Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Cecil Rhodes and his statue

Owing to the difficulty in using the new user-hostile WordPress editor, this post has been posted on my old blog, here Notes from underground: Row about Rhodes.

Interestingly enough, when I opened the editor here to post, up came the new editor with its dreaded “Beep Beep Boop”, so I gave up and wrote it on the old blog.

Then when I came back here to put in the link, up came the old, usable editor, so I could perhaps have written it here after all, but by then it was too late.

But I can at least put in categories and tags.

 

The Native Commissioner (book review)

The Native CommissionerThe Native Commissioner by Shaun Johnson

One of the things about growing up in South Africa is that one reads a lot of books published elsewhere in the world, and so the settings are unfamiliar, but this book comes far closer to home, in time, in place, and even in people.

A man opens a box left by his father, George Jameson, who had died when he was 8 years old, and tries to reconstruct his father’s life and his own family history. In this the book reminds me of A recessional for Grace by Margurite Poland. One of the similarities is that the protagonist in that book was researching the life of a Xhosa linguist, making a study of the terms for different kinds of cattle, and in The Native Commissioner the protagonist is fluent in Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaans as well as English, his native language, so it is difficult to avoid comparisons.

The father was a civil servant, and, like many civil servants, was subject to numerous transfers in the course of his career, and most of those places I was familiar with, having passed through them many times. George Jameson was born to a white farming family in Babanango, and when I lived in Melmoth 35 years ago I regularly visited a farming family there. Jameson was stationed at Tsumeb in Namibia, and at Libode in Transkei, which I passed through on the way to visit my mother when she worked at St Barnabas Hospital, Ntlaza. So it was easy to picture the places and the settings.

Also, I could not help picturing the protagonist as being like Buller Fenwick, a retired Native Commissioner I knew in Melmoth. When I knew him he was doing odd jobs for various people, and would come to us for photocopies, because back in 1979 we had the only photocopier in Melmoth. He was an interesting bloke, and confirmed in real life one of the things that is central to the story. Before the Nats came to power in 1948, his job as a Magistrate and Native Commissioner was to administer justice — white man’s justice to people of a different culture, to be sure, but justice nonetheless. After the Nats came to power the nature of the job changed; it was no longer to administer justice, but to administer government policy. And that is the central dilemma faced by the protagonist in this book, which eventually drives him to a nervous breakdown.

The book is therefore, at one level, true to life. It can give an authentic picture of what life was like for some people in South Africa in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. But was only like that for a relativly small proportion of people — white civil servants who had doubts about the morality of the National Party policy juggernaut, where the alternatives, if you did not jump on the bandwagon, were to get out of the way or get crushed. Jameson tried, but failed, to get out of the way, and got crushed.

The method of telling the story, reconstucting a life from documents, has its disadvantages, however. I know from my own interest in family history how difficult it is with real people — it is all so fragmentary, and there are so many loose ends. Using such a technique in a work of fiction is unnecessarily limiting, though I think Magurite Poland handled it better than Shaun Johnson does. In this case it leaves too much of the story untold.

For example, the narrative tells us that “On the 5th of September he sends a reply to the Johannesburg head office regarding its instruction to repatriate one Buthi Mngomeni to his homeland. Unfortunately, writes my father curtly, your order cannot be acted on as neither we nor he know where his homeland is.”

In real life biography, coming across such correspondence in the archives is pure gold. It speaks volumes to the researcher. It portrays exactly the impersonal bureacratic cruelty of the apartheid system, treating human beings who have names, like Buthi Mngomeni, as non-persons, as mere “human resources” (why is that obscene term still in such common use?) And it tells you of a civil servant who is gatvol of the whole system, who has had it up to here.

But the average reader of a novel is not a historical researcher, easily able to tease out the significance of such documents. Many people, especially white people, lived through that period with very little clue about what was going on there, and so its significance would escape them. Those who were born after 1980, or those who have never been in South Africa, unless exceptionally well-read, would miss it altogether.

The fiction writer has the opportunity to tell the story fully, to show Buthi Mngomeni as a real person with a life, with a family. It could be expanded to a paragraph, a page, a whole chapter even. But the “documentary research” format does not allow it.

So while one can say that the story is true to life, it is what apartheid was really like for some people, it gives only a tiny fragment of the picture. There is also much more to the story than this.

View all my reviews

A gripping novel about small-town politics

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is J.K. Rowling’s adult book. Well, her first adult book, maybe she’ll write more.

It’s about small-town politics.

Somehow one doesn’t expect small-town politics to be gripping stuff, but it is, and the more you get into it, the more gripping it gets, as the community and families are gripped by political and personal rivalries and you keep reading to see what happens next.

View all my reviews

Metanote: My laptop computer is still letting me use the old WordPress editor instead of the dysfunctional new one, otherwise I woulodn\t have been able to post this.

Nothing to write about

I was thinking of writing a new blog post, but was offered WordPress’s unusable new Beep Beep Boop editor, or rather it’s imporve user experience, and a horrible experience it is, because as an editor I find it quite unusable.

They have now improved it to the extent that I can’t see what I’m typing, because what I’m typing is blow the visible screen, and so if there are any typos I won’t see them until this is posted,..

And they no longer seem to ovffer the option of switching to the old editor,

The y have “improved” it again, so that the only optiojns are to “Connect new service” (whatever that means,) and “Publish immediately”

There are some other things there, but I can’tm make out what they sasy, not even when I hold a magnifying glass to the screen, because THERE IS TOO LITTLE CONTRAST.I can’t enter tags or categories any more. It last half of what I was tryping.

I moved this blog from Blogger when they m,essed up their editor, but it’s beginning to look like I’ll have to move it back again.

Star Wars: catching up with pop culture

Over the last few days I’ve been catching up on pop culture by watching all three original episodes of Star Wars.

Of course I knew some of the characters and their roles, because one could not avoid reading about them: Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, R2D2, Darth Vader — all were household names. The films had quite a pronounced influence on the way people talked, and there were all kinds of direct and indirect references to them. What I wasn’t sure of was their roles, or even, in some cases, how their names were pronounced.

VaderOne of the more memorable cultural references was back in 1980 when Gerhardus de Kock, the Governor of the South African Reserve Bank, was appointed “Director of Constellation Affairs”, a title which, the Natal Daily News pointed out in an editorial headed Star Flaws, would be the envy of Darth Vader, the villain of the movie. Other people referred to it more disrespectfully as “De Kock’s Cock-up”. For those too young to remember it, the “constellation of states” was the current euphemism for the government’s apartheid policy in the early 1980s.

The film series provided metaphors for theologians too. The missiologist Ralph Winter referred to the second film in the series (the 5th, once the prequel had been added), The Empire strikes back, and said that in that story it was referring to evil returning, but that in Christian theology one could use the phrase “the Kingdom strikes back” to tell how the good came back. As Winter put it,

,… the Bible consists of a single drama: the entrance of the Kingdom, the power and the glory of the living God in this enemy-occupied territory. From Genesis 12 to the end of the Bible, and indeed until the end of time, there unfolds the single, coherent drama of “the Kingdom strikes back.” This would make a good title for the Bible itself were it to be printed in modern dress (with Gen 1-11 as the introduction to the whole Bible). In this unfolding drama we see the gradual but irresistible power of God reconquering and redeeming His fallen creation through the giving of His own Son…

So there were all kinds of metaphors that had entered the English language in various fields, and I had only the vaguest idea of where they came from. When the first couple of films came out, we were living in Melmoth, in Zululand. There was no cinema anywhere near, and we didn’t have TV either, so Star Wars passed us by, except for oblique references. So now I’ve learnt something about the roles and the plot, and how to pronounce the names. For 30 years or so I had thought that “Jedi” was pronounced Yay-dee, and not Jed-eye. So now I’ve even got that straight. And it is now also clear to me that, like polar bears and penguins, wookiees and Klingons will never meet in the wild.

Do we understand democracy? An appeal to the youth

There was an interesting “debate” on Twitter this morning, about leadership and the problems of South Africa, apparently sparked off by an article by Max du Preez, pointing out that South Africa is an open society, and not a “failed state”

One of the exchanges it sparked off was this:

if we were an open society our people would express their anger differently, nit through violent protest

. Violent protests are often the result of absent & weak . Then violence becomes a norm.

Greed ignores passive actions of resistance and criticism. Violence demands immediate attention.

ServDev2The 140 character limit of Twitter doesn’t make it the ideal medium for a serious political discussion (which is one of the reasons that I am writing this here, and not on Twitter), but I think that some were saying that violent protests were a method of the 1980s, and this is 2015. In the 1980s South Africa was a closed society. Violent protest was one way of getting the attention of those in power, and changing things.

Max du Preez’s article points out that South Africa is no longer a closed society, it is an open society. Instead of trying to get the attention of those in power, and demand that they do things (like “service delivery”), the way is open for people to take power, and do things for themselves.

ServDev1Next year we will have local government elections, and if the municipal government hasn’t delivered, there is the opportunity to change them, not by burning tyres and libraries, but by voting the bastards out of office.

This can be done by organising locally, at a local level. Instead of the big national political parties parachuting in leaders as rewards for political loyalty, we need local people to organise and vote them out.

One thing that could be borrowed from the 1980s is the Civic Associations that were organised locally back then. The difference is that back then the Civics could only organise protests. Now that we have an open society they can produce candidates for election and organise the voters, because they ARE the voters. We have democracy. We have an open society, so it can be done.

Max du Preez’s article is important. Read it, and organise. South Africa not a failed state | News24 – Linkis.com

History teaches us that countries with open societies very seldom become failed states. Only when a state’s openness and personal freedoms are destroyed can there be a breeding ground for failure.

The terms failed state, banana republic and “becoming Zimbabwe” are being used freely nowadays to describe South Africa, even more so after Eskom’s failures and the scandalous behaviour during the State of the Nation Address last month.

This is uninformed nonsense. Prod those who use these terms and nine out of 10 times you will find an Afro-pessimist or someone that never believed that a black government was able to manage a modern democracy and economy like ours.

The openness of our society is our greatest asset. This is the product of our constitutional guarantees of free speech and the rule of law, but it has now been internalised and become the new “normal”.

We don’t need to make the celeb-style leaders “listen” in the hope of getting them to do something. We need people who will use the local government elections to push the failed leaders aside and replace them with ones who actually represent the people.

South Africa not a failed state | News24 – Linkis.com:

We live as if it is the most normal thing to criticise the head of state and other politicians using extreme language. The deepest secrets of the state are regularly exposed without endangering the journalists’ lives.

When I wrote nasty things about the last two presidents of the pre-democratic era and exposed their unholinesses, I was dragged to court dozens of times, my office was bombed and agents were sent to assassinate me.

Our openness is one of the most important building blocks upon which our democracy, our stability and our relatively free economic activities are built. This is why South Africa cannot be described as a failing state in any sense of the word. Struggling state, perhaps, state with a multitude of challenges, yes, but not a failed state according to the accepted definition of the term.

As some pointed out in the Twitter interchange, people like Max du Preez (and me) are old. It is up to the youth. But as the youth of the 1980s organised the Civic Associations, surely the youth of 2015 can do something similar.

22 Britannia Road (book review)

22 Britannia Road22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Polish couple is separated at the beginning of the Second World War, and reunited in Britain after the war is over. In the six years that they have been apart their different experiences have made them different people. Then there is the child Aurek, who has only known the life of a fugitive, hiding in the forest. He has to adapt to living in a suburban house in a society where the language, is strange.

The story alternates between the present and the past, starting with their reunion, and going back to their former life, leading up to the present.

I picked this book up on a remainder sale, after reading the blurb I thought it looked interesting for the same reason that I found the The long road home the aftermath of the Second World War interesting (my review here). I’m interested in transitions, in between times, changes from war to peace, migrants, refugees, displaced persons, asylum seekers. How do such people make a transition from one life to another?

And so I bought it and brought it home to read it, and was surprised at how good it was. When I read historical novels, I tend to look out for anachronisms, well, not actually to look for them, but when I spot them I find them jarring, and so I tend to be reading in nervous expectation. In this book I didn’t spot any, or at least none that were jarring. It seemed remarkably authentic and true to life — not that I’ve ever been to Poland, so I might not know anyway, but it didn’t seem much different from novels by Polish novelists that I’ve read.

The characters and their reactions are believable, yet not predictable, and this unpredictability is what makes the novel seem so authentic. It is like the unpredictability of real life, when you never know what will happen next or how people will respond to it.

View all my reviews

The treasure hunters

The Treasure HuntersThe Treasure Hunters by Enid Blyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jeffery, Susan and John Greyling go to stay with their grandparents, who are being forced to sell the family home, which has been in the family for generations, because they can no longer afford to maintain it. The children discover a hidden map showing the whereabouts of the family treasure, which had been lost for many years, and if they can find the treasure, their grandparents will not have to sell the house. But there is already a potential buyer, Mr Potts, who is also after the treasure, and is determined to get the map from the children.

I can’t remember when or where I first read the book, but I must have been about 9 or 10 years old, and it was a copy that belonged to someone elee, so I wasn’t able to re-read it. Jeffery, the eldest of the children, made a big impression on me — so much so that when I wrote a children’s novel of my own many years later (Of wheels and witches), I borrowed his name, and something of what I had imagined his character to be.

On rereading it as an adult, more than sixty years later, I am struck by different things. I can see why there was a period when librarians didn’t like Enid Blyton. There are some things about her style that I found annoying as an adult, though as a child I didn’t notice them. There is an over use of exclamation marks. The children are always telling each other how clever they are and exclaiming about the obvious. There is the usual Enid Blyton food porn. This gives the impression that Enid Blyton is writing down to children, and I was struck by the contrast with, say, the Harry Potter books, where the style is so much better.

susanBut after the first couple of chapters either the style improves, or else one gets caught up in the story so that the defects are less noticiable. There are a few reminders of how society has changed since the book was first written, assumptions about gender roles, for example. The children discover an abandoned summer house, and when they decide to clean it up, “Susan took charge of the cleaning, because she was the girl.” But at least her brothers helped her.

It’s a simple story with a simple plot, but still an enjoyable read after all these years.

View all my reviews

What’s really going on in Ukraine?

For the last year or more, Ukraine has been descending into violence. This week, we are told, a group of leaders are meeting in Belarus to try to find a peaceful solution to the problems, but nobody seems very hopeful that a solution that all interested parties can agree on can be found. Leaders locked in Minsk talks on Ukraine ceasefire | World news | The Guardian:

Russian, Ukrainian, German and French officials, as well as separatist leaders and officials from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OECD) are locked in talks in Minsk trying to smooth the way for a summit deal leading to the demilitarisation of eastern Ukraine.

The leaders of the four countries are expected to meet in the Belarusian capital on Wednesday in an attempt to secure a ceasefire in the region, where pro-Russia separatists have been expanding the territory under their control in recent weeks.

Fighting raged in east Ukraine on Tuesday as both sides tried to make territorial gains before the proposed summit, which is being billed as a last chance to prevent the conflict from spiralling out of control.

It would be nice if they could find a peaceful solution, but I doubt that they will, because no one really seems to want one. And it is also very difficult to know what is really happening there, because most of the media reports one reads are tendentious and biased to one side or the other, so one has to read between the lines, and reading between the lines is often a misreading.

So here is the picture I have.

It is probably simplistic, and possibly wildly inaccurate, but I have no way of knowing, because the news media can’t be trusted.

I tend to interpret what is happening in Ukraine in the light of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory, because it seems to have predicted such clashes with uncanny accuracy, and what is happening in Ukraine seems to be almost a paradigm case.

Huntington identified nine civilizations, and compared the boundaries between them with the geological fault lines between tectonic plates. He predicted that most post-Cold War conflicts would take place along these fault lines, and that when they did, the more powerful countries in the civilizations would tend to be drawn into the conflict, and often use a local conflict on the fault line as a proxy for larger civilisational conflicts.

Civilizations and theoir boundaries, according to Huntington

Civilizations and their boundaries, according to Huntington (1996)

There is one inaccuracy in the map, however. According to Huntington’s theory, the fault line between the Western and the Orthodox civilizations should run right through the middle of Ukraine, though the map does not show that clearly.

In Western Ukraine Ukrainian nationalism is stronger, and more people speak the Ukrainian language (as opposed to Russian). In the past it was ruled by Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and there were significant minorities of Poles and other peoples. In much of Western Ukraine the Roman Catholic Church was strong, either in its Latin form, or in its Eastern Rite (Uniate) form. These characteristics tend to put it into Huntington’s Western Civilization.

Eastern Ukraine, by contrast, has many people who speak Russian in preference to Ukrainian, and the strongest church is the Orthodox Church, linked to the Patriarchate of Moscow. It was never ruled by Western empires, except briefly, in the 1940s, by the German Third Reich.  This tends to put it into Huntington’s Orthodox Civilization.

The differences between east and west tend to shade off towards the centre of the country with a more mixed popularion. Eastern and Western Ukraine have tended to support different political parties, though all seem to have been characterised by corruption. The parties supported by western Ukrainians have tended to be supported by Western Europe, and have tended to favour trade and cultural links with Western Europe. The partes supported by eastern Ukrainians have tended to be supported by Russia, and to favour trade and cultural links with Russia.

Here’s my take on it:

It would be in the interests of a stable, free and prosperous Ukraine if there could be a balance between the interests of east and west, so that one would not dominate or threaten to dominate the other.

The present crisis started when President Viktor Yanukovych (whose support was mostly in the east) cancelled a proposed trade agreement with the European Union (EU) and proposed making one with Russia instead. Those in favour of closer ties with the West protested, initially in the main square in the capital Kiev, but also in other centres as well. The protests became increasingly violent, with violence being used by some protesters and the police. It was at this point that several clergy and monks were seen standing between protesters and the police, praying for peace.

Clergy and monks pray as they stand between demonstrators and riot police in Kiev

Clergy and monks pray as they stand between demonstrators and riot police in Kiev

On 21 February 2014 President Yanukovych fled from the capital, perhaps fearing a coup, and the following day the Ukrainian parliament voted to depose him (unconstitutionally, and apparently with unseemly haste). Russia gave asylum to Yanukovych, and said that his deposition was a coup, and said it would protect Russian speakers in Ukraine; the West supported Yanukovych’s opponents, and the pressure from these outside interests gave it all the marks of a classic clash of civilizations.

And now some of the eastern parts of the country want independence, and this has developed into a civil war, which is also, because of the backers of each side, a proxy war in the clash of civilizations.

If there is to be any peace in Ukraine, then it’s time for the big boys to back off, and not to back one side or the other, but simply to back peace. In other words, the civilisational leaders must stop playing a zero sum game, and must help the Ukrainians to look for a win-win solution. I suspect that the current talks will fail because the participants are not looking for peace, but victory, which would be the conclusion of trade agreements that would favour one side and not the other — in other words, a zero-sum game. But I pray that it is not so, and that there will be at leasst a glimmer of sanity.

Now my view may be ridiculously simplistic, and I have been assured by one blogger that it is based on totally wrong premises, and that there are no differences or differences of opinion between Eastern and Western Ukrainians, and they would all live together in perfect peace and harmony and unanimity if it weren’t for the evil Russians, or rather, one Russian in particular, the evil Putin.

Well, not having been to Ukraine myself, I’m in no position to refute it, but I do regard it with a great deal of scepticism, because everything I’ve read about the history of the region indicates that there is no unanimity between Eastern and Western Ukraine, though I do think they might do a better job of sorting out their problems among themselves if they weren’t being egged on by Russia and the West.

So I reject that interpretation, and still haven’t seen a better one than the one I have given above. Does anyone else have one that isn’t driven by blind nationalism or civilizational loyalty?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The river of no return (book review)

The River of No ReturnThe River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A rather strange and quite enjoyable book, which I might have given a higher rating were it not for a few flaws. Some people facing almost certain certain death, usually in battle, have a mysterious ability to jump forward in time, and in their new time they are welcomed by the Guild, an organisation of time travellers that helps them to fit in to their new environment.

In some ways the book is reminiscent of The time traveler’s wife, except that a lot more people are able to travel in time. The story is interesting and the plot is quite complex, but reaches a point where there seem to be too many coincidences. And then one starts expecting even more coincidences, and trying to guess what will happen next. One lesson that the Guild teaches new arrivals is that there is no return, either to the time or place that they came from, but then Nicholas Davenant, an English nobleman who disappeared in 1812, in a battle in the Napoleonic wars, and was translated to the early 21st century in the USA, is asked by the Guild to return to his own time and place, because of problens with another mysterious group called the Ofan.

The book raises all kinds of expectations about what is going to happen, and that there may be some explanation of some of the plot twists, but in the end the story ends rather abruptly, with all kinds of loose ends with no explanations at all.

But Bee Ridgway has promised a sequel, so maybe this is a cliff-hanger technique to get people to buy the next book.

View all my reviews

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