A Conclusion and Reflection of the Last 4 Months in Johannesburg
I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post for a while now. My last blog post from South Africa. Technically, that ship has sailed because I am currently at Heathrow airport in London, waiting for my connecting flight for LA that leaves in about 2 hours. But no stress. In fact, it’s fitting, kind of like posting this on “Africa time”, as many South Africans have explained to me these last 4 months to justify their tardiness to meetings and events starting about 2 hours later than the publicized time. *Footnote- CP time, as it turns out, is quite universal. Brazil time and Africa time aren’t that far away from each other, except I think Africa time is even more exaggerated… my theory is, the stronger the African influence, the more abstract the Western notion of linear time becomes. Yep. I just theorized that shit.
I have been wanting to write this blog post for so long because it has become increasingly clear throughout my stay in South Africa just how special this trip is. More than I could have ever imagined before arriving. How comfortable, welcomed, witnessed, heard, embraced I have felt here. And along the way I’ve been trying to figure out why that is exactly- why, in a country and a continent I had never been to, I would find such kindred spirits and such great resonance with my professional work, cultural values, and radical politics.
I think the reasons are layered.
Firstly, South Africa is much closer in its history, politics, and economics to my native country of Brazil than the US is. South Africa and Brazil are both developing nations part of the emerging BRICS alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) with an economic infrastructure that has grown exponentially in the last decade and subsequently made them new and big players in international politics. South Africa and Brazil also share similar histories of a sustained oppressive regime that ended relatively recently, making their current democracies quite young and tenuous. For Brazil, it was the military dictatorship that lasted 20 years (1964-1984), and for South Africa, of course, it was the Apartheid regime that reigned over its people for over half a century, ending in 1994.
The result of these conditions make for a bizarre political landscape - on a good day, democracy feels alive, dynamic, bubbling. On a bad day, it is riddled with corruption, scandal, and abuse of power. The televised events of both our congresses make for more exciting drama than the riskiest Brazilian novelas and South African soap operas (think Congressmen Jean-Wyllys spitting on Congressmen Jair Bolsonaro earlier last month and the chaos that ensued from the Economic Freedom Fighters at Zuma’s State of the Nation in February).
But like I said, on the flip side, is a population of people who are the opposite of apathetic. A people who viscerally remember the trauma of institutionalized racism, censorship and torture tactics and are committed to never letting that happen again. There is a palpable culture of political participation, a widespread and deep knowing that public demonstration and direct action can make a difference, because that was what brought about the demise of the military dictatorship in the 80’s and the Apartheid regime in the 90’s.
As tragic and disheartening as the recent impeachment proceedings in Brazil have been, as much as it has threatened the very nature of democracy in my country, ironically, it has also given me incredible hope. The backlash to the impeachment movement has unleashed a forceful wave of resistance – young people my age, who have no firsthand memory of the military dictatorship, and people my parents’ age, who grew up under it, coming together and protesting by the millions in the streets, universities, government institutions, and theaters. In a way, democracy being threatened has mobilized many of us (dare I say most of us) to exercise it in the extreme.
And I suppose I hold an interesting positionality in all of this. I am from Brazil, and continue to hold only a Brazilian passport to this day, but I have been living in the US since I was 13 years old. In fact, in about 2 weeks time I will be conducting my US citizenship oath and officially (finally!) become a dual citizen. As much as I love the roots and community I have built in the US, especially in Los Angeles, I get quite frustrated restricting my work and life to those borders, geographical and imaginary. The everyday rhetoric of American exceptionalism gets to me, as does the general apathy that many people feel towards the US political system. It seems to me that these two things are the biggest barriers to democracy in the US, a self-centered population with little knowledge of the rest of the world who, ironically, does not feel invested to actively participate in their democracy. It’s almost like a taking for granted of democracy – it has been around for centuries, and it won’t ever go away, so why struggle to uphold it?
What I have found in South Africa these last 4 months is a kindred spirit – in politics, nationhood, artistry, friends and so much more. I have had the great honor of meeting and working with artists who see their role in society as that of joker, provoker, and connecter. Artist-colleagues who are deeply engaged with what is happening in their country, and just as committed to inciting questions and making meaningful contributions. Artist-friends who will blow my mind with their radical critical consciousness one minute, and slay to a mind-blowingly funky House/Kweito song the next.
In a way, South Africa, and perhaps particularly Johannesburg, is the perfect half-way point for me between Brazil and the US. I get to work in English most of the time, and though it is not my native language, it is (whether I like admitting it or not) the language I feel most comfortable working and expressing myself in due to all the years I spent attending English-speaking schools. And yet, unlike the monolingual dominant culture of the US, there is a strong sense of multi-lingual diversity, due to the melting pot of South African ethnic communities (Afrikaans, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Zulu, and many more). It is also where I can easily find all of my favorite dance and movement forms within a 10 kilometer radius of each other – applied and embodied theater art for social change (the radical and amazing Drama For Life at Wits University), Afro contemporary dance (through Vuyani Dance Theatre and Moving Into Dance Mophatong), House and Afro-street dances (if you’ve never heard Black Coffee or Mafikizolo google them NOW), Hatha yoga (thank you Yoga Warrior), and Afro-Latin dance (forever indebted to the BailaAfrika familia). Hotdamn.
I don’t say all this to compare South Africa to the US, to claim it is better or worse. It’s just different. And I think there is value in interrogating this difference.
Needless to say, I will miss Johannesburg terribly. So, while I build plans to return, may this blog post be a love letter with the promise of reconnection.
In love and gratitude,