South Africa: A Nation at War With Itself

04/16/2015 01:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2015

Returning to a city you once lived in (and loved living in) is a bit like spending time with an erstwhile lover with whom you parted amicably. There is so much that still connects you, that remains feels familiar; and yet the encounter is fleeting, transient, stirring up old memories and twinges of feeling; nothing solid. And, of course, with both there is scrutiny  --  what's changed? What has stayed the same?

I spent a year living in London, from mid-2010 to mid-2011. Since then, I've returned three times; I've just finished my most recent trip there. When I was living there, the city was still dealing with the aftermath of the financial crisis; a new government had just been cobbled together, promising austerity to rein in the budget deficit. Now, an election looms, too close, it seems, to call.

The headlines about austerity seem largely to have faded. And, in the capital at least, to the casual observer there is little obvious sign of it  --  try a swim at the gleaming Clissold leisure centre if you feel like being impressed by the public services offered to Londoners in these straitened times.

Indeed, the city  --  which has always been a vibrant place, throbbing with visitors and enterprise  --  seems buzzier than ever. Foreign languages and accents seem more prevalent than Cockney slang  --  in cafés, in streets, in busy shops.

If there were green shoots of recovery in the summer that I moved, five years later they've grown into sturdy blades: soaring new towers, cranes clawing over empty sites, and blocks quickly taking shape.

While the rest of the country might be very different (and I would imagine that the mood in Blackpool must be), in London a positive energy crackles overhead --  the city has its mojo back.

I love living in Cape Town, and I don't regret moving back to South Africa. The country has loads to offer  --  space, opportunity, complexity. It's a country of paradoxes: a country where there is incredible warmth, humor and kindness, but also where there is hostility, fear and violence. Even if you're not exposed directly to the latter, these qualities foment a tension, an intensity that permeates the fabric of society. It's a pressure cooker  --  exhilarating, compulsively fascinating but exhausting. It's healthy to step back once in a while  --  and London is the perfect place in which to do this.

I've been reminded, drifting anonymously among the multicoloured, multilingual, multicultural crowds in London, just how heavy the burden of history and identity weighs back home, and how liberating it is to escape from this occasionally. Of course identity matters everywhere (and I'm not saying it doesn't in London); but in South Africa it is particularly fraught and loaded thanks our divisive and violent history.

In London, identity seems something more malleable, less sticky. And history here might be ancient, and layered, but it's not oppressive. Migrants from all over the world are drawn to this city (much to the horror of Ukip, admittedly); many of these are talented and hardworking, committed to building a prosperous future.

South Africa, as a relatively prosperous and stable regional power, lures its fair share of migrants too  --  for sanctuary or opportunity or both. Some have lived in the country for years; others are new arrivals. As headlines about attacks on these foreigners appear once again, and as colonial-era monuments around the country are vandalized, I can't help but feel that South Africa isn't looking forward to the future: instead, we're trapped in the stasis of the present, angrily eyeing the past, and threatened by outside influence and ideas.

I'm not against engaging with the past; indeed, doing so is essential if we are to avoid repeating its mistakes. I understand there is a lot of dissatisfaction; a lot of anger; a lot of disappointment. The democracy dividend hasn't been paid to everyone in equal measure. We are still a long way from achieving the inclusivity and equality that our very fine constitution strives for. (It doesn't help that we have a president who is more interested in living a lavish lifestyle, staying out of prison and undermining democratic institutions than in governing well.)

But we will not attain redress for past wrongs, or generate prosperity by fixating on colonial symbols, or hunting down foreigners like aristocrats chasing a fox.

We're not going to move forward until we discuss instead of shouting down. Until we stop showing contempt for difference, diversity, nuance and plurality. Attacking is the easy part; it's the building up which is hard work.

This post first appeared on Matthews's Medium account.