On a sunny winter’s afternoon outside Jagersfontein, an unprepossessing town in the Free State, we encountered an unexpected moment of beauty. We were the first in a growing line of cars crawling along behind a truck that was itself labouring up a recently detarred road, spraying a fountain of water behind itself to tamp down the fine dust created by the mining disaster that had befallen the area the year before.
I was grousing, impatient to have the open road under our wheels again. Suddenly, my wife exclaimed, “Look!” Framed in our windscreen, a rainbow had appeared at the edge of the bonnet, tracing a vivid arc across the water spray that was washing down our car. Unexpectedly, the moment took on a new sublimity. I’m not saying that at the sight of an ersatz rainbow the shameful tailings-dam tragedy was forgotten. On the contrary: the simple poignancy of that refracting illusion in the quiet aftermath of that harsh man-made calamity cast everything in the momentary light of optimism.
The slow pace became an opportunity to peer out at our surroundings. The water truck became a symbol of resilience, someone trying to make things a little better. The hapless chap in the oncoming lane who was enjoying the mild Free State afternoon in his droptop became part of the whole briefly wondrous pantomime. You had to be there.
French singer Serge Gainsbourg, who really shouldn’t be taken as an authority on anything, once declared, “Ugliness is superior to beauty because it lasts longer.” That statement captures the sad fact that the most conventional thing about beauty is its fleetingness. Cape Town’s prosecco sunsets give way to dusky night too soon. A gleaming Mercedes droptop, ever so charming on a dappled Sunday morning, would be less enamouring if you tripped over one on every corner. A stranger’s face appears more beautiful when glimpsed briefly in the blurring hurry of a busy day. The Blue Nile’s A Walk Across the Rooftops, played really loudly on a Linn Sondek LP12, is more sublime because it’s over in barely half an hour. Beauty evades apprehension like a cloud does a grasping hand.
But of course, we know this, just as we know that beauty is never universally agreed upon. I happen to think that the Citroën DS is one of the prettiest cars ever invented, a view that provokes only cruel laughter from my mother. I deeply crave a Ducaroy Togo couch in some kitsch shade, while to others it resembles a bug in its death throes. I want nothing more than to place my imagined Citroën and my burgundy Togo in some brutalist glass-and-concrete casa, all of which would be perdition to most people.
Our society often seems indifferent to beauty. You’re just as likely to get a Harbour Arch as you are a Tuynhuys (the apartment building, not Cyril’s house). And though Raymond Loewy, the chap who deserves to be remembered for more than just the iconic coke-bottle design, said that “ugliness sells badly”, that dictum doesn’t explain why hundreds of South Africans part with fiendish sums of money for a shamefully ugly Toyota Fortuner box when they could cart about their offspring in a much prettier Volvo box, for similar outlay.
We seem reluctant to make our appreciation of beauty visible to others. And yet there are moments that seem to counteract this. Everyone briefly forgot their hardened cynicism to take in the beautiful sight of its snowing in Joburg. Crowds are hard to convince when they’re not pardoning Barabbas, but the good people of Joburg were all to be found glorying in nature’s most unexpected moment. I had another glimpse of this during the premiere of the Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival.
Milisuthando Bongela’s documentary about growing up in the waning days of apartheid-era Transkei, Milisuthando, is many things: polished, thoughtful, hilarious, heart-gripping. It’s also one of the most stunningly beautiful pieces of film I have seen in a long time. The 200-strong audience clearly agreed with me: when it ended, nobody seemed to want to break the spell by leaving. That’s the power of beauty.