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Not flying close enough to the sun: what Prague has in common with the southern tip of Africa




Credit: lenz art

Credit: lenz art

I have a fear of flying, but it’s not what you think.  Yes, my heart does leap into my throat at the first perceptible hint of turbulence, but it’s more than simply being airborne that induces panic.  Unless you are a bona fide (or falsified) VIP, your flying experience starts hours before take-off, and the ordeal often lasts hours after the seatbelt signs have been switched off and the aircraft doors have opened.

Let’s fast forward past the soul-destroying task of packing, the always-stressful car/bus/train ride to the airport, the tense moments before having your bulging suitcase weighed, and the tedious, often intimate, exposé of holey socks and transparent zip-lock toiletry bags during the security process.  Let’s assume the plane and its passengers were on time, no babies were on board and the pilot organised a smooth landing.  This was roughly my position after a recent trip to Prague.  My mother and I landed in London at 23:00, after a full weekend of sight-seeing, were ready to go home to prepare for the week ahead: she would be heading home to South Africa, and I would be going back to work.

That unique formula of shock, dread and anger is an emotion which the sight of a chaotic Passport Control hall never fails to induce.  Shock at the sudden appearance of hordes of tired travellers, dread in the knowledge that hours of precious sleep will forcibly be replaced by standing in a stagnant, unair-conditioned queue, and anger that no-one in the airport business, smug in the knowledge that people will pay to travel no matter what, has bothered to solve this daily occurring mess.

But what stings the most, especially as a South African, where these particular words bring up memories of a painful and abhorrent past, is the command “Europeans this side, Non-Europeans that side”.  More than the 90 minute wait, the sight of EU passport holders breezing through the gates, or the fact that only three of the ten or more officers on duty were assigned to the hundreds of “All Passport” holders, these words made me feel like an unwanted second-class citizen.  Not for one moment did I presume to compare my momentary discomfort with the experiences of the millions who suffered under apartheid, but on my long expedition home through Passport Control (which, as my mother pointed out, took longer than the flight from Prague to London), I did have time to consider the unlikely commonalities between South Africa and the country on the other side of the world which I had just visited.

It’s strange how words, especially those uttered glibly, can make such an impact.  I suppose for humans, who have an instinct for language, they are the best way to convey a feeling or experience to someone who wasn’t there.  Our tour guide in Prague asked us in a tongue-in-cheek way to forgive the locals their impoliteness because “Czechs are always being invaded…first by the Nazis, then by the communists, and now by the tourists.”  And as the days went by I could understand how their behaviour might be likened to a people under siege.  For such a celebrated and touristic city, customer service is often borderline to dismal: no time for smiles or small talk, just drink your coffee, pay your obligatory service charge and leave without a good-bye.  The grandeur and sophistication of the architecture were not reflected in the most people with whom, on a very superficial level, I came into contact.

Perhaps, as in South Africa, the wounds of a 40 year regime, based on the denial of human rights, are still healing; perhaps for some citizens they will never heal.  The Communist Party seized complete power of (the then) Czechoslovakia after a coup d’etat in 1948 – the same year apartheid was institutionalised in South Africa.  This event marked the start of the Communist totalitarian rule that lasted until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, around the same time that the apartheid regime began to crumble.  The intervening years were characterised by suppression, fear, torture and mistrust in both countries.  In 1993, Czechoslovakia split into two separate countries (the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and the first president of the Czech Republic was voted into power.  The following year, Nelson Mandela made history as South Africa’s first democratically elected president.  Both nations have been praised for their relatively smooth and peaceful transitions into democracy: the revolution in the Czech Republic was non-violent to the degree that it has been dubbed “The Velvet Revolution”, and the honeymoon South Africa of the 1990s has often been declared a miracle after the turbulent 1980s.

Where are we, as cities, now, 20 years later?  Both Prague and Cape Town present beautiful façades to the world – buildings and beaches, mountains and monuments – but scratching off the thin veneer exposes individuals and communities struggling to move on, pestered by crime and poverty (in South Africa) and suspicion and corruption (in the Czech Republic), even though many adults of today were born into democracy.  There is a point at which we need to move on, appreciate the power of our blood-stained privileges, and make ourselves, not our pasts, the masters of our potential-laden destiny.  It’s a decision that each individual needs to take for themselves, every day, but also one that needs to be taken by society as a whole.  When one considers the impact of the Collective Psyche, that society’s problems are mirrored in each of us, contaminating our own consciousness and making our feelings difficult to control, it becomes a little harder to judge the mindsets of those individuals who spoil it for the rest of us.

So perhaps I cannot judge a nation based on the behaviour of angry Czech waitresses, but I can weigh in on issues closer to home.  I can exercise my hard-fought right to vote to transform my city and country into one in which no-one feels like a second-class citizen – even in an airport, thousands of kilometres from home.

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Pamela Hellig

Proud Paarlite, Capetonian and South African on a London sojourn. Actuary by day, actuary by night, but a weekend epicurean through and through.