Thursday 11 July 2013

Checking in and checking out of civilization

I've been traveling. For two and a half weeks I've moved into tomorrow, come back to today, slept through yesterday, caught up with three decades ago, dreamt that I died and set my Swiss watch through a number of time zones. I also checked in and out of airports and hotels.

The checking in and out made me think about living in South Africa. I grew up in a first world, somewhat British South Africa, in the southern suburbs of Cape Town, where the neighbourhood was safe, friendly and things were quite different to what was happening a few miles away in Langa, Nyanga and Gugulethu.

I wasn't checked in for that, didn't have a boarding pass. I grew up in a civilised neighbourhood where the neighbours were always polite (although the Greeks were a bit noisy from time to time). Across the road they were English, other side of the block, Scottish, next door, Jewish, down the road, Australian, a few blocks away, Irish. Swiss down the way, and so on.

We drove to work, we caught the bus, we caught the train, we paid our bills, the toilets flushed, we celebrated Christmas, Easter, New Year, went to each others' funerals and went to the local schools, and knew which wind would bring rain.

We were checked in. Our parents had supplied the boarding passes; history, pioneers and governments had provided the social and material infrastructure, and we were on that side of the line.

Now, in South Africa, that zone has been declared exactly that: a zone.

"Please board in the following order" said the official voice: "First class and business class, then families and disabled passengers, then economy class, zone d and c, then zone b."

If you want to be dispassionate about the zone you're in and the zone you aren't in, you have to take a look at the aeons of civilization that divide historical awareness. The first and third worlds are time-curves of proficiencies that have come and gone. Proceeding from pre-history, the Cro-Magnons made it through to digital software in plasmic screens and beyond. Pyramids were the apex of civilization once, although not many owned one. Geometry and standing stones both carried weight. Algebra and astronomy discovered a spherical world that has proceeded in more than one straight line.

Now you tell me how to balance out macadamised roads, the Wellington boot. the chip, (of a fried slice of potato, not a silicon one) with a president who has five wives, twenty-one children and wears a suit but not a condom, and is in charge of my ex-first-world country. No-one will believe me when I say that this is not a complaint. It's a statement that I have not checked in to where he is, and he has not checked in to where I am. Neither of us has the boarding pass.

Civilization is not continent specific. It's a big word that refers to aspiration of magnificent proportions. I am not necessarily anti-Zuma. I just do not prefer to wear a leopard skin, dance and sing monotonous rhythms for hours on end when I lose an argument and walk about permanently wet in the showers of transparency.

Checking in and out is both formal and expensive. You don't want to make a mistake. This is where I part company with that other zone in which I don't belong. I want to be in the zone that takes me to the destination in respect of which so many have made sacrifices, discoveries, journeys and commitments on my behalf.

Let Zuma (for the sake of argument) honour his zone and I'll honour mine. He has put himself in first class, using my money to pay for his ticket, and that skews the honour, already. Yet this is not a complaint. We're just checking.

Another thing about journeys is that they never end. We may pass through where we started, according to T.S.Eliot, and recognize the place for the first time, although if you do that, in my view, you're pretty badly jet-lagged.

The bottom line is that you can wear whatever you want, or not, you can prattle all the political rhetoric ever invented or to yet be entertained, but you can't pretend that first class is economy class or that economy class is first class when you're in the same Boeing together. I've been in both (thanks Howard) and I know the difference.


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