Are we beginning to hatch phoenixes?

mapungbugwe rhino (3)

African art has a long and mostly unrecognised history: The golden rhinoceros of Mapungubwe is a medieval artifact made from wood which is covered in thin sheets of gold from the medieval Kingdom of Mapungubwe, which is located in modern-day South Africa. It was found on a royal grave on Mapungubwe Hill in 1932 by archaeologists from the University of Pretoria

CAN we yet be bold enough to celebrate South Africa? Amidst our thirst for good news after the depressing news of the last decade, green shoots are visible. Not yet on the economic front, which remains dire, as finance minister Tito Mboweni outlined in his mid-term budget, but elsewhere, vigour is starting to gingerly show itself.

The obvious big one of the past week, which gave a gigantic boost to South Africans, is the Springboks’ win over England in the Rugby World Cup under the captainship of Siya Kolisi. The image of him holding the golden cup aloft amidst ecstatic celebration will resonate forever as a triumphant moment.

Sport is often a measure of a country’s mood. Johannesburgers of all colours and classes, and many others from elsewhere, joined together in another celebration last Sunday in the 42km Soweto marathon, nicknamed The People’s Race, whose route can be compared to a lesson in South Africa’s history. The marathon, which attracted some 40,000 runners from across the globe, takes participants past heritage sites that were key in the fight against apartheid, including Vilakazi Street and the one-time homes of president Nelson Mandela and his neighbour, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The former has become a site visited by tourists worldwide. The race passes the brightly painted Orlando Towers and is within eyesight of everything from the colossal Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, reputedly the third-largest in the world, to the colourful Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, where the ANC Freedom Charter was adopted in 1955 as the ideological cornerstone of the liberation movements. The marathon provides a glimpse into the possibilities of this country. Can it be a counterpoint to the gloom?

Sport is a culture which thrived during apartheid despite racial separation, and now freely embraces every race and creed. Contrary to common perceptions, culture as a whole, whether white or black, was something the apartheid government took seriously. But it forcefully kept black and white cultures separate, and exploited this separation for its racist political agenda. Seats at venues of high quality European and colonial arts of ballet, opera, theatre and fine art were traditionally occupied by the Jews and Afrikaans-speaking community. Today Jews are fewer, but Afrikaners are still very present. And a phoenix is rising in Pretoria. Once the heart of apartheid, where ideologues plotted their reprehensible deeds, this city hosts an opposite concept. A multi-million rand art centre of world class standard opened in September with several exhibitions of South African works from the past century of such high quality that the Museum of Modern Art in New York could just as proudly host them.

The Javett Art Centre is a green shoot in the cultural sphere, as important as a world class rugby win, particularly for its location and inclusive approach to who gets showcased. There are people who are willing to invest billions towards creating a place where the art of Africa is explored and celebrated. Current collections show signature works from 1912, including the cream from the likes of Helen Mmakgabo Sebidi, Irma Stern, Steven Cohen, David Koloane, Jackson Hlungwani and more. It is also the new home of the world-renowned Mapungubwe rhino, the first example of gold craftsmanship found in this continent, dating back to the 1100s.

We cannot be naive about the effect of these examples. They will not solve the mass poverty, crime and corruption which pull this country down. The pitiable beggars who stand at street corners in Johannesburg will never see them. Yet, many black Springboks came from impoverished backgrounds and fought their way to the top. Is hope again possible?