Friday, September 17, 2004

Some folks are born made to wave the flag 

The contrasting styles of the two Ryder Cup teams this week have got me thinking about patriotism and nationalism. The old world of Europe seems comfortable with itself, mature and confident next to the brash “love it or leave it” American jingoism. The reason that there is no pat like an ex-pat is that patriotism is one of those things – like Monty in the Ryder Cup – that thrives under adversity. The expat is constantly reminded of his nationality, and if you are a Pom, usually reminded of the worst parts of British-ness, like the weather, or the cuisine. Under this assault, one tends to seek out the things that are great about your country, and fight back; in my case with the beer, the world champion rugby team, the cricketers, the culture, and so on and so on.

The Americans are feeling threatened and unloved, so the reaction amongst the majority is the flag waving crap that makes the civilised world wince. Don’t get me wrong – I love America, it’s a wonderful country, and some of my best friends are American, but then they’re not the type to chant “U-S-A, U-S-A” in anything but an ironic fashion. And yes, some Americans do know what irony is.

The reason that this nationalism / patriotism thing is interesting is the way that another new world country – South Africa – behaves. This place – another beautiful country, some of my best friends, etc. – seems to be stuck between old world and new. The fact that the bloody past of South Africa is not so far away means that overt nationalism is rare, especially amongst the white population, who still feel strongly the guilt and stigma of apartheid. The formerly oppressed majority, though, are enjoying a new pride in the nation they are building. This is great to see, and has the effect of sweeping even the quiet conservatives along in the general goodwill. The problem comes when politicians try, inevitably, to hijack this feeling, and attach the ANC to the country. The equation ANC = South Africa doesn’t work, however much the ruling party might wish it did.

There is still a residual feeling that it would be somehow ungrateful or disrespectful to question the actions of the people who saved the country from apartheid. I think that Mandela realised this when he served only one celebratory term as president: he could see that the sooner he got out of the way the better it would be for the democracy he had fought for. We’re in a state of limbo now where enough of the heroes of the struggle are still around that the ANC has a gravitas that is in some ways difficult to assault. It will probably take a generation before there is enough distance from the heroism that we are all on an equal footing.

The nation is slowly working its way to a point where it is comfortable with itself and getting over its hang-ups. That some of the proudest South Africans are the white ones who might be expected to keep their heads down for a few generations is testament to the miracle that Mandela and the others created. The patriotism in South Africa is thus a nice blend of the self effacing old world and the self confident new. The incredible rejuvenation of the nation as such a universally admired triumph, and the lack of any serious international cock-ups since, leaves the country as the underdog that everybody would like to see do well. South Africa really does have a lot to be patriotic about, as soon as it figures out what patriotism means in the new South Africa.

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