History Lessons

A long walk through Berlin can be quite revealing. Without looking for the prompts, political themes start forming familiar patterns in your mind. My trip started with a security alert I had received regarding attacks by extremist youth groups on people of colour in Germany. Oddly enough, that security alert rated Berlin and Johannesburg on the crime level, while Abu Dhabi was a point lower. I read the alert with annoyance as I saw the desperate attempt to single out Abu Dhabi. Berlin had the extremist groups, and Johannesburg had the high rate of violent crime to justify their ratings. Abu Dhabi however, had just a single incident of an American tourist being stabbed in 2014 as the basis for their alert. What I found ridiculous about this was the fact that they needed to identify a single isolated incident from 2 years ago for an Arab country, but had to mention trends of current crimes for the other two cities. It was this same bias and paranoia that started my journey on the wrong foot.

Being Muslim, I’m painfully aware of the stereotyping being done by the American government and their European allies which leaves me very much weighing in on the unfriendly side of the spectrum. Such irresponsible and opportunistic politicking has unfortunately become the hallmark of statesmen throughout the world, with very few exceptions.

With that playing in my mind, I started out my week in the capital city with a sense of restraint and trepidation. My usual routine would be to arrive, check in, and explore the surrounding area on foot looking to enjoy my first local meal. I didn’t do that this time. Instead, I ordered my first meal in the hotel at a ridiculous price, and stayed in until the next morning despite having arrived in the early afternoon. I stuck with the group from the conference I was attending for the better part of the week and felt no inclination to explore this immense city.

As the week dragged on, I looked for opportunity to believe that I was going to be treated as a stereotype but each time I was disappointed. I was treated as warmly or as dismissively as everyone else. The defining factor was the attitude of the locals that we encountered and not how I looked.

Eventually I shrugged off the paranoia, acknowledged that if I was to be the isolated incident there was nothing I could do to avoid it, and set out to explore the city on my own. Rather than use public transport or private taxis, I chose to walk. I needed to walk through the areas that the locals frequent if I hoped to get a sense of the real city instead of the tourist spots. I generally avoid the tourist spots except to see what is its appeal, before leaving to experience something more real.

Tourist spots are insincere. They’re deliberate shows of how the city wishes to be perceived, but rarely reflect what the city is truly about. It reminds me of a time when I visited Nice, France on a business trip. We were staying on the beachfront in a rustic but upmarket hotel, and everything was pristine. Buildings were well maintained, sidewalks were hosed down every night to get rid of the affluence of the pets of the affluent from the previous day, and it all seemed so idyllic. One morning I decided to take a different route to the conference centre and instead walked through the residential area just one or two blocks away from the beachfront. The contrast was amazing.

Pristinely maintained buildings gave way to unkempt apartment blocks with plaster peeling from the walls, and a healthy dose of graffiti to express the heartbeat of its residents. That felt more sincere than the polished facade of the beachfront. And so it was with Berlin. After having walked many miles through the city to see the usual attractions like the parliament buildings, Brandenberg Gate, and so on, I finally found myself walking through the back streets finding quaint little corner shops that weren’t unlike the ones we have back home, privately owned and owner run. Finally, I felt like I was closer to experiencing Berlin as a local.

Seeing people making their way home with shopping bags, and getting the whiff of the city’s bowels that made me gag every so often, I knew that Berlin was not as polished as its masters would like us to believe. But in that I found a distinct parallel between Berlin and Johannesburg, or even Cape Town. There is the side that gets all the attention to lay credence to our claim of being a world class African city, and there’s the real Johannesburg with its downtown slums that once used to enjoy the prestige of being the night life of the high life, and its neglected townships that dot the periphery. Sandton with its richest real estate in Africa is really on par with what the upmarket spaces of Berlin have to offer, but there is a grittiness to the in-your-face attitude that South Africans have that prevents us from selling it for more than it is.

All of this aside, the underlying human history (for lack of a better phrase) appear like sisters with Berlin, and pretty much every other foreign city that I’ve visited. Social classes exist, politics drive preferences, and business in the tourist spots are disproportionately valued compared to the townships or suburbs where real life happens. Every few generations witness the emergence of elitist leaders that have an emboldened conviction in driving a supremacist agenda, like Hitler in Germany, and apartheid in South Africa. Following on from the survival of those eras of stupidity we see the emergence of the opportunists that consistently lay the blame for their incompetence at the feet of their bigoted predecessors.

Occasionally I get a sense of a collective pride in what the locals feel about their city or their country. It’s similar to the annoying pride that Cape Townians have about Cape Town. But even with its recognition as the most beautiful city in the world, the elitism and the social class systems based largely on economics rather than race, also presents the lipstick on the proverbial pig. Berlin is no different, and so is every other city I’ve visited internationally. Some struggle more than others to keep us focused on the lipstick instead of the pig, like Delhi for example, but the unwillingness of the locals to believe that their idealism is a far cry from the reality that they avoid is consistent throughout.

We all have a need to be associated with something we’re proud of. When we’re disgruntled or excluded, we find it easy to focus on the pig while ignoring the lipstick, and vice versa. Everywhere I go, I see the same themes. Egotists pretending they’re better than others because they’ve accumulated more trinkets than the next. Meanwhile, the only difference is really the amount of generations that passed down the wealth that either made it old or new money for the current generation to control, or squander. South Africa is very much caught in the throes of the new money. And as is the case with new money, there is an inclination to flash it at the old guard more than there is to appreciate it and put it to good use for the future generations to come.

As old as Germany is, it was a somber reminder that awaited me at the Topography of Terrors Museum that confirmed that human degradation transcends wealth and race. All it needs is a collective sense of superiority coupled with a collective sense of fear, add some autocratic power, and you have the makings of another disaster. South Africa is on the brink of the same insanity, and it’s only a matter of time before we see leaders either rising up to stem the tide towards the abyss, or we witness the first inevitable fall from grace of a gluttonous government that is so self-absorbed in their struggle rhetoric that the squander of the promise of a decent life for all is a small price to pay for their 15 minutes of new money fame that they can wag in front of their colonial masters, as if that is a token of success.

History, if nothing else, has proven that success is far from the accumulation of wealth or power. Both have come and gone only to be replaced by a new wave of self-enrichment. There will never be a shortage of such beings. The ego of the nation will forever echo in its leaders. So it was with Germany when Hitler architected his popular revolt to drive forward a warped agenda, and so it seems it will be with South Africa if we don’t dig our heels in and resist the tide that is slowly steering us towards the annihilation of everything beautiful that South Africans subscribed to and aspired to achieve when apartheid fell. Unfortunately the elders that lived through that struggle failed dismally to establish an appreciation in the generations that followed of the values and the higher goals that drove their actions, and instead have created a generation of black colonialists that now threaten to do exactly what they despised about their colonial masters. But it seems it’s the African story, and South Africa will not be denied.

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