It was not until an American friend pointed it out to me that I realised that South Africans are obsessed with Italy and all things Italian. Why is it, asked the friend during a visit to South Africa last year, that everything that is meant to be something in South Africa has either an Italian name or Italian as an adjective? It is true. Think of all the “Tuscan-style villas”, which are in reality ugly townhouse complexes made off the same basic plan, that dot every major city and town in the country. What about the Bella Donnas and the Via-this and Via-that you find everywhere you care to look?
Then there are the “Italian” tiles, taps, marble and everything in between, including the kitchen sink, that cost a couple of grands extra because they are, well, Italian. What is up with that? Whence comes this fixation, this obsession with Italy and all its things? There is none of the colonial connection between South Africa and Italy that marks the latter’s history with Ethiopia and Eritrea, for example. I am told by an Ethiopian friend that even with that history, Ethiopians have none of the mania about Italy that South Africans have. Eritreans might play on their Italian history every now and again, my Ethiopian friend says, but even they have none of the complex and passion we South Africans have.
The biggest addiction of all is in the area of clothes. Who can forget all the shops that used to line the streets of downtown Johannesburg and other cities and towns, shops with original names like Real Italian Fashion Store and Italian-Style Clothing Store? Then there were and still are places that specialise in “real Italian leather”, “genuine Italian shoes” and “real Italian fashions”. How many of these goods are actually Italian or imports from Italy? How many of them can be said to be the genuine article? You know, real leather from a genuine Italian cow? How many of them have a genuine Italian provenance?
I remember a time in the 1980s when Gauteng townships were hit by an Italian craze. Everywhere you went, hip men and women would be dressed in “Matariana-style”, complete with Superga, the Italian tennis shoe that resembles the more popular Converse All-Star in its look. Sometimes, people dressed Matariana-style would wear shirts called Georgettes. I could never tell whether Georgette referred to the fabric or the design of the shirt. The shirts looked like men’s blouses to me. Expensive blouses. But hip people rocked those shirts like they were going out of fashion, which they thankfully did before the 1980s were out.
Then there was, of course, the Lacoste polo T-shirt. Everyone wanted one of these T-shirts. The bolder the colour, the better. I remember the colour red being especially popular. Folks would have wardrobes full of those T-shirts.
But it did not take long for some to start noticing that the crocodile on the front logo on the Lacoste T-shirts of many of those who favoured Matariana-style was not quite the genuine article. The mouth of this crocodile was opened particularly wide and was, shall we say, more boisterous than the crocodile you see on the genuine article. It was not long before townships sprouted Lacoste “experts”, people who claimed they could tell the real McCoy stuff from a mile away. It was mostly bunkum, of course. Most of these Matariana-style clothes were sourced from the same textile factories somewhere to the west of Johannesburg.
South Africans are not unique in obsessing over other nations. Remember the German philosopher who complained about the French making the revolutions the Germans had thought about first? Speaking of the French, how often do we hear people extolling the virtues of the French as if they and only they know how to live. Joie de vivre and all of that je ne sais quoi malarkey! Then there are nations constantly going on about what a better world this would be if we all could keep time like the Germans. Was it not, after all, one of the fascist justifications for Benito Mussolini’s reign in early 20th century Italy that while he might have been a crap ruler, he at least got the trains to run on time? Like the Germans, presumably.
The Brits may have, as some historians maintain, founded their empire in a fit of absentmindedness but we cannot ignore the fact that they may also have been driven by their pining for the sunshine enjoyed by others. Methinks the fact that the whole cheap flight business first took off in the UK is precisely because the Brits are still hankering after the sunshine of others. They cannot wait to get out of their own island.
With regard to South Africa’s obsession with Italy, one must assume that the existence of so many Bella Vistas and Bella Donnas and “Italian restaurants” is not yet the problem I think it is. After all, one would expect the Post Office and Telkom to have insisted that the owners of these places come up with something more creative and original for names. Don’t get me wrong, I have no beef with South Africa’s obsession with Italy. I just wish someone would explain it to me, though.
Jacob Dlamini is a PhD student in History at Yale University, a columnist for The Weekender, and former political editor of Business Day.