Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

The heart of redness, rural development, and skunked words

The Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve already written something about this book in a blog post here Post-apartheid writing and posthumous books | Khanya. Many wondered what South African writing would or should look like after apartheid, and Zakes Mda certainly provides one answer. This is what it looks like, and this is what it should look like. Mda puts his finger on some of the pressing problems of post-apartheid South Africa in this book, especially the problems of rural development.

It’s a thought-provoking book, and here I’m adding some of the thoughts it provoked in me. If you just just want a straightforward review, see my review on GoodReads.

In recent months there has been much controversy over mining on the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape, and this book is very relevant to that, dealing as it does with the effects of such development on local communities. Zakes Mda, though he is writing fiction, writes from personal experience here, as he himself was instrumental in establishing a beekeeping project in the Eastern Cape. In the book the big project involving outside capital is a casino, and there have been those too on the Wild Coast, even though the current concern is mainly mining..

We have previously discussed the issue of mining on the Wild Coast at places like Xolobeni in our book club — see Philosophy, science fiction, capitalism & rural development | Khanya.  I urge everyone who is concerned about the effects of mining and similar developments on such rural communities to read this book. In this, as in many other things, Zakes Mda seems to have been prophetic, and much more accurately prophetic than Nongqawuse, who features in the book.

My one complaint about the book is that it is perhaps too didactic. At times it seems as though the characters are overridden by the need to introduce some or other ideological stance, which is not always consistent with the previous roles of those characters, and makes them at times seem inconsistent. But perhaps that is part of the truthfulness of this novel — as G.K. Chesterton said, truth is always stranger than fiction because fiction is a product of the human mind, and therefore congenial to it. And those ideological stances play an important part in the development of the story, so someone among the characters had to embody them.

One of the themes that that needed a character to embody it was do-gooding. In the book the protagonist, Camagu upbraids a shopkeeper, John Dalton, for planning an implementing a water supply project without consulting the local community. Dalton has the role of the do-gooder, one who thinks he knows what the community needs, and goes about providing it for them. The do-gooder is someone who likes doing good to other people.

Reading this, I was reminded of a true story from Zululand in the days of apartheid. A group of people went to the local magistrate to complain that they had no water. The magistrate asked why, since a new dam had been built there very recently. Yes, the people said, the dam is there, but we can’t drink the water. Why can’t you drink the water? asked the magistrate. There’s a dead dog in the dam, said the delegation. Why don’t you remove the dead dog? The government must remove the dog. The government built the dam; it’s the government’s dam, so the government must remove the dog. .

Fifty years ago I was persuaded to start an ecumenical youth group in Durban under the auspices of the Christian Institute. You can read about that here. The group was too big, so we split into smaller groups, each of which had an action project. And our group soon showed an ideological split between two groups, which I will call the Do-gooders and the Enablers.

The Do-gooders wanted to do good things for poor people. The Enablers felt uncomfortable with that, but would be happy to enable poor people to help themselves, if the poor people asked them to. The Enablers found the thought of offering unsolicited help to people embarrassing. In the book, Camagu is an Enabler, and Dalton is a Do-gooder.

I find I keep coming across this split. I go with my colleagues in Orthodox mission to a place where some one, or some group of people has expressed an interest in the Orthodox Christian faith, and one of them says something like, “Tell them we’ll build a clinic.” And I cringe inwardly, because I can see, right across the road, a doctor’s surgery with a sign “Ngaka” in big letters, and round the corner is a hospital.

No, don’t tell them you’ll build a clinic. First get to know the people, and then find out what they think their needs are. Zakes Mda, I know, from reading his memoir, is an atheist, so this would probably be of little interest to him, but I’m pretty sure that the “Tell them we’ll build a clinic” attitude has done nothing to increase his sympathy for the Christian faith and may well have contributed towards his atheism in the first place.

I was once involved in a mission project where we tried to follow the enabling approach rather than the do-gooding one. It is described in my blog post on Makhalafukwe. I keep coming across clashes between these two approaches, so I think it is very good that Zakes Mda has raised it in his book. The urge to Do-gooding persists, and perhaps one of the effects of it is that terms like “Enabler” and “Enablement”, which were unambiguous 30 years ago, have tended by be skunked by gathering bad connotations, especially, it seems, on the other side of the Atlantic.

Another related word, popular in the 1960s, which also seems to have lost some of its meaning, is “facilitator”. Back then the term “facilitator” was used instead of “leader” for small group discussions, because the task of the facilitator was not to lead discussion, but to facilitate or enable it. While a leader dominated a group, a facilitator would retire into the background, and only intervene when more enablement was required. Just how far the meaning was lost became apparent when I worked at the University of South Africa in the Editorial Department, and we were introduced to a task team, whose task, they proudly told us, was to “facilitate conflict”…. and they wondered why all the English editors laughed.

Another thing that Zakes Mda puts his finger on in The Heart of Redness, as well as in some of his other books, such as Black Diamond, is BEE, which ostensibly stands for “Black Economic Empowerment”, but actually means Black Elite Enrichment. Again, there are examples from real life. Once when my wife Val was a financial manager, a new black manager was appointed, and because he was black (as a result of BEE), his salary was a third more than that of the guy he replaced. Val observed that for the extra money she could have appointed two young junior clerks at good salaries who could learn the job hands on, and gain experience at doing the work, thus improving their future employability. There was nothing wrong with the bloke who was appointed to management — he was a nice guy and competent. But because of BEE the elite got more money rather than the poor getting more jobs.

The Heart of Redness is also, in part, a historical novel, alternating in time between the cattle-killing episode of the 1850s, and the late 20th century, where the descendants of those in the earlier period seem doomed to reenact the controversies of their ancestors, which, in changing circumstances, sometimes lead to inappropriate behaviour as they are confronted by questions like what is development? What is progress? And who stands to gain and lose from such developments?

So I repeat, if you are concerned about projects like mining at Xolobeni, and similar projects elsewhere, read this book.

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