12/04/2017 03:54 SAST | Updated 12/04/2017 03:54 SAST

Which South Africa Are We Saving?

When we talk about saving SA we need to be clear about which parts we want to save and be very vocal about which parts we need to change or even destroy.

Kim Kyung Hoon/ Reuters

When I first relocated from Cape Town to Johannesburg in 1988 to start my Engineering degree at Wits, I was perplexed by how Joburgers described Cape Town. They could not understand why I would leave the paradise of Cape Town's magnificent beaches, majestic public gardens and leafy suburbs for the congested, noisy streets and concrete jungle of their city (their description). Their faces lit up when I mentioned 'Cape Town.' For them Cape Town conjured up joyful images of vacations spent there, long days on sunny beaches enjoying cocktails, it evoked feelings of bliss. This genuinely perplexed me. My images of Cape Town were very different. At that time, for me, Cape Town was a scary place with gangsters at every turn. It was a place of sand and dust, of garbage piled on open fields.

It was a place of dangerous, dirty beaches with sharp rocky outcrops and no lifeguards. My Cape Town contained none of the blissful images of a desirable paradise, it was a hard place where you needed to be tough, where anger and fear swirled in the air in competition with infestations of flies and mosquitoes. After sufficient occurrences of these confusing conversations I discovered that there are two faces to Cape Town. A fact all too familiar to us now but quite new to everyone back then. I had never been to the world-famous Clifton or Camps Bay beaches because I was prohibited by law from going there.

The same with many of the other aspects of what my university friends described of their experience of Cape Town – I had never been there because it was illegal or my family could never afford for us to go there. My Cape Town was Mitchells Plain, Bonteheuwel, Heideveld and Hanover Park not Constantia or Rondebosch. My beach was Mnandi not Clifton. My public space was the gravel patch outside our house where we played soccer not Kirstenbosch. Mine was the 'other' face of Cape Town, the unseen face. These memories were stirred up this week during debates about the national protests against the corruption and incompetence of our government. Debates raged over the idea that we were fighting to save South Africa. Which South Africa were we saving?

The affluent and poor seemed to be talking (or shouting) past each other, and it became clear to me that many still don't realise that we continue to have two faces to Cape Town, just as we continue to have two faces to South Africa. The reality of life in South Africa is so completely different depending on which of these faces you experience. When South Africa's poor hear the phrase 'Save South Africa' what is heard is 'save the status quo,' and 'let's keep things as they are, let's keep our lives of suffering and deprivation, and their lives of privilege.' Is it then any surprise that so many oppose the marches and are angry about flippant statements about us all being united in this new struggle?

When we talk about saving South Africa we need to be clear about which parts we want to save and be very vocal about which parts we need to change or even destroy. Anyone whose South Africa involves walking in the dark at night to go to a disgusting, fetid public toilet risking rape and murder because she has no toilet at home would want to destroy that South Africa. Any mother whose South African reality is to live in daily fear that her young daughter will be abducted, or that her teenage son will be shot in the street, would want to destroy that South Africa. To save South Africa we need to change these unjust and unacceptable realities. When we enable lives in South Africa for these citizens, and the millions like them, lives that are worth saving, then we will begin to harness the full power of our country to move forward.

So as we proceed on this much-needed transformative journey, we need to proceed with sensitivity to these two realities, and try to hear each other. I support the 'Save South Africa' idea that seeks to save the South African dream, that dream of a prosperous, safe and harmonious country for all our citizens. But to achieve this dream, much has to change, and it has to start with a commitment to working towards removing this duality of the two realities, the two faces of our country, and finding our one face, our one voice, our one vision towards a common future.