I have recently had cause to think about an image that would symbolize South Africa as we work with colleagues to represent Anabaptists in South Africa. The image that has not left me as I have considered this is one that I would never have expected before coming here.
The cell phone.
Upon arrival three years ago, we stubbornly stuck with our American policy of not having a cell phone. We soon realised that this was not only unfeasible but was downright rude to the people around us. For one thing, our landline never worked. At one point we thought about opening up our guest room to our Telkom technician so that he could just be there to fix our phone every time it went out. I would estimate that roughly half of our time in South Africa has been without a landline. And a landline is a financial impossibility for poor South Africans, requiring a physical address, a deposit, and a monthly rental fee. On the other hand, a cell phone can be bought for relatively little money and prepaid airtime can be added to it in increments of the equivalent of US 50c. I have yet to meet anyone too poor to have a cell phone. One time we saw a cow herder standing and talking on his phone while watching the cows graze.
The other reason that a cell phone is essential in this place is in getting to people's houses. It is almost impossible to give directions, especially in rural areas. It is also hard to predict times. So the way to find people is to phone them when you get to a certain landmark and that person will meet you there and take you the rest of the way.
And the cellphone is the great meeting of the African drive for networking and relationship with modern technology. We once heard a sermon preached on the need to be in right relationship and to make peace with your neighbours. The image used throughout the sermon was of 'network' and the image painted of how terrible it is to be 'without network.'
So now I need to eat my former assumptions and admit that this is my abiding image of South Africa and it is not a wholly bad one.
This is a video from our Bible School graduation in 2007. Watch for a few seconds and notice the woman dancing across the front while engaged in a more pressing activity.