A Letter from South Africa
A year after the Buddhist Retreat Centre opened, Rob Nairn, a retired lawyer and professor of criminology from Zimbabwe, moved to an abandoned village in the Karoo (in Cape Province, South Africa). He had met the Dalai Lama in India in 1964 and later, while studying in Edinburgh, Akong Rinpoche of Samye Ling. In 1982, Akong Rinpoche visited South Africa and Nairn's community became officially affiliated with the Karma Kagyu tradition. Over the years, as more people bought derelict houses, the community expanded. But when Nairn decided to go to Samye Ling to do a four-year retreat, activities gradually wound down and the properties were sold off. However, a core group remains and this year Nairn, having completed his retreat, will return from Scotland with Akong Rinpoche.
The focus of Buddhist activity in the Cape is the Dharma Centre at Somerset West, founded by and located in the luxurious home of Heila and Rodney Downey. As with most South Africans, the Downeys' interest in Buddhism began with retreats at Ixopo. They were inspired to start a sitting group in their home by a visit from Joseph Goldstein in 1984. The following year the Dharma Centre was registered as an ecclesiastical organization. The Downeys started traveling to Roshi Philip Kapleau's center in Rochester, New York, which lent a Rinzai Zen emphasis to their activities. In September 1989 the Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn came to South Africa and since 1991 the Dharma Centre has become formally affiliated with Seung Sahn's Kwan Urn Zen School.
Johannesburg, a vast Los Angeles-like sprawl of a city, has a number of embryonic Buddhist groups, but none as yet has succeeded in creating established centers.
Because of the disdain in which South Africa was held during the apartheid years it was virtually impossible for South Africans to obtain travel visas to Asia and to train in Buddhist monasteries. Consequently, the initial interest in the dharma did not develop as it did in Europe and America and its growth was slowed down or arrested. This has resulted in the state of Buddhism in South Africa today being similar to what it was in the West about twenty years ago. Only now, at the dawn of the "New South Africa," does the situation exhibit the openness and potential both to attract more visiting teachers and to germinate a range of centers representing a wider spectrum of Buddhist schools. If the seeds that have been planted are given the right conditions to grow, the coming years could well see a minor explosion of interest in Buddhism in the country.
A potent symbol of this possibility, attracting considerable attention in the media, is the construction of a huge Buddhist temple complex at a cost of eighty-million Rand (about forty-million U.S. dollars) in the town of Bronkhorstspruit by Taiwanese Buddhists. Although primarily intended to serve the growing population of ethnic Chinese who work in the town, the temple will function as the most visible sign of a Buddhist presence on the Southern African landscape.
TEN YEARS AGO Breytenbach described South Africa as: "No Man's Land. Another world. A world of genteel manners and old-fashioned picnics. And a vicious world. A land of harsh, dream-like beauty. Where you can feel your skin crawling. Ever on that last lip of annihilation." A description as true today as when it was written. Nobody knows what is going to happen next. And South Africa used to be the one place in the world where the distinction between right and wrong was so clear-cut. The dismantling of apartheid has destroyed one of the few moral certitudes right-thinking people had remaining. Ironically, this has led many former activists to withdraw from a political situation now revealed as intolerably complex.
Releasing Nelson Mandela, lifting pass laws, desegregating buses, and preparing for free elections has not magically transformed the society. When the euphoria subsided, people looked around and saw that everything was much as it was before. The inequalities between white and black were not just the result of a singularly perverse piece of legislation. They are now stubbornly rooted in economic realities that cannot be cast off by a stroke of the president's pen. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it the credibility of Communism, the ANC finds itself with no political alternative to free-market capitalism. The major parties broadly agree that the way ahead entails massive economic development along Western consumerist lines. But improved education, foreign investment, the buildup of business and industry are measures that take time and produce no quick results.
Will the black majority, whose aspirations have been suppressed for so long, put up with this? Understandably, the whites live in fear. People are so jittery that even a firework display can cause them to panic. Even the white liberals who detested the apartheid regime harbor the deep guilt of having benefited from the system. It is easy to protest, but much more difficult to accept a change in one's standard of living. Everywhere in the affluent white suburbs high walls have been erected, capped with razor wire or electric fencing, with signs on them naming the security company that guards the property's nervous inhabitants. "What do you call a BMW in Soweto?" runs a current black joke. Answer: "German takeout."
Dreadful as the conditions are under which millions of blacks live, every day hundreds more pour illegally across borders from surrounding countries to find a better life. Focusing so intensely on the political injustices in South Africa has blinded us to the broader problems that face not only its neighbors (Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola) but the African continent as a whole. The two-tier (rich minority/poor majority) economic system in South Africa differs from the two-tier systems of other African countries only in that it has been divided along overt (black/white) racial lines. This convenient dualism has likewise blinded many Europeans and Americans to the tribally based racism among the blacks themselves, a racism now erupting in daily acts of the most horrific violence. Many South Africans regard education as the key to any solution. Depriving blacks of decent schooling was one of the main ways the apartheid regime was able to keep them downtrodden. One consequence of this was the strengthening of tribal identity, one of the few values in which black communities could find a vestige of pride and dignity.