in South-East Asia.
Now I knew beforehand that people around the world aren’t quite as clued about South Africa as we are about ‘overseas’, but this really took me by surprise. We all know the “do you have lions” jokes and Trevor Noah has made a career out of highlighting the ignorance (or is it arrogance) of other, (usually more ‘developed’) nations in his stand up routine, but this was really something else. This was a whole different level of stupid and it got me thinking. Are we really not on the world’s radar? Kim Kardashian gets a new bikini and people in Russia and New Zealand know about it on the same day, but when over 30 people are shot dead at Marikana no one has the slightest idea.
Now I know that what goes on at the tip of Africa has little impact on the rest of the world but surely people are at least, in some basic way, aware of us. Surely they know what’s going down in broad strokes?
Alas, my friends the truth is they don’t.
When I left our beautiful shores, as many do, I saw myself as some kind of self-appointed ambassador for my country. I am fiercely proud of where I come from and brought it up in conversation at almost any opportunity:
“Oh you like that steak; well you should taste the steaks in South Africa!”
“Yes that is a beautiful beach, but oh man you should see Coffee Bay in the summer!”
“Ya Swedes are hot and all, but just cruise around Camps Bay for a day and then let me know what you think!”
But despite my constant cheerleading people still remained in the dark about this place and it made me realise that maybe we just aren’t that important.
Maybe we’re just a little country at the bottom of Africa that has as many awesome things going for it as it has huge, seemingly insurmountable problems. And the truth is, we will remain, for the foreseeable future, a small country on the world’s periphery.
And you know what? I’m fucking thrilled!
I mean walking around Thai beaches that look like paradise and noticing all the passed out Ozzy girls, the empty buckets and used condoms, not once did I think, “gee, I really wish Cintsa was like this.”
I thought thank Christ we are where we are. Thank Moses we are not yet a pitstop on a grand tour for horny, out of control twenty somethings from Europe. Thank Buddha our natural beauty can still, by in large, be enjoyed for free by anyone and has not been sold and packaged as something to be traded and exploited.
I like the fact that people go: “oh wow, really?” when I tell them I’m from South Africa. I wear their ignorance like a fine silk shirt and bathe in their wonder as if it were luxurious bath cream.
The moral of the story? Instead of clamouring for relevance and to be front and centre at the global debating table, maybe it’s better to just continue in our own peripheral way. Let’s just take heart that many in the world think we’re awesome just because we come from an awesome place. Believe me, no one’s eyes ever sparkle when they find out you come from London.
*Illustration © Alastair Laird.