Why is it that I always seem to confront the nakedness of my own soul in airports?
It happened again a few nights ago. On September 11, no less. I must have been crazy to brave the terrors of high-altitude traveling on a date so loaded with ominous precedents, but there I was, dead on my feet after four overcrowded concerts in Gauteng, striding the crowded halls of empty white noise with my flapping little boarding pass in hand, thinking of nothing else but the bottle of wine and warm bed waiting for me in Cape Town.
Then, the unthinkable happened. A shrill voice rudely interrupted my reverie. “Is that a knife in your bag, sir?” The voice emanated from the lady manning the X-ray machine.
“Knife? What knife?” I had no idea what she was talking about. Why on earth would I have a knife in my hand luggage?
But, with my permission, they opened up my little rucksack, and, sure, there it was: the tiny but beautiful Joseph Rodgers biltong carver a friend had given me as a gift a few weeks before.
How it had ended up in my hand luggage, I had no idea; I didn’t even realise I had brought it along on the trip. Perhaps my wife had thoughtfully packed it for me, in case I needed to eat some biltong between shows? I was devastated.
Oh, there are so many things I know I should have said right then. I should have said: “Do you honestly believe that I am planning to hijack a gigantic civilian Boeing airliner with this puny little biltong carver, and force the pilot to fly into the Taal Monument or something? While you’re about it, how about checking the rest of my luggage for dangerous nail clippers? There might even be a toothpick!”
In the end, the only way to avoid repercussions – either a fine, imprisonment, or, last but not least, a lengthy and boring background check – I had no choice but to part with the biltong carver. I knew I was beaten. It felt as if this lady manning the X-ray machine could see right through me. So I did the only honourable thing I could think of; I asked the X-ray lady to chuck it into the rubbish bin for me.
You see, even in my drowsy, half-dead state, I knew that I faced serious trouble if I upset her in any way. I had to let the damn knife go. End result? The X-ray lady at OR Tambo is now almost certainly the proud new owner of a state-of-the-art Joseph Rodgers handmade biltong-carving implement. I would have cried had I not been so utterly numb with exhaustion.
I feel like crying now. It is two days later, and since then I have thought of many other reasons to cry. A lot of things have happened since then …
During the last 48 hours since my return to Cape Town, we, as a nation, had finally lost our innocence. The person I heard interviewed on TV last night — I didn’t catch her name, because I was still grieving the loss of my biltong carver — was right when she compared this moment in South Africa’s history with the 9/11 moment in America’s history.
I am referring, of course, to Judge Colin Lamont’s verdict that the singing of the song “Dubula Ibhunu” should now be officially recognised as hate speech.
That judgment was like a cannon shot, waking us all from the blissful sleep of ignorance we have been dozing in for the last 15 years or more.
It’s not a judgment I would have made had I been a judge, but there it is, it’s been done. Perhaps he was right to make that judgment after all, for we had put off this moment of truth for long enough.
Everything’s out in the open now. The battle lines have been drawn between two seemingly incompatible ways of seeing the New South Africa. The genie is out of the bottle, the fault line in our society has been laid bare for all to see, there can be no turning back. Monday, September 12 2011, will always be remembered as the day we, as a nation, saw ourselves in the mirror for the first time. It was the day when we started to realise the awful but unavoidable truth that our opposing perceptions of reality may never mesh into a single vision of reconciliation. That, collectively, South Africa suffers from mass schizophrenia.
It’s as if we, an entire country, are all trapped helplessly on a Boeing, heading straight into turbulence. And what magnificent turbulence this will turn out to be! The term “perfect storm” springs to mind.
Such a “perfect storm” could still go at least two different ways, of course. In the best-case scenario, it could turn out to be the kind of turbulence that will lead, eventually, to a South African spring, in which new political alliances are formed, and where the poorest of the poor will finally scrape together the courage to take their dissatisfaction with the ANC’s lack of service delivery to the polls and vote for new leadership. That would be the lesser of the two evils, for, even should the new leadership turn out to be just another incompetent bunch like most of their predecessors, democracy will then have served its purpose, and, in spite of the protests, the strikes, and the burning tyres, the Boeing will hopefully stay in the air, and the show will somehow carry on.
But it could also go the other way, the apocalyptic way, the very bad way. The Bosnian way. Civil war, genocide, all possibility of peaceful negotiations out of the window. Malema’s dream turned into stark and ghastly reality.
There’s only one piece of comfort I have managed to derive from the terrifying thoughts I have been entertaining during this last two days: all this bad shit kind of puts the loss of my little pocket knife into perspective.
After all, who needs biltong if the country burns?