Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

The One Ring

People have often discussed the symbolism of the rings of power in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Some have tried to interpret the story allegorically, an approach that Tolkien himself rejected, and the question keeps cropping up.

Someone recently asked, in a Tolkien newsgroup:

Assuming Sauron’s fears would have come true, and Aragron had brought the Ring to Minas Tirith.

What could he have done with it?  Or did Sauron consider the unexpected appearance of the Army of the Dead as something that Aragorn had done with the Ring?

It seems to me that even attempting to answer that question would indicate that one had missed a central point of the story. Nevertheless, people do ask such questions, and there seems to be no adequate way of responding to them.

But the other day someone posted a graphic on Facebook relating to the elections taking place in the USA later this year, which seems to be an excellent response:

BernHil1

It says quite a lot about the US elections, and it says quite a lot about The Lord of the Rings. At least that it how it seems to me, writing from 10000 miles away from the US, in South Africa.

Of course it assumes familiarity with the plot of The Lord of the Rings, and it also assumes a certain degree of familiarity with US politics, and the different approaches taken by different candidates. Not being American, I rely on those online quiz thingies to tell me which candidates come closest to my way of thinking, and one of them told me that I side 94% with Bernie Sanders on most 2016 Presidential Election issues. Hilary Clinton came second. But the graphic summarises quite nicely the difference between them, if one is familiar with The Lord of the Rings, and it also, if one is at all familiar with the positions taken by the candidates and their supporters on various issues, helps to make the significance of the ring in the plot of the book clearer.

So one small graphic can help to clarify a political question, of who to vote for in an election, and a literary question of the meaning of a central artifact in a well-known novel.

 

Privilege and prejudice: the dangers of binary opposition

Someone posted this graphic on Facebook this morning, and like many such things it paints a simplistic picture of the world in terms of binary opposition. It portrays a binary opposition between privilege and oppression, and presents them as mutually exclusive.

privilegeIt’s a lie, and a dangerous one.

Believing such a lie can lead to stereotyping, and stereotyping can lead to prejudice, and prejudice can lead to bigotry, and in some cases it can lead to genocide.

Consider, for example, a child born to rich parents.

Such a child is privileged in enjoying adequate food, housing and clothing, and probably gets a better education than most children.

I don’t think one could deny that the child is privileged.

But the child is living in Germany in 1938, and its parents are Jewish. As a result, the child is bullied at school. Can one say that bullying is not a form of oppression, because the child is privileged, and its problems therefore cannot arise from oppression? I find that a difficult concept, a very difficult concept.

Or look at an example closer to home, for South Africans anyway.

Consider Bram Fischer.

In South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s he was a white Afrikaner male, the most privileged class of all in  that period. He was the son of a judge and the grandson of a prime minister, and his wife was the niece of another prime minister. He was a lawyer, one of the most privileged occupations. So there can be no doubt that he was privileged.

He was also a communist, and after the passing of the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950 communists were oppressed in South Africa. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for promoting the aims of communism, and though he escaped he was recaptured and was only released a fortnight before his death, because he was dying.

Bram Fischer was both privileged and oppressed.

Perhaps one reason that such binary opposition concepts are not difficult is media spin. The media love to promote stereotypes, and to put metaphorical black hats and white hats on people.

Perhaps in my old age I’m getting a bee in my bonnet about media spin. Is it actually getting worse, or is it just that I am getting more and more aware of it, and more obsessed by it?

Another example, now that it is an election year in the US, is the stereotyping of “Evangelicals”. We are told that US Evangelicals are divided — they don’t know whether to vote for Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. It seems inconceivable, to the media at least, that US Evangelicals might just possibly vote for someone else. You’ve heard of Islamophobia, but now there seems to be a growing Evangelicalophobia.

If you’ve been conned into believing the media stereotype of Evangelicals, please read this: So What, Then, Is “American Evangelicalism?”

If the media spin has led you to become prejudiced, or even bigoted about Evangelicals, print it out and read it daily until you are cured.

Another example of the binary opposition mentality surfacing is the recent South African debate about racism. There is no doubt that there has been a lot of racism in South Africa — the system of apartheid could not have lasted as long as it did if there hadn’t been racism, at least among white voters.

But I also believe that there is less racism now than there was. I found this article quite interesting, as it seems to indicate that we are less racist than some of our neighbours, as shown in the accompanying map:

racism10

Racism, though diminishing, has been around since before the end of apartheid, and some of the racists are quite vociferous. The white ones have mainly surfaced in the comments sections of online newspapers, where you see them in all their ugliness. The black ones mainly seem to surface on radio talk shows. At least that is where I have mainly encountered them, though if you look and listen carefully you can see that is usually the same people phoning in to the radio station, and the same people commenting on the article today as were commenting last week. They also appear sometimes on social media like Twitter, where I generally become aware of them though the chorus of disapproval of something that one of them has said.

Sometimes reaction against racism tends to promote stereotyping of the “All Xs are racist” or “They’re playing the race card again” kind, and that can lead to more binary opposition thinking. But we don’t have to go down that road. You can find a simple test for your own level or racism here: How racist are you?

Boolean algebra and logic with their simple opposition of True and False can be useful in many fields, such as electronics and computing, but in the field of human behaviour and human characteristics and human relationships, they can lead to some very distorted thinking.

 

The Blind Man of Seville (Javier Falcon, #1)The Blind Man of Seville by Robert Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A crime novel set in Spain.

Unlike some crime novels set in non-English-speaking countries, this one was not written in Spanish and then translated, but appears to have been written in English from the start, though it has quite a lot of Spanish words and phrases in it. The author has an English name, but his bio says nothing about where he was born or where he lives, or whether he lives or has lived in Spain.

The story grows more interesting and compelling as one gets into it. Robert Wilson uses a technique used successfully by Robert Goddard, where the solution to a current mystery is to be found in the past, and that sort of thing always appeals to the historian in me.

About halfway through I began to wonder if this was going to be a book that went beyond the average whodunit, and might say something significant about the human condition, perhaps a 21st century version of Crime and punishment. They quote from Albert Camus‘s novel The outsider.

One of the historical characters writes in his diary, in 1952

It is an irony not lost on me that here we are in Tangier, captives of the International Zone of Morocco, in the cockpit of Africa, where a new kind of society is being created. A society in which there are no codes. The ruling committee of naturally suspicious European countries has created a permissible chaos in which a new grade of humanity is emerging. One that does not adhere to the usual laws of community but seeks only to satisfy the demands of self. The untaxed unruled business affairs of the International Zone are played out in its society’s shunning of any form of morality. We are a microcosm of the future of the modern world, a culture in a Petri dish in the laboratory of human growth. Nobody will say, ‘Oh, Tangier, those were the days,’ because we will all be in our own Tangier. That is what we have been fighting like dogs for, all over the world, for the last four decades.

The corruption in business and government is what we see every day, and the newspapers are full of it. It is life as we know it, and the art in the writing is to reveal it to us.

Unfortunately he goes and spoils it all on the very next page by using the word “parameters” in a way in which no one would have used it in 1952. Well, perhaps they might have used it in Spanish, though not in English. It is too late even to think about that. The cord suspending disbelief is broken and it comes crashing to the ground.

No, Dostoevsky it isn’t, but it’s still an above-average whodunit.

View all my reviews

What has happened to paper.li?

For some time now I’ve been using the paper.li web site to make sense of Twitter.

One can get overwhelmed by so many tweets on different topics, and now that Twitter has added pictures, it’s become a bit of a bandwidth hog too, producing nearly as many “a script is not responding” messages as Facebook.

Paper.li produces a digest of articles with links on Twitter, suitably formatted and headlined. My personal one is The Steve Hayes Daily, which it makes from my Twitter feed.

But what I found even more useful was the ones based on Twitter hashtags, which enabled one to follow topics of interest. So I regularly look at The #Theology Daily and The #orthodox Daily.

There wasn’t one for my own field of Missiology, but paper.li let me create one, with the URL http://paper.li/tag/missiology. And you can see it as The #missiology Daily. So if anyone posts a link on Twitter to a missiological article, and includes the hashtag #missiology in the tweet, all those links will be conveniently collected in one place.

The problem is that paper.li no longer appears to allow this. The existing papers based on hashtags continue, but it seems that it is not possible to create new ones.

Inklings

Inklings

I am interested in the group of authors known as the Inklings (who include, among others, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield). There quite a number of bloggers who blog about these authors, and there are other interesting articles on their works that people tweet about, and I thought it would be nice to see tweets about them in one place, so I looked for an #Inklings paper on paper.li, which would have the URL http://paper.li/tag/inklings.

But there wasn’t one.

But paper.li invited me to create one.

I tried to do so, but the URL wasn’t based on the tag, it was based on my name, and the content was a mishmash of stuff, none of which seemed to relate to the #inklings hashtag. I deleted it and tried again, but it still didn’t work. So it seems that the people at paper.li have removed the functionality of creating a paper based on a hashtag.

Boo hiss!

Actually the people who run web sites seem to do this quite often. They come up with something that people find useful, and attract them to start using the site, and then they remove the very thing that attracted them. They seem incapable of learning the lesson that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Old friends met or remembered

In the last few weeks we have made contact with a lot of old friends, or their families. All of them were friends from student days in the 1960s, and all of them had attended conferences of the Anglican Students Federation (ASF) at Modderpoort in the Free State in 1963-1965. So these meetings brought back memories of student years. Perhaps others who were there will see this and also make contact.

Nomtha and Antony Gray

Nomtha Gray, Centurion, Gauteng, December 2015

Nomtha Gray, Centurion, Gauteng, December 2015

First was Nomtha and Antony Gray. Nomtha is the daughter of my friend Stephen Gawe, and she contacted me through a blog post she read, in which I described our experiences of culture shock when we went to the UK to study.

Nomtha’s father Stephen Gawe was a student at Fort Hare, and was elected vice-president of the Anglican Students Federation in 1963. He was also on the committee of the national Students Christian Association (SCA) which, in 1964, was on the verge of being torn apart by apartheid. The ASF was a unified federation for all Anglican students at universities, teacher training colleges and theological seminaries. The SCA had four sections — Afrikaans, English, Black and Coloured, and the Afrikaans section wanted these four sections to become completely separate from each other, and Stephen Gawe had to attend executive meetings where this was discussed. He also attended the annual congress of Nusas (the National Union of South African Students) so for him the July vacation was rush of going from one congress to another.

Stephen Pandula Gawe, Modderpoort, July 1964

Stephen Pandula Gawe, Modderpoort, July 1964

In August 1964 Stephen Gawe was detained by the Security Police under the 90-day detention law, along with 3 other students and was held for several months. Eventually he was charged with being a member of the then-banned ANC, and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. His father was the Anglican parish priest at Zwelitsha, near King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape.

On his release from prison he was banned. He applied for, and was given, an exit permit, which allowed him to go to study in the UK The exit permit was given on condition that he never returned to South Africa, so it was, in effect, permission for permanent exile.

He studied at Oxford University, and while he was there he married Tozie Mzamo, on 19 August 1967 (click here to see wedding pic etc).

Antony and Nomtha Gray, Centurion, Gauteng, December 2015

Antony and Nomtha Gray, Centurion, Gauteng, December 2015

On completing his studies he became a social worker in Southampton, and he and Tozie had two daughters, Nomtha and Vuyo. After the first democratic elections in 1994 he was able to return to South Africa and he joined the diplomatic service. We had a reunion in July 2001, just before he went to take up a new post as Ambassador to Denmark.

Ten years later his daughter Nomtha got in touch after reading the blog post that mentioned his wedding, and when she and her husband Antony visited South Africa in December 2015 we met them off the Gautrain and had a drink together in Centurion. It was really good to meet them.

Palesa Vuyelwa Dwaba

Then last week there was another comment on a blog post by Palesa Vuyelwa Dwaba, who said I had mentioned her father, Sechaba Noel Lebenya, in the post on Tales from Dystopia II: Enemies of the State. I was writing about an official list of enemies of the apartheid state, and listed those I knew, or thought I knew.

Sechaba Noel Lebenya, Modderpoort, July 1964

Sechaba Noel Lebenya, Modderpoort, July 1964

So I wrote to her, and said I had met a Noel Lebenya at the Anglican Students Federation Conference at Modderpoort in July 1964, and I thought he was possibly the person on the list. I fished out an old photo of him taken at the conference, and she confirmed that it was her father, and said that he had died in 2005.

In July 1964 he was a 1st-year social work student at the University College of the North at Turfloop, and he lived at KwaThema, near Springs. Another friend, Cyprian Moloi, who had been a student at the Federal Theological Seminary at Alice the previous year, and had been at that year’s ASF conference, was serving as a deacon in KwaThema, and those of us who were not (like Stephen Gawe) attending other student conferences, spent quite a bit of the rest of the vacation running around seeing each other, and talking incessantly about anything and everything.

I also found a group photo of several of us at Modderpoort, all wearing blankets, because Modderpoort was one of the coldest places in South Africa, and the winter of 1964 was one of the coldest winters ever. I had borrowed my mother’s car to drive to Pietermaritzburg and take some fellow students to Modderpoort, and as we drove up Van Reenen’s Pass with a full load the engine temperature dropped to “cold” and the heater stopped working — the water was simply not hot enough to warm the cold air. From Bethlehem to Modderpoort we passed patches of snow — but the snow had fallen a fortnight earlier.

Henry Bird, David Shory, Jerry Mosimane, Noel Lebenya, Stephen Hayes at Modderpoort, July 1964.

Henry Bird, David Short, Jerry Mosimane, Noel Lebenya, Stephen Hayes at Modderpoort, July 1964.

I lost touch with Noel Lebenya after 1965. I went to study overseas in 1966, and on my return in 1968 I was in Durban and then Namibia. His daughter Palesa filled me in on some of the details, but her parents separated when she was quite young, so she is still hoping to learn more details of his life.  He seems to have spent some time on Robben Island, and perhaps with his social work background he was starting a centre for the disabled in Daveyton in the early 1990s and continued to work on it for about 10-12 years.

Nomvula Dwaba, Dambisa Dwaba, Palesa Palesa Vuyelawa Dwaba, Sechaba Noel Lebenya

Nomvula Dwaba, Dambisa Dwaba, Palesa Vuyelwa Dwaba, Sechaba Noel Lebenya

It was good to have news of him from his daughter Palesa, and the picture of him, looking older (don’t we all?). Palesa completed her LlB degree at the University of Johannesburg last year, and is now articled as an attorney, but the picture is of her half-sister’s graduation.

Of the other people in the blanket photo, I last saw Henry Bird in the early 1980s. He was living in Eshowe, and working as an estate and general agent, when we were living in Melmoth. David Short visited us in 1987, and is living in Bedfordshire, England, where he is a shepherd; he has a web site here. I saw Jerry Mosimane in Johannesburg a few times in 1968, after my return from studying in England, but lost touch with him after moving to Durban.

Martin and Wendy Goulding

Yesterday we visited Martin and Wendy Goulding in Melville, Johannesburg. Martin also attended ASF conferences in the early 1960s, and we have seen them more often, since they were living in Durban when I went there in 1969.

Martin Goulding, Melville, Johannesburg, 18 January 2016

Martin Goulding, Melville, Johannesburg, 18 January 2016

Martin has retired as a chemist in a glue factory, and they usually live in a cottager in the Drakensberg foothills, but they were in Johannesburg to help their daughter Elizabeth with their latest grandchild, Rebecca, aged just four weeks when we visited.

When we were students Martin had an old Morris Minor and we did some of our frenetic running around and seeing people in that, except that it often broke down, and so the journeys either took longer than expected, or had to be completed with another vehicle.

In July 1965 he drove to Johannesburg from Durban to give me a lift back to Pietermaritzburg for the next university term. The car died in Villiers, and he had to hitchhike the rest of the way. We hitchhiked back to Villiers, and discovered that the car dynamo was dead. We spend an uncomfortable night sleeping in the car, and fortunately discovered someone in Villiers who could sell us another dynamo on a Sunday morning.

Wendy Goulding with granddaughter Rebecca. Melville, Johannesburg, 18 January 2016

Wendy Goulding with granddaughter Rebecca. Melville, Johannesburg, 18 January 2016

Back in Durban Martin said that one of the stories that had always impressed him was the story of the sinking of the SS Titanic, and while the ship was sinking the orchestra sat on the deck playing “Nearer my God to thee”. We then went for a drive in the Morris Minor, with Martin sitting on the roof playing “Nearer my God to thee” on his ‘cello. A traffic cop stopped us and stopped our fun by insisting that all passengers must be inside the vehicle.

Barbara van der Want

Perhaps the most astounding of all these old friends meetings was when we had knocked on the Gouldings’ gate, and Martin had just opened it to let us in, I heard someone calling me from across the street, and it turned out to be Barbara van der Want (formerly Hutton), who happened to be passing at that moment and saw me.

My cousin Jenny Growdon (now Aitchison and Barbara Hutton (now van der Want), Germiston Lake, 22 January 1964

My cousin Jenny Growdon (now Aitchison) and Barbara Hutton (now van der Want), Germiston Lake, 22 January 1964

I knew she lived just down the road at Westdene, but I hadn’t seen her since about 1973. She too had been at most of these student gatherings in the 1960s. We did not have much time to talk, as she was off to a meeting, but she did have time to tell me that another friend, Pam Trevelyan (nee Taylor) had died last year.

Pam Trevelyan (nee Taylor) and Isobel Beukes (nee Dick).at Holy Rood Mission on the Swaziland border, 26 September 1965

Pam Trevelyan (nee Taylor) and Isobel Beukes (nee Dick). at Holy Rood Mission on the Swaziland border, 26 September 1965

One of the memories we chatted about with the Goulding was of a journey we had taken in a short September vacation in 1965. We were meant to go in Martin Goulding’s Morris Minor, but it broke down, and we went in a borrowed car from Pietermaritzburg to Johannesburg — Martin, Pam Taylor, Isobel Dick (now Beukes) and me.

Martin Goulding at Holy Rood Mission near Piet Retief, 26 September 1965

Martin Goulding at Holy Rood Mission near Piet Retief, 26 September 1965

After seeing friends in Johannesburg, we went east to Holy Rood Mission, on the Swaziland border near Piet Retief, and spent the night there. It was just the four of us, sitting round a table lit by candles and paraffin lamps, and we were telling each other the sad stories of our love life, tales of unrequited love.

When it was late, and we were about to go to bed Pam disappeared, and came back and gave us each a card, on which was printed. “Thank you for telling me your story. It is the saddest story I have ever heard. Please accept this card as a token of my deepest sympathy.” She said her father had had them printed to give to people who came to him with sob stories. And now it was sad to hear that Pam had died.

It has definitely been old friends month.

And perhaps there is just space for a couple more pictures and stories.

Cyprian Moloi

Cyprian Moloi

Martin Goulding playing "Nearer my God to thee" on his Morris Minor, Miranda. Durban, 6 September 1965

Martin Goulding playing “Nearer my God to thee” on his Morris Minor, Miranda. Durban, 6 September 1965

After one of those student conferences at Modderpoort a group of us went to a Sunday service at Meadowlands, which was Cyprian Moloi’s home parish (that was when he was still a student, before he was ordained). There was quite a big group of us, with John Davies, the Anglican chaplain at Wits, and his family. Mark Davies, aged 4, was deaf, and John Davies said that the only way a deaf child could see what the church was about was if people in the church showed him love, and did not scold him for being too noisy, as he had no idea how much noise he was making.

After the service we were gathered found the door, and Barbara van der Want (Hutton), leaned forward to look around some people to see Mark Davies coming out of the church, and Cyprian pulled out a packet of cigarettes and offered her one saying, “All right, I know what you want.” All the smokers roared with laughter. As a non-smoker, I didn’t get it at first, but it appeared that at the conference Barbara had been bumming cigarettes off everyone so that she no longer had to ask.

That same night I borrowed a friend’s motorbike to take Barbara home to Kensington , where she lived. It was a puny 75cc bike, and could not make it over Sylvia Pass with both of us aboard, so we went the long way round via Gilooly’s farm. We planned to go to Evensong at Barbara’s home parish of St Andrew’s. Because of the detour, we were late, and because of the cold, we were both wearing blankets, as we did at Modderpoort. That set the cat among the pigeons. Churches were a good deal more fussy about how one dressed in those days, and the following Sunday the Rector, Tom Comber, preached a special sermon on it, in which he said that the only garment one needs to wear to church is the garment of charity.

And to close off, here’s an extract from my diary for 3 July 1964, at the ASF conference, which mentions both Stephen Gawe and Noel Lebenya.

I woke up feeling sick, so did not go to Mass, but got up for breakfast at 8 am. Then Miss D. Aitken, principal of the Rhenish High School at Stellenbosch, spoke on Evolution, Science and Christianity, which was largely based on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

In the afternoon the Bishop of Bloemfontein gave a review of The Primal Vision which was interesting, but not of much use to people who had not read the book, and most hadn’t. Reports from discussion groups showed that most people had dismissed it as being of no value whatever.

In the evening we sang songs, and then later on a few of us – John de Beer, Noel Lebenya, Stephen Gawe and I, sat around talking long after midnight. Noel told us about his many girlfriends, and his steady in Bloemfontein. The rest of us argued with him about this – saying that if he expected to be able to trust his steady, she should be able to trust him. He is a nice guy, went to school in Thaba Nchu, and then worked for a while, and is now in his first year at Turfloop, doing social work. He had taken to wearing a blanket around the place, and it seems to suit him. His grandfather was a Mosotho.

Everyone else drifted off to bed, and only Stephen Gawe and I were left. We played a couple of games of chess – he beat me easily both times. Then we talked about people at the conference, and who would be suitable to elect to the executive at the AGM tomorrow. Mike Stevenson was the obvious choice for President, if he would stand again. Stephen thought Clive Whitford for Vice-President, and I thought Jeremiah Mosimane would be better. He is doing 2nd year BA at Turfloop. We both thought Mavourneen Moffett would be good as Secretary. Then, as it was about 4 am, we said Mattins together, and prayed, and went to bed, lying next to the fire in the common room.

One of the nice things about blogging is that it one suddenly gets discovered by old friends, or their children, so the last few weeks have been very interesting.

Anger and outrage

Yesterday morning we were driving around running errands and in between stops we heard snatches of an interview on the car radio. They were discussing some particularly horrible murders in which the victims had been beaten and mutilated, and they were described as “hate crimes”.

Perhaps this was one of the cases they were speaking about Police continue search for suspects in Vanderbijlpark rape, murder:

Gauteng police say they are searching for an unknown number of suspects involved in the rape and murder of a 20-year-old woman in Vanderbijlpark.

Her mutilated body was found at a nearby school last month.

While gay rights groups believe the woman was attacked because she was lesbian, police say the motive for the murder is not yet known.

I’m not sure how they can search for an “unknown” number of suspects — either you suspect someone or you don’t. But presumably if they track them down they will arrest the unknown number of people to charge with murder.

The radio interviewer was asking about whether the crime they were discussing was a “hate crime”, and the person being interviewed was talking about such crimes, and saying that there were many of them, and referred to several instances.

Then the interviewer asked whether we South Africans were angry enough, and whether we had enough outrage, clearly expecting the answer to be that we were not angry enough, and that we did not have enough outrage, and that we should have more.

SilouanAnd the incongruity of it struck me. Here they were discussing crimes that were clearly motivated by anger and outrage. “Hate crimes”, by definition, are characterised by hatred, anger and rage. The mutilation of the bodies, and the brutality of the beatings the victims had received clearly pointed to great anger — and here was the interviewer apparently calling for more. Hair of the dog that bit you!

People are tweeting their hatred of other people. and, as Tom Lehrer put it, “There are people who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that.”

The problem with us in South Africa is not that we don’t have enough anger and outrage, but that we have far too much.

 

Enablement — a new pondian difference?

I’ve just discovered a new (to me) and hitherto entirely unsuspected difference in meaning of a word on the east and west sides of the herring pond that geographers call the Atlantic Ocean. It seems that in North America “enablement” means something completely different from what it means in South Africa, and to all accounts, the UK. I’m not sure about other parts of the English-speaking world.

Someone posted this chart of virtues on Facebook:

VirtuesI reposted it, with the comment that I was puzzled by “Enablement”, as I could not see where it fitted. I would have said “Altruism” there, perhaps, even though it sounds a bit Ayn Randish.

Evan Kirshenbaum, an American and a respected language fundi, responded, “The notion is being so uncritical that you wind up helping somebody’s self-destructive behavior.

That seemed weird.

It is almost completely opposite to the way I have usually heard the world used. To me, and I’m sure to most South Africans, “enablement” means helping someone to do something for themselves rather than always relying on others to do it for them.

The classic example is teaching a child to tie its own shoe laces.

Tying your own shoe laces is self-destructive behaviour?

The mind boggles.

I’ve mainly heard the term used in the context of community development and political activism.

It meant enabling people to do things for themselves rather than waiting for the government to do things for them.

One of the classic examples was in a handbook for community development compiled by an American friend.

Back in the day (ie about 45 years ago) a deputation from a small rural community in Zululand went see the local magistrate to complain that they had no drinking water.

Magistrate: Why don’t you have water? The government just built a new dam.

Community leaders: “Yes, but we cannot drink the water in the dam.”

M: Why can’t you drink the water?

CL: There is a dead dog in it.

M: Why don’t you just remove the dog?

CL: It is the government’s dam. The government must remove the dog.

Now there are various  sub-texts about power relations in that story that are explored in the manual of community development. I am using the story here simply to illustrate the kind of attitude of dependency that enablement is intended to overcome, and it is the dependency, rather than the enablement, that is seen as self-destructive.

So how did a word get transformed to mean almost its opposite in the space of 45 years?

Update 26 January 2016

I have done some more historical research, and established that the difference is not pondian, in the sense that it has different meanings on different sides of the Atlantic ocean, since both meanings originated in the USA.

The terms enabler and enabling (in the sense I have described) were introduced to South Africa in the mid-1960s by an American Episcopalian priest, Don Griswold, and the circumstances of the introduction were as follows.

The Anglican Bishop of Zululand, Tom Savage, wanted lay people to be more active in the church, and tried by various means to promote “the ministry of the laity”. At some point, presumably on a visit to the USA, he had been introduced to T-Groups, also referred to as Sensitivity Training, Encounter Groups or Group Dynamics. This method of experience-based education in group processes was endorsed by the US psychologist Carl Rogers.

Bishop Savage invited Don Griswold to come to South Africa, and he was the Rector of the parish of Holy Cross in Empangeni, and ran T-Group training at the diocesan conference centre at KwaNzimela. Bishop Savage encouraged all the clergy to take part in this training, and most of the groups were mixed clergy and laity, black and white, male and female, Zulu-speaking and English-speaking. As Bishop Savage had hoped, the training helped to break down barriers between clergy and laity, black and white. The latter aspect of the training was anathema to the government of the day, which appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate these breeding grounds of leftists (a headline in one Afrikaans newspaper was brooines van linkses onthul (breeding ground of leftists exposed) .

Anglican clergy from other dioceses also attended the T-Group training, and so it spread to other parts of the country, and it also spread to other denominations. By 1970 there were ecumenical CELT (Christian Education and Leadership Training) groups in most of the major centres. Some of the lay people who attended were businessmen, who introduced it as work in the form of team-building exercises and so on, so it became quite widespread. Some of those who had originally been trained in the church context set themselves up as management training consultants, and began doing it in purely secular contexts.

T-group and associated forms of experience-based education also introduced new terms (or new meanings for old terms) into the South African church (and later secular) vocabulary. I shall discuss just three of these terms here, but there were others.

  • Feedback. Before T-groups “feedback” had an largely negative meaning. It referred to an often-undesirable characteristic of electronic circuits, the most common example being the howling noise produced in public address systems when the output of loudspeakers was fed back into the microphone. In group dynamics jargon it referred to a response to something someone had said in a T-group, usually not to the content of what was said, but rather to the effect that it had on the group’s interaction. It was later extended to almost any kind of response, usually elicited by saying “Tell me what you think of this.”
  • Facilitator. Each small group in T-group training (see the Wikipedia article for more information on the training method) had a facilitator. The term facilitator was used because the role of the facilitator was not to be a leader or a teacher. The facilitators were not to initiate group interactions, but merely to give constructive feedback to the group on what was taking place, where necessary.
  • Enabler. As part of Bishop Savage’s vision for more active laity in the church, the role of the clergy was defined as being enablers. The clergy were not to be ministers, or do all the ministry of the church themselves. Their task was to enable the laity to do ministry. So enablement goes together with the related term empowerment. The difference between the two terms is that empowerment refers primarily to giving people the confidence to do things for themselves that they had been passively waiting for someone else to do for them, and enablement meant equipping them with the skills needed to do those things. And this conception of the clergy as enablers was introduced by an American, Don Griswold, so it is not a pondian difference.

This meaning of “enabler” and “enablement” was the primary one in my mind until I I saw it in the graphic of the “virtues” shown above, where it puzzled me. And it still puzzles me how a term can come to mean almost precisely its opposite in the space of 50 years or so.

I find it difficult to believe that the negative meaning was widespread when the positive one was introduced, otherwise a different term would surely have been used, to avoid confusion. So there is still a question of how the terms “enabler”, “enabling” and “enablement” came to mean their opposites in popular connotation in the space of 50 years.

Yes, you can probably distinguish them by context, but in the diagram where I first encountered the negative meaning, there are no contextual clues. It just assumes that the negative meaning is primary and that everyone knows it.

Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised, because something similar happened to facilitator.

When I worked in the editorial department at the University of South Africa, someone came to speak to the department about a new task group that had been set up in the university. The person told us, with a perfectly straight face, that the task group was set up to “facilitate conflict”, and wondered why the editors collapsed into helpless giggles.

So what do you think “enablement” means?

 

Heatwaves and drought

According to the weather forecasts, today will be the hottest day ever recorded in Pretoria, with temperatures of up to 41 degrees C, which is about 105.8F, for those who use that measurement.That is the kind of thing you expect in a Greek summer, not a Gauteng summer.

I can only remember experiencing temperatures higher than that twice in my life — once was in Pietermaritzburg in the summer of 1968/69, when the temperature in town was 108F, and we drove up to Hilton and Howick to enjoy the comparatively cooler weather at 102F (about 39C). The other time was in Shayandima in Venda in 1984, when it was 42C — also about 108F.

We have also been having the driest summer in years. Usually by this time we are battling to keep the lawn cut, but there has been no need to mow it this year, because the grass has not been growing. I don’t know whether it is also a function of the drought, but we haven’t seen any sign of migrating butterflies, which often pass at this time of the year.

Near Senekal in the Free State, this summer.

Near Senekal in the Free State, this summer.

Other places have been suffering much more from the drought than we have. Rain in Lesotho brought some relief to Aliwal North, where it was reported that the Orange River had dried up. This coming weekend our son Jethro is planning to drive to Senekal in the Free State with 2000l of water in his bakkie. The drought has been pretty bad in Senekal, and water has to be brought in from elsewhere. They have a Facebook page to draw attention to their plight.

It might be easy to attribute the drought to global warming, or to freak weather conditions. Perhaps it is linked to El Niño, as many have said.

But I am old enough to recall the drought of the summer 1965/66, which in my recollection was just as bad as this one. I wonder if it is significant that it was exactly fifty years ago. Back then no one talked about El Niño — perhaps the link had not been discovered by then. Weather-tracking satellites were relatively new technology, the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, had been launched less than 10 years previously.

But it was hot, and dry, and the mealie crop was failing.

At that time I was working as a bus driver in Johannesburg — a temporary job for the summer vacation. And I was extremely lucky, for a temp, to draw a regular shift for a month; office hours with Sundays off. That was something only senior staff could dream of. The reason was that the regular driver had gone off for his summer holidays, and it didn’t take long for me to find out why. The route was central city, plying between the magistrates court and the old general hospital on Hospital Hill, through the middle of town and in the summer heat, when everyone was doing their Christmas shopping and the traffic jams were unbelievable. The schedule allowed 20 minutes for the journey, but it sometimes took longer than that just to traverse a single city block. In the week before Christmas we were sometimes lucky to complete three of our scheduled eight trips. People could have walked to their destination faster than riding on the bus, but riding the bus, though slower, was preferable to the heat and crowded pavements.

AEC Mark V bus belonging to Johannesburg Transport Department, Summer 1965/66

AEC Mark V bus belonging to Johannesburg Transport Department, Summer 1965/66

The heat!

Every day the temperature was over 95F (we measured such things in degrees F back then). And I was driving an AEC Mark V, like the bus in the picture, with the driver’s cab right next to the engine. And when it was standing idling in the traffic, the fan wasn’t turning fast enough to cool the water in the radiator, so the radiator would boil over 3-4 times a day, filling the cab with steam and making it like a Turkish bath.

There were water restrictions in cities, more severe than anything we have today. Up till now, the only restriction in Tshwane is that we are not allowed to use hosepipes, so we take our dirty bathwater out in buckets to water the garden. We have cut down to having a bath once a week, even though in the summer heat one gets pretty smelly.

But I don’t think the heat and the drought this summer are any worse than they were in that other summer 50 years ago. It seems to be much the same. Let’s face it, South Africa is a dry country, and we have always had periodic droughts. The only thing one can do is be prepared for them.

One other thing is different.

Back in 1968 we went for a drive from Pietermaritzburg to Howick because the latter was 4 degrees cooler at 102F. Yesterday we drove 100 km to Brixton, Johannesburg, for the Epiphany Service, and the car was air-conditioned, as cars weren’t usually, back in 1968. Now one can go for a drive even to somewhere that isn’t any cooler, just to cool down inside the car. But the car air-conditioner is a heat pump, just sending the heat inside the car to the already hot outside, and so contributing to global warming.

The Handmaid’s Tale – a novel of a dystopian future

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first saw this book in a bookshop, soon after it was first published, I looked at the title and cover illustration, and assumed that it was of a similar genre to The Name of the Rose and put it back on the shelf.

Then, seeing a copy in the library a few weeks ago, I looked at the blurb, and it looked more interesting, so I took it out and read it, and found it was more of a dystopian science fiction novel, of the same genre as Brave new world or 1984. It shares with both those novels the setting of a repressive regime that will not tolerate the slightest appearance of dissent.

HandmaidPerhaps the resemblances are deliberate, since it was probably written about 1984, the period in which the book of that name was set. But in The Handmaid’s Tale the regime is sufficiently new that the main character and many others could still remember what things were like before. And that got me wondering, while I was reading, how a new regime could effect such a complete change in society and its values in such a short time.

In part it was explained by a programme of intensive indoctrination by a group of women called Aunts. The society is rigidly stratified and segregated, with females being designated as Wives, Aunts, Marthas and Handmaids, and males as Commanders, Guardians and Angels. Reading is forbidden, and the possession of books is punished.

The problem with this is that it results in extreme boredom, and in that respect Brave New World is more convincing, with its provision of an endless stream of compulsory frivolous entertainment to distract the populace from any thoughts of resistance or revolution.

One of the things that drives the society is a drastic drop in fertility, which is also the opposite of Brave New World. In The Handmaid’s Tale birth control means controlling every fertile woman (the Handmaids) to make sure they do not evade their duty of giving birth. But the drop in fertility is never adequately explained. At first one thinks that there has been a nuclear holocaust, but the society seems far too orderly for that. There is food in the shops, there are cars on the streets, and there are even neighbouring countries whose borders can be crossed (and, which, it seems, are not similarly repressive, so people even try to seek asylum in them).

Women's March to the Union Buildings, 9 August 1956, protesting against a law requiring black women to carry passes.

Women’s March to the Union Buildings, 9 August 1956, protesting against a law requiring black women to carry passes.

So I think back to my own past. The National Party came to power in South Africa when I was 7. Ten years later, it had certainly extended its control over society in many ways, but not to the extent or with the speed that is evident in The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet there was the stratification of society. The 1951 population census provided the basis for identity cards, issued from 1956 onwards, which stated the race of the holder, and that determined, far more rigidly than before, where they could live, which schools they could go to, what work they could do and so on. At the same time, the obligation of black males to carry passes at all times was extended to black women, and the women marched to the Union Buildings to protest, an event commemorated annually on Women’s Day, the 9th of August. They didn’t actually start shooting protesters in earnest until four years later, the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, 12 years after the National Party came to power.

In the book the new regime could not have been in power for more than 10-12 years at most. So how could it change society so quickly? And then I thought of Nazi Germany, where the whole thing only lasted 12 years from start to finish, so things must have happened much more quickly there.

There are religious elements that are absent in Brave New World and 1984 — Jews are deported, Baptists are insurrectionists on far-away borders, and Roman Catholics are routinely hanged. I’m not sure when exactly Samuel Huntington first enunciated his “Clash of Civilizations” theory, but I think this book anticipates it by a few years. It is redolent of the state religions and religious wars of early modern Europe, and the society depicted probably fits quite well into the vision of ISIS and what they are fighting for.

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Now there’s a thought

Now there’s a thought:

and liked your Tweet

For what it’s worth the tweet was:

Old ANC: The People shall govern. New ANC of tenderpreneurs: The Guptas shall govern.

 

 

 

 

 

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