In the aftermath of SABC anchor Vuyo Mbuli’s sudden passing, one of the legacy labels buzzing about the tribute-o-sphere is that of ‘patriot.’ President Zuma opined, ”It is hard to think of a more patriotic and positive person than Vuyo.” Fair comment, but what does that actually mean?
Just a month or so after 9/11, I visited the US to see American flags fluttering from office windows and ‘In-God-we-Trust’ banners draped over the bridges. Clearly, these symbols of national identity became quite dear at a time of great insecurity. People who perhaps took their citizenship for granted were now reminding themselves (and their children) of what it meant to be American. This is a nation where the pulpits of many churches are literally over-shadowed by Old Glory, an observation rather shocking to my Separation of Church & State theology.
The terrorist threat to the US, and its pursuit of a foreign policy often at odds with the interests of other nations, have combined to assert a patriotism predicated on negative sentiment. By which I mean: tribalism. My family, my clan, my tribe against yours. It’s a win-lose mentality, an evolutionary logic in which only the strongest survive. Patriotism, as popularised by the Chuck Norris / Mel Gibson / Sylvester Stallone generation, assumes a radically selfish interpretation of what is right, good and noble – as long as I have the Stars ‘n Stripes on my shoulder, I’m acting in society’s best interest. The question is, of course: whose society?
True, since the 60s countless ‘Nam movies have explored the ethics of war – but usually by focusing on the personal difficulties of a veteran while giving short shrift to the sensitivities of the invaded nation. Might is still right, especially at Hollywood.
In South Africa, we can relate. Before 1994, a white patriot looked very different to his / her black counterpart. ANC freedom-fighters were terrorists; our boys on the border were heroes. At least, that’s what my teachers told me and what I heard from my fellow pupils, reliably informed by their parents. When a ‘reccie’ (reconnaissance commando) was caught behind enemy lines, he achieved legendary status. Ah, that’s a patriot! Doubtless, the soldiers of ‘Mkhonto we Sizwe’ and other armed wings enjoyed similar status.
Hindsight being 20/20, it is of course unfair to evaluate cultural heroes in a post-dated context. My goal here is not to debate the motives that drove our generals, but simply to question our interpretation of that loaded word: ‘patriot.’ Countless war memorials have enshrined those of our forebears who put king ‘n country before themselves at great sacrifice. We all have our Arlington cemeteries our Blood River Monuments, our Yasukuni shrines. But do we have to die in a foreign invasion to be considered patriotic?
Vuyo Mbuli is rightly called a ‘patriot,’ not because he put the interests of a people singularly above those of other groups, but precisely because he treated all groups equally. There was something of the Madiba spirit in him. His patriotism was predicated positively, in unselfish ways. He was an ‘African patriot’ in the sense that he took pride in the achievements of all Africans, never at the expense of other ethnic groups. The way he exposed South Africa’s frequent bouts of xenophobia is testimony to that.
It was, after all, at a rugby match in Bloemfontein that he died. Oh yes; he was a patriot. Sharp sharp, Vuyo. Very sharp indeed.