A classmate and I recently started a revolutionary book club, revolutionary in content not structure. Currently, we are reading Hitler. We meet every two weeks and digest bits of what we’ve read and inevitably end up translating Hitler’s meaning into contemporary contexts. Last week we got onto the topic of control after reading a rather succinct chapter on propaganda. Khanyile, my classmate, noted how at ease Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, was with controlling people by overt force: death, disappearance, detention. He then contrasted this to the covert wielding of power in the United States, “you are all already dead, alive but dead”. These eight words, while physically nonsensical, made complete sense. This is what I was trying to say when I wrote about the dead man, blood spilling from his head in the Durban intersection. This is what I meant when I talked about the vitality in discomfort. Khanyile reminded me you can be dead alive.
Vitality is the word I use when people ask me why South Africa. Beyond the manageable higher education costs, the people of this country captured me. People address each other on the streets, engage in conversations about race, politics, and religion with strangers, consciously acknowledge the life within humanity. I saw a courage in South Africans, a courage that they wore seemingly unknowingly. I used to attribute this vitality to their youthful democracy. They were vibrantly alive because they knew what democracy and freedom meant to them, they knew what it was to live without it. This was shortsighted. South Africans were necessarily conscious before the coming of democracy, and harnessed this awareness to progress into freedom. They consciously contested before political institutions legalized it.
I used to link vitality to a historic and political circumstance, but South Africans bear better news: vitality is within us, graspable, regardless of circumstance. Americans could be complacent and apathetic because the living generations were not personally engaged with the struggle of politics and freedom, but most important Americans choose to be complacent and apathetic, inherently meaning that we could choose otherwise. Our complacency and vitality is not solely dependent on historic circumstance.
I get this little high after talking to strangers, even a hello, or better a compliment, just generally recognition. When walking to school I pass a guard house and unintentionally give the guard on duty a fright as I come around a corner of a construction fence, unexpected. Surprised and smiling he says, ‘Hi Mama’ and we both have a laugh. We share an unexpected moment, instantly and subconsciously assessing our intentions, we acknowledge our shared humanity. We don’t know each other, but we do. If either of us were dead a moment before, we are now sufficiently alive. We woke each other up.
Maybe its the cloudy cold, the mechanization and digitization of previously face to face social interaction, and the comfort of routine, but I find myself smiling less with strangers back home. There is less eye contact. There is the observably deplored smalltalk. There is this unspoken and under-appreciated obligation to living, ‘another Monday’. Life in South Africa isn’t seamless or predictable because it is alive. ‘You never know’, an often used expression sums it up quite concisely. This unknowing is the birthplace of curiosity and daily engagement. The more we presume we have answers and the authority that precedes them, the more we run from our unstable humility, the more we concentrate on knowing the less alive we become. We will never know, and that is the beginning of living.