It’s 2011 and it’s been 17 years since apartheid ended. Bono rocked the FNB stadium the other night and we were privileged to be a part of the largest concert in the history of South Africa. Every radio station was talking about the concert, almost as if it was the most exciting thing since sliced cheese. We drove into ‘town’ and parked at park station squishing into the shuttle trains like sardines, me having past life WWII flashbacks as I struggled to find a bit of air through a crack in the train window amidst squealing and sweaty fans.
We were surprised to note the mostly (I’d say 99.9%) white crowd of almost 100,000 people who were streaming into the stadium. Ephraim asked me why I thought that was-I said socioeconomic factors-obviously the majority black population of SA are not able to afford the steep price of concert tickets. Ephraim argued that it must be the cultural factor–U2 has obviously not succeeded in attracting black Africans to their fan base and then, right before the opening band started playing what looked like a token group of around 20 blacks were brought into the VIP “Red Section” and the stadium erupted in cheering.
While the rest of the world romanticizes South Africa as the nation that successfully made the non-violent transition to democracy, initiating a new era for its people, the harsh reality is that it is not all rainbows in the rainbow nation. South Africa has been rated today by the United Nations as the country with the largest gap between rich and poor. Other macro issues such as and HIV-AIDS pandemic, lack of ethical leadership, greed, corruption and civil unrest around service delivery related issues are just a few problems plaguing this new democracy.
Bono gets the dream and used his mega concert to celebrate South Africans and remind them by mirroring their present day reality: “Don’t forget where you came from and where you are going; Mandela, love, peace, democracy, change, Desmond Tutu, look: it’s Hugh Masekela and me up on stage together”. Bono loves South Africa and his heart strings were pouring out to us as he belted out hits like “With or Without You” and paying homage to the revolution in Egypt during “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. But what got me was the message of his song “One”. I realized my soul had been craving to be reminded of this truth, that we are all one, that we have one life, and that we are in this together, we must remember to love each other and not build electric fences around our hearts.
I decided that Bono is my new Rebbe (spiritual teacher and guide), and I’ve sure been needing a Rebbe in this town. Bono’s message of ‘One Love’ was a refreshing contrast to some of the messages I have been receiving from Jewish Johannesburg (JJ)–the message of “one love, but only if you walk this way”. The notion of “70 Panim l’Torah”, (70 faces of the Torah) has been unfortunately edited to mean “just one” where expressions of Jewish diversity are not met with acceptance from the klal (entirety) of Israel. The JJ community suffers in this way from many of the issues plaguing much of the Jewish world today: a cacophony of internal politics and a general lack of tolerance to diversities of mind, soulful expressions and authentic voices.
JJ is also a community that has very little to do with their black neighbors, although they would argue differently and say that they know about ‘the other’ through contact with their maids, gardeners, chauffeurs, butlers and other assorted all-black staff members. The truth is that JJ is not unique in that sense as most South African’s take their own color lines very seriously. Rarely do communities mingle- blacks stick together as do coloreds and Indians, whites of English descent and Afrikaners, Jews, Christians and Muslims. Separate but equal. Sort of but not really. The legacies of apartheid are many.
JJ is also divided around the future of South Africa, with some flag waving patriots hopeful and positive about what is to come and excited to make a contribution and others extremely negative especially when conversations turn towards Julius Malema, a particularly problematic leader of the ruling ANC’s Youth League.
In our home we have electric fences and spikes along the parameters, burglar bars on every window and door and two panic buttons that can alert our paramilitary team, ex-militia men from assorted African countries to come to our rescue with bulging biceps and machine guns in case of a -God forbid-home invasion. It was actually quite surreal when three of these militia men and their guns suddenly stormed up our driveway while our in-laws were getting out of their car for a visit. “Sorry,” my husband grinned sheepishly, “we must have set the panic button off by mistake”.
There is indeed reason for being vigilant and hyper aware, as violent crime has an unfortunate and traumatic legacy in this place. But the FEAR factor is truly monstrous and as a newcomer it took me four months when I first arrived to get up the courage to walk alone through the park outside our flat. It was a WOW moment when I arrived home safe and sound, cheeks pink from being outside and thumb and forefinger numb and tingling after pressing down hard on my little bottle of pepper spray (just in case).
The problem with FEAR is that IT CLOSES HEARTS. I have found greater Johannesburg to be a place where hearts are surrounded by walls and crisscrossed by electric fences. Where most probably everyone suffers from some form of post-apartheid- PTSD. Where the Yiddish saying that if you “think good it will be good” rules but the message of ‘one love’ has been lost along the way, somewhere between the end of apartheid and the ANC turning into a party of sour grapes.
“How can I love the ‘other’ if he might shoot me in the head for a cellphone?” That’s the challenge of Johannesburg folks, and even more so, “How can I love the Jew that does not “walk the line?” Only if I can “mekarev” “bring him closer” to my way, for it is the highway.”
So Jewish Johannesburg it is a little behind, right along with the rest of the country. But you got to love this fascinating exilic Jewish community that knows how to take care of it’s own at the very bottom of Africa and does so really well. Now that Bono has come to town I’m re-inspired by his message of ONE. I intend to hold that message high while I am living here, and bring a more Carlebachian energy to my fellow Israelites and SA’ers.
I once asked my friend and mentor, the fabulous and fantastic Reb Mimi Feigelson, “If we all have our own personal Egypt (closed narrow straights) what would Gods Egypt be?” She didn’t even hesitate when she replied, “The closed human heart”.
It is time that we open our hearts to each other in the rainbow nation in an attempt to bridge the divides. A new future is beckoning.
Thank you Reb Bono, Reb Mimi and Reb Shlomo xx