Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Fathers and sons

Fathers and SonsFathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading about this book for fifty years or more, usually in connection with Nihilism as a worldview. Nihilism: nothing exists, nothing is knowable, nothing has value. A dreary philosophy, perhaps, but one expounded by one of the characters in this novel.

Back when I first heard of it, I was an Anglican, and the description of Nihilism reminded me of the Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity:

Almighty God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our Lord. Amen.

And so I conceived of a nihilist as someone for whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. And without God, Nothing is very strong indeed.

This was later reinforced by a computer game called Mazeland, which entailed exploring a monster-filled maze, where one encountered ever more powerful monsters, the most powerful of which was a Nothingness. The game usually ended with the sentence. “The Nothingness hit you 264.76 times. The Nothingness killed you.”

I pictured the book as being in some little winter-bound Russian peasant shack, with father and son shivering in front of the stove having deep philosophical discussions.

Then my son gave me a book voucher for my birthday, and at last I saw the book and bought it.

It utterly failed to live up to my expectations.

It is the story of a couple of university students on their summer vacation. They visit the parents of one, then on their way to visit the parents of the other stop in a town, go to parties, meet interesting people, chat to them, go to the parents of the other, then repeat. On their travels they fall in love, fall out with each other, and do lots of other things that students do on vacation.

This could be any students at any time, but Turgenev manages to describe conversations between the characters that seem to have a hidden meaning, and infuse this picture of everyday student life with something deeper.

At the particular historical juncture in Russia when the story takes place, there was the emancipation of the serfs, and perhaps in South Africa today with all the talk of land reform it rings bells for us in our history too.

I don’t know if Anglicans still use that Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity; I don’t even know if they still have a Fourth Sunday after Trinity. But at the end of the book I wanted to read that collect, and it seems to be the most fitting epilogue to the story. Let the reader understand.

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Land expropriation without compensation

Oh the irony!

President Cyril Ramaphosa is handing out title deeds to land which he wants to empower the government to expropriate without compensation. Ramaphosa hands out title deeds in Tembisa during Thuma Mina campaign – The Citizen:

He said through handing over title deeds, the government was giving people their dignity back, giving them a store of wealth and empowering them economically.

“A house is the most important asset that one can own,” Ramaphosa said.

He urged title deed holders to treat their certificates as valuable assets, adding that title deeds would be handed out throughout the country.

How can he do this with a straight face — tell people that these certificates are “valuable assets”, when his own government is planning to remove all value from them? The government giving with one hand while it takes with the other.

President Cyril Ramaphosa handing out title deeds (The Citizen)

President Ramaphosa chaired the commission which drew up the Constitution, including the restrictions on expropriating land without compensation. He, of all people, ought to have known what that clause was there for — because previous governments of the National Party had expropriated land without compensation, or with derisory compensation, to be able to move people around in its ethnic cleansing programme.

When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically-elected president he said “Never again”, but it seems that those who have followed him thought he meant again and again. And removing that clause in the constitution will open the way to all kinds of abuses — abuses that we thought we would never have to suffer again.

The relevant section of the Bill of Rights reads:

2. Property may be expropriated only in terms of law of general application ­

a. for a public purpose or in the public interest; and

b. subject to compensation, the amount of which and the time and manner of payment of which have either been agreed to by those affected or decided or approved by a court.

I believe a great deal of thought was given to that, and I was aware of many instances of abuse under the previous National Party government that had led to that clause being inserted into the Bill of Rights.

Among those abuses were the removal of people from Khumaloville to Hobsland. There was a black farming community at Khumaloville, where people had title to the land, and had two acre plots. The National Party government expropriated the land and offered the people half-acre plots at Hobsland in exchange. They were offered compensation of R42 for their two acres, and were given the opportunity of buying a further half acre at Hobsland for R55. At Hobsland they would also be subject to restrictions on their farming activities.

That was in the 1960s, under the programme of “Blackspot Removals”, and such things occurred all over the country.

Another instance, not concerned specifically with compensation, but rather with the abuses of expropriation, happened in the 1970s, not, this time, in the name of Blackspot Removals, but rather in the name of “Homeland Consolidation”.

A number of sugar farms between Eshowe and Empangeni in Zululand were expropriated from white farmers to be added to the KwaZulu “homeland”. One of the farmers, Guy Chennells, proposed that he stay on his farm for a couple of years, and share his skills and experience with the incoming black farmers, to enable them to make a go of running the farm. This was rejected by the National Party government, and a few years later the reason for the rejection became apparent — there were no black farmers. The farm, now owned by the government, was occupied and profitably farmed by a National Party functionary at a purely nominal rental, who was in no hurry to move out and thus consolidate the “Homeland”.

We are familiar with such corruption in our own day, as we see similar activities in state-owned enterprises such as Eskom. But they were less well known in the old days, not because they didn’t happen, but because back then we didn’t have a free press that could report them. If journalists knew of such things they were too scared to report them, and in the case of the few bolder exceptions, their stories were often spiked, because the shareholders in the newspaper firms were afraid.

Cyril Ramaphosa gives assurances that “land expropriation without compensation” will take place in an orderly and responsible manner, and of course when he is handing out title deeds to people he isn’t planning to immediately take them away again. But what he is planning to do is to remove the protection that would prevent anyone else from taking them away, as Julius Malema of the EFF is already promising (or threatening) to do if his party comes to power.

So Cyril Ramaphosa reminds me of B.J. Vorster who, whenever he proposed legislation that would grant him and his police extraordinary powers, would always reassure the public that these powers would not be abused and would be used responsibly, and that “the innocent had nothing to fear.” And in a way Cyril Ramaphosa is doing the same thing, saying, in effect, “don’t trust the constitution, trust me.”. .

And I’m reminded of this every Sunday in church when we sing

Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men,
in whom there is no salvation.
when his breath departs he returns to his earth;
on that very day his plans perish

 

Things fall apart

Things Fall ApartThings Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a short novel set in eastern Nigeria in the late 19th century. The protagonist, Okonkwo, is a man of renown in his village, first as a wrestler, and then as a self-made man who has worked hard to attain a position of respect in the community. But he is also hot tempered and something of a domestic tyrant over his family. He despises weakness in others, and in himself.

The traditional way of life of the village is disturbed by the coming of white men — missionaries, traders and colonial rulers. Okonkwo does not like the social changes they bring to the village, and urges others to resist them, but this resistance, and the manner of it, bring about his downfall.

The first half of the story is fairly static. It describes the village and its social life, the seasons of planting and harvesting, in a manner reminiscent of George Eliot. It enables the reader to experience something of the atmosphere of rural life. To readers from elsewhere, the description makes the unfamiliar become familiar. The main crops may be unknown in other places, but we are told enough about the farming methods to become familiar with the rhythms of rainy seasons and dry seasons, seed-time and harvest, and thus to appreciate something of the shock of social change when it comes.

As a missiologist and church historian I found the social change wrought by the missionaries particularly interesting. There are two missionaries in the story, Mr Brown and Mr Smith, The names are generic, deliberately so, I think. They represent two types of missionaries, and two different approaches to Christian mission in the 19th century.

The first, Mr Brown, represents the missionaries who preceded the New Imperialism of the 1870s and later. He is interested in the culture of the local people, and has religious discussions with them. I think this part is worth quoting in full, as it has much to say about Christian mission in general, and is thus of interest to missiologists:

(Mr Brown) made friends with some of the great men of the clan and on his frequent visits to the neighbouring villages he had been presented with a carved elephant tusk, which was a sign of dignity and rank. One of the great men in that village was called Akunna and he had given one of his sons to be taught the white man’s knowledge in Mr Brown’s school.

Whenever Mr Brown went to that village he spent long hours with Akunna in his obi talking through an interpreter about religion. Neither of them succeeded in converting the other, but they learnt more about their different beliefs.

‘You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth,’ said Akunna on one of Mr Brown’s visits. ‘We also believe in him and call him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.’

‘There are no other gods,’ said Mr Brown. ‘Chukwu is the only God and all the others are false. You carve a piece of wood — like that one’ (he pointed at the rafters from which Akunna’s carved Ikenga hung), ‘and you call it a god, but it is still a piece of wood.’

‘Yes,’ said Akunna, ‘It is indeed a piece of wood. The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were. But He made them for His messengers so that we could approach him through them. It is like yourself. You are the head of your church.’

‘No,’ protested Mr Brown. ‘The head of my church is God himself.’

‘I know,’ said Akunna, ‘but there must be a head in this world among men. Somebody like yourself must be the head here.’

‘No,’ said Mr Brown. ‘The head of my church in that sense is in England.’

‘That is exactly what I am saying. The head of your church is in your country, He has sent you here as his messenger. And you have also appointed your own messengers and servants. Or let me take another example, the District Commissioner. He is sent by your king.’

‘They have a Queen,’ said the interpreter on his own account.

‘Your queen sends her messenger, the District Commissioner. He finds that he cannot do the work alone and so he appoints kotma to help him. It is the same with God, or Chukwu. He appoints the smaller gods to help him because the work is too great for one person.’

‘You should not think of his as a person,’ said Mr Brown. ‘It is because you do so that you imagine that he must need helpers. And the worst thing about it is that you give all the worship to the false gods you have created.’

‘That is not so. We make sacrifices to the little gods, but when they fail and there is no one else to turn to we go to Chukwu. It is right to do so. We approach a great man through his servants. But when his servants fail to help us, then we go to the last source of hope. We appear to pay greater attention to the little gods but that is not so. We worry them because we are afraid to worry their master. Our fathers knew that Chukwu was the Overlord and that is why many of them gave their children the name Chukwuka — “Chukwu is Supreme.’

‘You said one interesting thing,’ said Mr Brown. ‘You are afraid of Chukwu. In my religion Chukwu is a loving Father and need not be feared by those who do his will.’

‘But we must fear him when we are not doing his will,’ said Akunna. ‘And who is to tell his will? It is too great to be known.’

In Achebe’s report of these discussions, which is probably a condensed report of thousands of such conversations, it strikes me that Mr Brown’s interlocutor, Akunna, had a better grasp of Christian theology than Mr Brown himself had.

Last week I heard someone speaking about Christianity in relation to Graeco-Roman and ancient Egyptian paganism, and some of the issues that arose from that seem remarkably similar. Mr Brown and Akunna represent two different approaches, and in Things fall apart the first approach, that the gods of the pagans are human inventions, is presented as Christian, and the second, that there is a great God, the Creator, who made the little gods, is presented as pagan. That was also the approach of the speaker I heard on Friday. But if we read the Christian holy scriptures, we can find both approaches.

Akunna’s remarks seem to echo Psalm 94/95:3 — For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods; or, in the Septuagint, ὅτι θεὸς μέγας κύριος καὶ βασιλεὺς μέγας ἐπὶ πάντας τοὺς θεούς·.

This is seen even more clearly in Psalm 81/82, which is sung with great jubilation in Orthodox Churches on Holy Saturday, and perhaps indicates the line that Mr Brown should have taken with Akunna — that the little gods have messed up. They have ruled the nations unjustly, and the Psalmist prays “Arise, O God, judge the earth, for to Thee belong all nations.”

And just before his death Jesus announces that he has come in answer to that very prayer: Now is the hour of judgement of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out, and I when I am lifted up, shall draw all men to myself” (John 12:31-32)

That’s not what Akunna said, but it’s not what Mr Brown said either. Mr Brown missed the point.

This can be seen more clearly in Deuteronomy 32, where both approaches can be seen. In verses:8-9:

When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God, for the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

That implies that while all the nations had their own national spirits (Akunna’s “little gods”), Israel alone could by-pass the middle man, and approach the Almighty directly. The “to Thee belong all nations” cry in Psalm 81/82 is a plea that this will come to an end, and when Jesus says he will draw “all men” to himself, he is saying that the time has come. That is why mission organisations in the Orthodox Church use the slogan “panta ta ethne” — “all nations”.

Also interesting is that Akunna speaks of the little gods as “messengers” of the great King above all gods, and the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 reads:

ὅτε διεμέριζεν ὁ ὕψιστος ἔθνη, ὡς διέσπειρεν υἱοὺς Αδαμ, ἔστησεν ὅρια ἐθνῶν κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ, καὶ ἐγενήθη μερὶς κυρίου λαὸς αὐτοῦ Ιακωβ, σχοίνισμα κληρονομίας αὐτ

When the Most High divided the nations, he divided them according to the number of the angels (ie messengers) of God. In other words, the little gods are angels, or messengers of God, which Mr Brown failed to recognise, though Akunna knew it.

And back in the second century St Justin Martyr explained that the pagan gods of ancient Greece and Rome were angels, albeit fallen ones, as the Psalmist laments in Psalm 81/82. But I’ve written more about that here.

Though Mr Brown had his shortcomings, however, he also had his good points. It was missionaries of Mr Brown’s type who, earlier in the century, had consecrated Samuel Adjai Crowther, a freed Yoruba slave, as a bishop in western Nigeria.

Mt Smith, who followed Mr Brown, represents the new-style missionaries who came after the New Imperialism. They were more confident in themselves, more convinced of their own superiority, and less willing to learn anything from the local people. They were generally racist, and denounced their predecessors who had consecrated a native bishop in the person of Samuel Adjai Crowther, saying that it was premature, and the natives “weren’t ready for it”. For the Mr Smiths it would take centuries if not millennia of white tutelage before Africans were ready for a black bishop.

The Mr Smith-type of missionary was dominant until 1914, when the First World War shook European complacency and the tide of the New Imperialism began to recede. Achebe doesn’t take us that far, however. He just shows us the effect that it has on Okonkwo.

Achebe also shows how colonialism introduced or exacerbated corruption in African society, and how Christian mission became entangled with colonialism. If these things were unique to one small part of eastern Nigeria, it would perhaps make the novel less interesting, but in its very particularity, the story is universal. The society may change, its economy may change, but rural societies have often undergone such changes. The detailed descriptions at the beginning enable the reader from a different culture to feel at home in the society, to feel that it is not so strange. I’ve never seen or tasted a yam, but in reading the book I become aware that yams in that society play the same role as mealies in southern Africa, or wheat in England, or oats in Scotland. Achebe does that particularly well.

I find it interesting that one can learn quite a lot of missiology from works of fiction like this book. There are others that come to mind as well. The Poisonwood Bile by Barbara Kingsolver tells of an American missionary in what is now the Democratic Republic of congo, who is a Mr Smith-type missionary, and fails to come to terms with the local culture, and all the members of his family make their own different adaptations. Another that deals with modern mission, this time in South America, is At play in the fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiesen. In all these instances the missionaries have been immersed in modern culture, and come unstuck when they encounter premodern culture.

For a novel that deals with premodern missionaries and premodern people, an interesting one is Credo by Melvin Bragg.

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The crystal skull

2012: The Crystal Skull2012: The Crystal Skull by Manda Scott
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Perhaps this would have been more interesting if I had read it before 21 December 2012, when, according to the author and several other people, the world was supposed to end. It’s set in two different periods, the 16th century and the 21st century. In the earlier period the possessor of a crystal skull hides it in a cave, and in the later one someone discovers it in the cave, and has the task of taking it to its proper place in preparation for 21 December 2012, when it will combine forces with 12 similar skulls in different parts of the world to create a magical dragon or worm, the Ouroboros, which will either save or destroy the world.

The theme of legendary artefacts playing a part in a current adventure is quite common, and this particular one, of the crystal skulls, also featured in one of the Indiana Jones films. The notion that crystal skulls were ancient Mayan artefacts has been refuted, but that should not get in the way of a good story. As a McGuffin a crystal skull is as good as any. but the problem with this book does not lie in the choice of McGuffin, but rather in the characters and plot.

The 21st-century characters are followed to the cave where the skull lies hidden by someone sinister whose who attacks them, but whose identity and motives are only revealed at the end. But the behaviour is unexplained and the motives ring hollow. Much is made of the injuries and medical treatment of the victims of the mysterious attacker, but the role of this villain seems to be tacked on as an afterthought. In an Indiana Jones-type scenario, there must be villains, so the villains pop up at intervals, but just when they have done their worst the scene jumps to the other century, and by the time one gets back to the aftermath of the attack, the details have been forgotten. What was it that happened that this character ended up in hospital? Oh, a fire? Or was it a fall in a cave?

The 16th-century characters are even more confusing. They fear being arrested and charged with “heresy”, but just what that heresy might have been is not clear. They are given hospitality by a Jesuit missionary who is portrayed as both welcoming and a threat, and this ambiguity is never resolved. They are pursued by Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster, for clear reasons that are irrelevant to the plot, and the relevant reasons are unclear.

So one is left with the impression that the crystal skull is the protagonist, and the human characters are mere props. But at least that fits with the title of the book.

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I heard the old men say

I Heard The Old Men SayI Heard The Old Men Say by Lawrence G. Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished a long leisurely read through of this book by Lawrence G. Green. I classify it as history because he explores some historical byways of the Cape Peninsula, but more as a journalist than as a historian. As a journalist he must have kept copious notebooks, and draws on some of this material in his writing, but this particular book was sparked off by his purchase of a second-hand guide to the city of Cape Town, published in 1904.

He goes well beyond the guide book, however, telling stories about old people and houses of the city, its trees and flowers, its hotels and restaurants, its vaults and kramats, its churches and their bells. He is always on the lookout for forgotten mysteries, secrets that can be told when all the people involved have died, and so on. In these mysteries he is more inclined to titillate the reader than to be strictly historically accurate, so what he writes always needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Green claims to have solved three historical mysteries.

(1) Was Governor Simon van der Stel a coloured man.
(2) Was George Rex of Knysna an illegitimate son of King George III?
(3) Was a certain cottage the place where Dutch troops signed articles of surrender to the British in 1806?

Green concludes that Simon van der Stel was coloured, that George Rex was probably an illegitimate son of George III, and that the treaty was signed at the cottage.

I’m not sure about (1) and (3), but I have my doubts about (2). Green ignores all the historical evidence and reaches his conclusion on the Rex royal descent based on the supposed physical resemblances between George Rex’s family and that of George III.

My wife Val’s Green family has a similar legend of royal descent of her ancesttor William John Green, which Lawrence G. Green (no relation) has also dealt with in two of his other books, Thunder on the Blaauberg and Lords of the last frontier. A lot of the stories about that are also based on supposed physical resemblances, but the legend has been pretty conclusively refuted — a man could not be the father of a child born in Quebec if he only arrived there in the year following the child’s birth.

But even if Lawrence Green’s conclusion was off, not everything he wrote about those events was untrue, and his accounts contained a lot of useful family information that might have been lost if he had not preserved it. You can read more about our royal legend here Mystery cousins and royal legends | Hayes & Greene family history.

Zonnebloem College today

In this book Green also reveals more of his own political and social opinions than he does in most of his other books. In most of his books he seems to be studiously apolitical, perhaps to avoid offendi9ng the racist sentiments of at least some of his readers. But this one is more revealing. In his chapter on places of execution in Cape Town he emphasises how strongly opposed he is to capital pinishment. And he also notes that at the beginning of the 20th century Zonnebloem College was a beacon of nonracial education. That was at the height of the New Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa, when racism was at its height of approval, and so I was rather surprised to read it.

I think what Green Green (1964:185) has to say about Zonnebloem is worth quoting:

Zonnebloem, on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, a wine farm early in the eighteenth century, has survived because it was bought by Bishop Gray and used for the education of the sons of native chiefs. The wine cellar became a chapel. Girl boarders now occupy the old slave quarters.

White students attended Zonnebloem for many years, and one who left in 1906 wrote as follows, “Zonnebloem has peculiar characteristics of its own. Among these is the unrivalled opportunity it gives for becoming acquainted with a variety of people, habits and characters. How cosmopolitan Zonnebloem has always been! There have always been representatives of many peoples — Zulus, Xosas, Pondos, Basutos, Barotses, Bechuanas, Balolongs, Matabeles, Englishmen, Scotsmen, Welshmen, Irishmen, Dutchmen from Holland as well as from the Transvaal and a host of others. Yet there is never discord, but perfect unity between all, each respecting the other.”

Perhaps it is appropriate to recall this now, as Zonnebloem College has just celebrated its 160th anniversary.
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Racism and Race Relations in South Africa

Earlier this morning someone asked a question on Quora, which I found interesting, and thought it worth trying to answer. I’ve posted the question here, but have expanded my answer a bit, because I think it is an important issue, amnd it has been bothering me recently.

How has the race relations in South Africa been? And how is it now? And where does it seem like it’s heading? Are there any pressing issues not covered in the general media?

Steve Hayes
Steve Hayes, former Senior editor and junior lecturer at University of South Africa (1986-1999)

And here’s my answer, modified and expanded for this blog post.

You can click this link to Quora to see my original answer.

After the first democratic elections in 1994 race relations improved, as the ANC sought to establish its goal of a democratic non-racial society. White people who had been taught to despise and fear black people discovered that the sky did not fall if they socialised with black people. One saw black and white children playing in the streets, or socialising in malls, which would have been unthinkable in the apartheid time. The importance of race gradually diminished in many people’s minds.

After about 2005, however, things changed again. There was a gradual increase in racial rhetoric, some of it imported from the USA. During apartheid race was seen to be very important, and after a drop between 1994 and 1999 it began to pick up again. Some white people, influenced by current thinking in the USA, began emphasising “whiteness” again, and promoted “whiteness studies”. They denigrated the ANC goal of non-racial democracy, and promoted racism while claiming to be anti-racist.

During the apartheid people white people were indoctrinated by the government with the idea that whiteness was the most important thing about them, and after 1994 many white people were being disabused of that notion. It therefore seemed very odd to me when people who called themselves “antiracist” began trying to resuscitate that decaying corpse. See here for more.

At about the same time, or soon afterwards, a different group gained control of the ANC, which had lost the vision of the struggle leaders, who were old and retiring from public life or had already died — people like Oliver and Adelaide Tambo , Walter and Albertina Sisulu, and Nelson Mandela. There was a new generation, led by Jacob Zuma, who were more interested in what their country could do for them than in what they could do for their country (to misquote J.F. Kennedy).

They teamed up with some crooked businessmen, the Guptas, who hired a British public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, to promote their cause, and Bell Pottinger’s strategy was a massive campaign to increase racist rhetoric by promoting anti-white racist slogans on social media. They paid large numbers of people to propagate these racist messages with an effectiveness that the Nat propagandists of the 1950s probably never even dreamed of.

Right-wing white organisations like Afriforum have run similar racist propaganda campaigns to promote the narrative of white victimhood, with stories of “white genocide” which they promote all over the world. Again, the theme of “whiteness” comes to the fore. When a farmer is murdered in an armed robbery, it is the whiteness of the farmer that is the most important thing in the message. Whiteness is everything. The obsession with whiteness is like a dog returning to its vomit.

And then there is this op-ed piece by Mondli Makhanya in last Sunday’s City Press, about how black people too are becoming Obsessed with Whiteness.

Along with this, we’ve been exposed to a lot of talk about “white privilege”, though I’m not sure what the point of it is. The place where we associate most with white people is a thing called TGIF, which happens early on Friday mornings. Someone speaks about a topic for 45 minutes, there are 15 minutes for questions and discussion, and it’s over by 7:30 so people have time to get to work. We enjoy it because we usually find the talks stimulating and its a way of being exposed to different ideas in one’s retirement. But quite a lot of the talks have been about “white privilege”.

I suppose I first became aware of white privilege at the age of 7, when the Nats came to power and apartheid was nothing more than an election promise that had yet to be implemented. My father, a chemist, got a new job in Germiston, which entailed a move. We had sold our house in Westville, near Durban, and so my mother and I spent two months at a hotel at Ingogo, about midway between, until we could find somewhere to live. As a result, I missed two months of School. I was in Standard 1 (Grade 3). The hotel was run by a cousin of my father’s, and their daughter Gillian was 8. I don’t know why she wasn’t at school, but we wandered the countryside and fished in the river. There is more about that in another blog post here.

On a few occasions Gillian and I visited a farm school held in a rusty corrugated iron church about a mile from the hotel. All the kids were black, and were probably children of farm labourers. The teacher welcomed us, but she was teaching several different classes in the same room. She asked questions, and my cousin and I were first with the answers.Why? White privilege.

When we lived at Westville I went to kindergarten. It wasn’t just any kindergartend; one of the neighbours had a governess for their daughter, Annabelle Dougal, and several other kids were invited to join her for lessons. As a result when, in the following year, I went to Class I at Westville Government School I was there for a month or two, and then promoted to Class II, which had a different teacher. White children had separate well-equipped classrooms with a teacher for each class, the black children at the farm school had Grades 1-5 in the same room, taught by the same teacher, with poor equipment. And if they reached Grade 5 most of them would go no further. So naturally we white kids knew the answers to questions we were asked in our own language, while the black kids were having to answer in a language they were still trying to learn. The sums the teacher was writing on the board were things I had learned two years earlier from Annabelle Dougal’s governess.

At the age of 7 some aspects of white privilege were obvious to me, others were not. The poorly equipped classroom, the teacher having to deal with different classes were obvious. That these were reasons that we white kids could answer questions more promptly only became apparent later. And what I only became aware of much later still was the class factor — that the children of chemists are likely to have better educational opportunities than the children of farm labourers.

How did my father become a chemist? He went to Durban High School and Natal Technicon, where he studied organic chermistry. His father, my grandfather, was a stockbroker and a mine secretary. My grandfather’s father was a builder and later a hotel keeper. My great grandfather’s father was a carpenter and then became a building contractor. And his father was… a farm labourer. The class privilege built up over six generations. The race factor was superficial and obvious, the class factor less so.

So what good does the obsession with whiteness and white privilege do? I can’t go back 70 years, and tell my parents no, I’m not going to the Witwatersrand with you, I’m staying here in Ingogo, and will complete my education at this farm school. Yes, I do believe that history is important. If we can understand where we have come from we can plot a different course for the future. And in 1948 the Nats had just come to power and immediately revved up the obsession with race. We know what that led to, so why are we doing it all over again? When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president he said “Never again” and he’s hardly been in his grave for five years and here we are doing it all over again.

But 70 years seems to be a kind of magic figure. In 1906 Alfred Lord Milner was trying to force Afrikaans-speaking children to learn in English after the Anglo-Boer War, and 70 years later Andries Treurnicht and Ferdi Hartzenberg, who were surely not unaware of the toxic resentment that that had caused, tried to do exactly the same thing by forcing black kids to learn in Afrikaans. Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But twenty years after Milner, Afrikaans became an official language of South Africa.

And 20 years after apartheid began Christian theologians rejected it as a heresy and a false gospel when they said,

… we are being taught that our racial identity is the final and all important determining factor in the lives of men. As a result of this faith in racial identity, a tragic insecurity and helplessness afflicts those whose racial classification is in doubt. Without racial identity, it appears, we can do nothing: he who has racial identity has life; he who has not racial identity has not life. This amounts to a denial of the central statements of the Gospel. It is opposed to the Christian understanding of man and community. It, in practice, severely restricts the ability of Christian brothers to serve and know each other, and even to give each other simple hospitality. It arbitrarily limits the ability of a person to obey the Gospel’s command to love his neighbour as himself.[1]

We we still persist in talking about race as if racial identity was the most important thing about us.

We are not alone in this obsession with race, however.

When I look at questions on Quora, about half of them seem to be about race, and about two-thirds of those seem to make racist assumptions.

So racist rhetoric seems to be making a comeback, driven by different sectors of society with different agendas, but the same general goal — to promote racism. And to some extent they seem to be succeeding.

Where it will lead to, who knows? But I think South Africa will be a lot more racist in 2019 than it was in 1999.


Notes and References

[1] A Message to the People of South Africa published by the South African Council of Churches and the Christian Institute of South Africa, August 1968.

A Tolkien bestiary

A Tolkien BestiaryA Tolkien Bestiary by David Day
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth introduces us to all kinds of creatures that are unfamiliar to us. Some we may have encountered in other stories — elves, dwarves and goblins are found in many different fairy stories and fantasy novels, but hobbits, ents and balrogs are not. But even the ones whose names we know play a different role in Tolkien’s stories. They have their own history, culture and languages.

This book is a kind of encyclopaedia of such creatures.

I’ve returned it to the library now, but I rather wish i had it for reference. Tolkien’s books are full of allusions to tales, myths and legends of his world, but paging through other stories to find them can be quite challenging. Here they are all packed between the same covers.

Do you want to know the history of elves, and which ones saw the light of the two trees and which ones didn’t? A quick lookup in this book will tell you.

Do you want to know about the relationship between Shelob and Ungoliant? It’s all here.

And I found that just reading through it as if each entry was a chapter in a book helped me to recall some of the stories. It’s a kind of mental map to the peoples and creatures of middle earth.

I just can’t remember whether it said balrogs have wings or not. That’s why I’d like my own copy.

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Conflicted about Trump

This last week has seen lots of controversy involving US President Donald Trump. He has been accused of disrespecting world leaders at the G7 summit. Very undiplomatic.

So there are all these cartoons and photos showing Trump as being immature and childish, and how bad it will be for the USA if he annoys these important world leaders who are supposed to be US Allies.

And then I recall that in the past when these G(numeral) summits have been held there have been massive protest demonstrations at the summit venues, which have tended to be very disrespectful towards the gathered world leaders. I don’t recall reading about such demonstrations this time. Perhaps they were there, but if they were, the media didn’t report on them much. According to the media reports, the one carrying the anti-globalisation flag this time was none other than the much-despised Donald Trump.

Now Trump is meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

And on TV there is this bloke complaining bitterly that Trump is not going to demand that North Korea give up nuclear weapons totally and unconditionally  Not that he expects that the US would offer to give up nuclear weapons unconditionally itself as a quid pro quo. That seems to be quite unthinkable in the eyes of the media pontificators. Previous US presidents were criticised for being too imperialistic, but now Donald Trump is being criticised for not being imperialist enough.

So if a world leader like Donald Trump does the right thing for the wrong reasons, is he any worse than his predecessors who did the wrong thing for the “right” reasons — like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair with their “humanitarian” wars?

 

Between mountains

Between MountainsBetween Mountains by Maggie Helwig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At one level this is a love story. Daniel is a journalist who has been reporting on the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. He meets Ljilja, who is an interpreter at the war crimes tribunal at the Hague. One of her professional obligations is confidentiality, she should not speak to journalists about anything she hears. And Daniel’s obligation as a journalist is to report what happens, while protecting his sources. They are attracted to each other, but their professional obligations are in conflict.

Once a month a small group of us meet at a cafe for informal discussions of Christianity and literature and when we met last week my wife Val mentioned this book, which she had just finished reading. I’ve already mentioned some of the things that struck her in a report on that gathering here Neoinklings: alienation and otherness | Khanya. One of the bits she read out at the gathering was about the Orthodox monks at Decani in Kosovo, who gave asylum to those fleeing from the violence, and urging people to talk instead of fighting.

And that is really what the book is about — the inability to communicate, which breaks down into violence.

One of the things that struck me, and which is alluded to in the book in passing, is that at the very time when South Africa was turning from violent confrontation to talking, and abandoning apartheid, much of Eastern Europe was going in the opposite direction. I’ve also dealt with this more fully in this article Nationalism, violence and reconciliation, which I think also gives some of the background story for this novel. And so the book rings true.

I recall a member of our church, a school teacher who originally came from Dubrovnik, whose father was an Orthodox priest, saying that people she had grown up with and gone to school with, whom she had regarded as friends and neighbours, would no longer talk to her, no longer answer her letters, because of the hatred being fostered between different ethnic groups.

And the descriptions of those rising ethnic barriers captured for me the essence of the spirit of apartheid. Yugoslavia was entering a nightmare that we were just leaving. One of the characters, accused of war crimes and awaiting trial…

He had felt the cold clear satisfaction of a job done well, the decisive pleasure of colours shifting on a map, the weight of a gun at his waist. But only because it had to happen, there was a force of history behind him, if it had not been him it would have been someone else, anyone else, history would have its way.

And I could picture the apartheid apparatchik in his office in Pretoria, looking at his map with satisfaction on receiving a report of these people moved from that area, those people moved to this place, as the territory and its population changed to conform to the Platonic ideal of a map in his office.

And again the same character in the novel, echoing the same faceless bureaucrat in Pretoria:

To be able to say, I will draw this line here, and these people will be on the other side of it. Apart from us. So that we can be alone, and pure and safe, and these people will be the darkness of the other side. No one who has not had this chance could understand the sweep of it. The exaltation.

And there it is again, the essence of the unclean spirit of apartheid, exorcised from South Africa, moving to the Balkans, but not excluding the possibility of returning. No, not at all.

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The witch hunts of Papua New Guinea

Last night I watched a BBC TV programme on The witch hunts of Papua New Guinea – BBC News, and was struck by the similarity with witch hunts that have taken place in South Africa in the last 25 years or so.

The programme had interviews with people who had been accused of witchcraft, and with some of the accusers, and there were many similarities. You can also read more about the Papua New Guinea witch hunts here: Malum Nalu: Papua New Guinea has a witch hunt problem.

I don’t know if there were any attempts by Christian groups to deal with the problem in Papua New Guinea, but in South Africa there was a reluctance to discuss it in missiological circles. The only Christian groups that seemed to have come up with a way of dealing with it were some Zionists, and most Zionists don’t have an academic bent, so not much has been written about it.I did write one journal article, which you can read here: Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery, but there has not been much response to it.

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