Sunday, December 15, 2013

Death Is All Around Us, aka the last depressing blog post of your year.

The last two-and-a-bit weeks have seen some notable death and misery. 

We've all heard about Nelson Mandela passing away and we have seen the outpouring of admiration, love and praise by everyone from world leaders and statesmen to those who never met the giant among men. At 95, he had lived a long life, but by virtue of what he achieved, he lived a full life. He was not perfect, as no person is, and as we have seen the family around him is not perfect, just as none of our families are. The legacy he leaves is staggering and I pray that in the perceived vacuum it will not be undone.

A world leader who made the difference between bloodshed and calm, who did not let bitterness rule him, has passed.

Over in Santa Clarita, California, we saw, not so much an icon of the big screen, but one of it’s more noticeable characters pass away at age 40. Paul Walker’s death was very opposite to Mandela’s. It even seems incongruous to mention the two men in the same sentence, and yet, here was a life lost (and let us not forget Roger Rodas, the driver of the car) which will impact many. The immature immediately wondered how the Fast and the Furious franchise will continue, hopefully the more mature would consider that a 15 year-old girl lost her father, parents and siblings lost a son and brother. Walker had been considering taking a break from acting to spend more time with his daughter. This will now not happen, and the families of Walker and Rodas will have to put back together their lives in a way they would not have dreamed of prior to that fiery car crash on 30 Nov 2013. Rodas leaves behind an 8 year old son.

Very few people know what day they are going to die.

The 9 who died when a police helicopter crashed into the Clutha Bar in Glasgow on 29 November did not know they were going to die that night. Another night out at the pub, and another police surveillance flight for the three on board. The most prosaic of things to be doing in Britain on a Friday night, and it was the last thing these people did. A 10th person has died since the accident.

Pretty morbid stuff just before Christmas, isn't it?

Mandela died on his death bed, we all knew it was coming. He will be missed. He is a world icon.

Walker did not know that within a short time after jumping into that car, he would be dead, life snuffed out in no time at all.

The 10 who died at Clutha, not world famous, not doing anything silly. Their families too, must make a new way forward.

So what do we take from this? Observing this pain of death does help us learn.

Live expansively, and forgivingly, like Mandela.
As much as I love fast cars, don’t do stupid things with them. Make the best decisions you can.

Be aware that your life is fragile and it can disappear at any time.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Elysium's South African stereotypes

If you’ve seen Neill Blomkamp’s latest blockbuster you would have seen the most visible example in international pop culture of the semi-bygone era of white South African military men, or at least their stereotype. It is a continuation of his work in District 9 where his native South Africa provides inspiration for his characters. 

This stereotype is a long-running one which stemmed from, and was exemplified in the apartheid military, and to a degree still exists outside of it. Macho, gun-wielding men in uniform, hired to do the dirty work of a government (or a rogue department within it), who have no respect for life and are only focused on the ‘correct’ outcomes, mainly executive. There are many column inches devote to the coups (failed and otherwise) that these men have been involved in since the demise of the apartheid state, and have also become a by-line for gun running and dodgy arms deals. This was all born from a state which sponsored all of the above.

As a large (tall and slightly wide), white, middle-class South African, now living in the UK, I sometimes come across this and a broader stereotype, not much of which I live up to. I did serve in the military, but as a desk clerk at a time when the writing was clearly on the wall for the National Party government. The game was over, and everyone was just going through the motions, slowly swallowing defeat. I did my national service and did not enjoy it very much at all. It did bring me face-to-face with some devout racists who would no doubt love to have drinks with Doctor Death on a regular basis.

When I mention to people that I have worked in Afghanistan and Iraq, I frequently have to correct the assumption that it was under a military force of some type. I was doing humanitarian relief work, and not the false humanitarian relief carried out by armed forces in these locales with a ‘hearts and minds’ agenda. Ironically, if the person does not verbalise the stereotype, and maybe they don’t even think it, I am often quick to add what I was doing and who I was working for.

Another element of the stereotype that I do not live up to is a more relaxed issue: I do not, and never did, play rugby. I can watch a game, and of course I support the Springboks, but I have no desire to play the game. My wife did, once upon a time, but never liked it much. This non-participation in the most manly of games may be even worse than being a gun for hire.

Back to Sharlto Copely and his accurate, yet slightly caricatured character in Elysium. I have no doubt that his character is not a fabrication. His delight in seeing an ‘enemy’ killed is typical of the stereotype, but not universal. The militaristic demure of many white South Africans of the era is accurate, and if you want a historic tie up, it is a militarism that would have preferred to fight with Hitler and the Nazis than with the Allies.

But what about the rest of us, what about who we are, and what about, if there are any left of the original stereotype, that want to repent? Sounds unlikely, but if we wish to break down these stereotypes, what must we do? I do not believe that Blomkamp’s depiction of the type is incorrect, but it is just for a part of the white male population.  There are many, many South African men who would not identify with the image. I am one of them.