Viva Teenage South Africa

Before I left South Africa about two weeks ago, I heard someone on the radio talking about the crime emanating from OR Tambo Airport, and concluded his statement by saying that this is “brand South Africa”. While I agreed with the general point that he was trying to make, notwithstanding that speaking like that on the radio is like the preacher who shouts at the congregation about those that do not attend services. As a South African I found hearing that disheartening and shaming. Nothing that a bit of overseas travel could not readily cure.

Last night I was waiting at the concierge desk at my Hotel in Atlanta. In Atlanta people are friendly and open and make me feel closer to South Africa than I do in most other American cities that I visit. There was another guest at the desk, who had been just chatting when I arrived. He was saying that he works for the police in Florida. He was one of those people that have a chilling hardness about them, like someone who has seen too much nastiness and has armoured himself against a tough world. The night concierge introduced me as a person from South Africa, which is not an unusual happening in a business hotel this part of the world. The mans demeanour changed as he started to tell us a story about a South African teenager who needed to get some official clearances from the police station in order to visit his grandmother in South Africa. He said that the boy had grown up in South Africa and had emigrated to the USA in early adolescence. “That was the nicest teenager I have ever met, what a wonderful young man” he said followed by a mean “and I loathe and detest teenagers”.

Aside from his caveat at the end, I thought to myself, that is also “Brand South Africa”. I thought of the many teenagers walking to school that I pass each day as I walk through my suburb, the teenagers outside the Children’s home down the road, the teenagers that I encounter at the schools where I consult. When all is said and done there are general characteristics’ that, while they obviously exist in other places, I do not perceive them as readily as I do in South Africa. These have to do with fundamental human qualities like basic concern and respect. I know that children do not doff caps anymore at adults the way that I was taught to do at school. Times have certainly changed. I cannot however imagine the average South African teenager rushing for a seat on a crowded underground train, when old ladies are battling to hold onto the poles.

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