Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “South Africa”

Writers’ territory

Writers' TerritoryWriters’ Territory by Stephen Gray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twenty-seven short pieces ranging from the 16th century to the late 1960s, of people who travelled in or wrote about southern Africa. It covers most of the subcontinent, and has a variety of authors, many of them well known, and some not usually associated with southern Africa.

The selections include descriptive articles, short stories, and extracts from larger works, beginning with The Lusiads of Camoens, and ending with an extract from Terra Amata by Jean-Marie le Clezio.

Some of the authors, like Jules Verne, Mark Twain and Anthony Trollope are known mainly for their writings outside the subcontinent, while others have a more indigenous flavour. Some are professional writers, while others, like the German soldier fighting against Hendrik Witbooi’s resistance in the dry Auob valley, are just trying to describe their own experiences. What makes it interesting is that each piece views the landscape and the people from a different point of view.

Among my favourites are those that describe places I have known, like William Plomer’s description of Zululand in the 1920s. We lived there in the 1970s, so it was interesting to see what changes had taken place since then, and it is now almost as long ago that we lived there.

Another such time warp was Etienne Leroux’s description of the south-western Free State, a part of the country I have never visited, but his description could apply to many other places as well. He begins thus:

You can describe a region and its people, you can list colours, objects, sounds, generalize about types and trace its history. Out of such material a place takes on a different character for each of us, and each creates it from his personal, transcendental world which exemplifies yet again the loneliness of each of us — your own ‘true’ image cannot be shared by anyone else. I remember the sunlight through my windows one morning, many years ago, on a farm in the soutjh-west Free State, and I am suddenly filled with a longing for something that might never have existed.

And that is what this book is about, places that may have evoked longing in the writers, but perhaps different places evoke a similar longing for their readers. Sometimes it evokes a longing for youth…

There are no ruins worth talking about; only some stones where a house once stood. A new building is erected by a later generation and the old building crumbles away into a shed, a kraal,. and eventually a gravel heap with pieces of bottle and rusted kettles. What has happened to your youth? Where has it gone? You look around and see that your playgrounds no longer exist. Vanished like the mist on the vlei — which also no longer exists. It all lives on in the memory; the past is not contained in landmarks, but in the stories old people tell — and the old people die one by one.

And my blog is one of the stories that old people tell, for I am now old, old as Leroux was in my youth, when he was writing that, for he goes on to describe a funeral he attended back then:

… the farmer sons buttoned up in tight fitting snuff-grey suits and strangled by snow-white collars; the grandsons and granddaughters from the city in the uniform of the teenager: beehive hairdos and ducktails greying with dust…

Beehive hairdos and ducktails?

That dates it to when I was 17 or 18. “Tomorrow they leave for the city on motor scooters, in Valiants and Kombis, leaving the depopulation of the south-west Free State to be felt again.”

It can be dated even more precisely from internal evidence by those old enough to remember, for he writes of “the garage painted in the glaring colours of either Shell or Atlantic or Total.” That puts it in 1959, the year that Atlantic petrol made way for BP, and after 1957, the year that Total petrol began to be sold in South Africa. And beehive hairdos were no earlier than that, even though ducktails were. And a few years later the Valiants would have had plastic oranges on their aerials.

But each place has its own memories, its own associations for each of us, and in spite of a book like this one, they cannot really be shared. They can only hint at one’s own memory of a longing for something which might never have existed.

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Timol inquest deja vu

So yesterday there was this SB fuzz bloke giving evidence at the Timol inquest on eNCA Harrowing evidence at Timol inquest:

A former security branch officer has admitted he was part of a strategic unit tasked with spreading apartheid government propaganda.

Paul Francis Erasmus was stationed at the notorious John Vorster Square police station at the time activist Ahmed Timol died in custody.

And I’m like Wow, we knew all that was going on, but they would never admit it, even at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Pau Erusmus, former SB man, giving evidence at the Timol inquest yesterday

One of the things he explained was how the police used equipment for giving electric shocks to people they were interrogating. They would wrap the electrodes in wet cotton wool and stick them in the detainees’ ears, and turn the handle to give them shocks. They referred to this as “listening to Radio Moscow.”

And my mind went back to Windhoek, Namibia, in the winter of 1971.

On 21 June 1971 the World Court gave a ruling that South Africa’s occupation of Namibia was illegal.

On 18th July, about four weeks later, the Lutheran Churches (the biggest denominations in the country) sent an open letter to B.J. Vorster, the South African Prime Minister, saying that they basically agreed with the World Court decision, and included a list of several of the bad things the South African government had done in Namibia. They also sent a pastoral letter to be read in all Lutheran Churches that day, explaining what they had done and why they had done it.

This was even more of a shock to the South African government than the World Court decision itself, because it was totally unexpected. The Lutheran Church was not seen by them as a “political” church, like the Anglicans or Methodists or Roman Catholics. It was a “good” church, which minded its own (spiritual) business and kept its nose out of politics.

So Vorster came to Windhoek to meet the Lutheran leaders and bring them back into line.

After the meeting one of the German missionaries serving with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Pastor Hans-Ludwig Althaus, invited a number of people from other denominations to listen to a tape of the meeting of the Lutheran leaders with Vorster. Vorster did not know it was being recorded, and if the SB (Security Police) had been aware of the existence of the recording they would no doubt have confiscated it.

So we went, like Nicodemus, by night, secretly for fear of the SB, to Pastor Althaus’s house and listened to the tape.

The tape was quite fascinating, and very revealing. Vorster berated them for saying that the police were torturing people in Ovamboland, saying that this was a general accusation, and they should give him specific instances, so that he could deal with the rogue policemen concerned. Bishop Auala then named an
example, and Vorster said, “But that’s an isolated case.” Then Pastor Rieh, another German missionary,  astounded me by saying that they were not talking about isolated cases, but an apparatus, with which police stations were equipped, for giving electric shocks. Vorster rapidly changed the subject. I was surprised at Rieh saying this, and boldly too, because had previously struck me as a government yes man.

That was in October 1971. In December 1971 Pastor Althaus and his family were deported from Namibia, and returned to Germany. I think that was the first time a Lutheran leader had been deported from Namibia.

The Althaus family, deported from Namibia in December 1971

And, back to the present, here is this ex-SB man telling in open court, and broadcast on TV, about this apparatus, and how it was used  And he told us how they dealt with the “rogue policemen” that Vorster spoke of — they had a “sweeper”, someone whose job it was to make sure that these policemen never got into trouble.

And when he described John Vorster Square, the SB Joburg headquarters,  that was more deja vu. Actually his description left out some of the things that struck me most when I was called to see Lieutenant Jordaan in Auguat 1968. I had had an appointment to see a Detective Sergeant van den Heever at the SB headquarters at The Grays in 1966, but got on a plane to England instead, and so did not keep the appointment. The SB had moved, however, to its new purpose-built offices in John Vorster Square, where Ahmed Timol was held.

So I went to this new building in Commissioner Street, next to the new freeway bridge, and just up the road from the JMT bus garage. I went into the building, and looked at the lifts in the foyer, but they did not seem to go to the floor I needed to get to. I asked at the counter, and they told me to go down a little narrow passageway at the side, and there was another lift there, a small one. And it too did not seem to go to the floor I needed to be at, but they had said at the counter that I must go there anyway. So I pressed the button and the lift went up to the 9th floor, and when the door opened there was a bloke at a desk. He asked me who I wanted to see, and if I had an appointment, and he phoned and checked, and then said I must get back in the lift, and he would send me up to the 11th floor. So I got back in the lift,
and got sent up two floors — there was no way of getting there from inside the lift, it was controlled from outside.

There were more checks and I went down a passage with three hefty strongroom doors, and eventually I met Lieutenant Jordaan. He had my file on his desk, and it was about 8-9 inches thick. He asked me questions about where I lived, and who had access, and all the rest of the questions to be asked of a person for whom a banning order was required.

At one point he left me alone in the room whole he went out, and I wondered if they were watching on CCTV to see if I would try to open the file or do something with it, so I didn’t, but I did read the heading on the form he was filling in with my answers.

And zip back to the present, and from what this Erasmus bloke said in court yesterday, I’m pretty sure Lieutenant Jordaan did deliberately leave me alone in the room to see what I would do when his back was turned. So now, nearly 50 years later, we catch glimpses of what was going on backstage during the apartheid dog and pony show.

Thabo Mbeki: Now it can be told

I’ve just been spending a very interesting hour watching the recording of the interview of Thabo Mbeki on Power FM, and he told lots of “now it can be told stories”. I think this link may lead to a recording of it, if you can afford the bandwidth. WATCH: In conversation with Thabo Mbeki:

Former President Thabo Mbeki sat down with Power FM chairman Given Mkhari for an interview.

Mbeki has warned against the term white monopoly capital.

“Let’s understand properly what is happening to the SA capitalist economy so that we can intervene to do the right thing.

“Because if we misdiagnose the problem, the cure is going to be wrong,” he said.

It was all quite fascinating, and because he was no longer in a position of power, or vying for support, he could cut the political obfuscation and tell it like it is.

He was asked how he could have had friendly relations with so many different world leaders, like Bush, Blair, Castro, Gaddafi and others. He said that it was in the interest of South Africa to remain on good terms with other countries even when we didn’t agree with them. He gave the example of George Bush phoning him before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and saying that he didn’t want to invade, because he didn’t want to tell American families that their children had been killed over there, and he needed to be sure that Iraq didn’t have WMD. Thabo told him that South African teams had be there and submitted reports saying there were no WMD there, and Bush asked for assurance, and he promised to ensure that he got the report.

He then phoned Tony Blair, and asked him to ensure that Bush got the reports, but later found that Tony Blair had not done so, which suggests that the push for war was really coming from Blair, not Bush. Blair was not Bush’s poodle, it was the other way round. That was something we didn’t know at the time.

Juju Malema then mentioned that there were two things the EFF thought were important, corruption and land. The minority owned most of the land and something had to be done about that. And Thabo Mbeki said that it was important that we debate the issue, but he did not agree with the EFF’s view. He said that the Freedom Charter said that the land should belong to those who worked it, and who worked the land? He himself did not work the land, he lived in the city. Those who worked the land were farm workers, farm owners and and people living on communal land in the rural areas. He said he asked his mother why great tracts of land around the place where he grew up were lying fallow, and she said that they would need a tractor to plough it, but people could not afford a tractor or a plough. Also, even if they did plough it, back in the old days young boys used to herd the cattle to keep them away from the gardens, but now they were all in school, so the land would have to be fenced, and they could not afford that either.

Former President Thabo Mbeki

He mentioned Archbishop Thabo Makgoba’s autobiography, where he mentioned that the people had been driven off their ancestral land at Magoebaskloof in the 19th century, and there had been some land restitution, but the people simply fought over it, and eventually his own family had left the area. So it was important to discuss the question, but all these things needed to be considered.

He also gave a lesson in economics. Tagging “white” on to monopoly capital, as people in the ANC were currently doing, was meaningless. He said that if there were a thousand small enterprises, they would not be able to influence the market, but as capital tended to accumulate in fewer hands, and when the thousand were reduced to six, they would be able to influence the market, and that was monopoly capital. It was not necessarily everything in the hands of one company, even though that was what the word “monopoly” means, but a few companies big enough to influence the market. But if you looked at the JSE, how much of the investment could be described as “white”? Much was investment by pension funds for all workers, black and white.

As he was speaking I was thinking of IT firms like Google, Microsoft and Facebook, which are good examples of monopoly capital, and booksellers like Amazon.

It was good to hear him speak freed from the constraints of political office.The interviewer asked him, now that he is 75 years old, what advice he would give his 52-year-old self, taking office in 1994, and what mistakes were to be avoided. One of the most important piece of advice, he said, was to be more watchful for those who wanted political office for personal gain rather than to serve the people.

When he was president I thought we were lucky to have such a president. When I looked at the leaders of other countries — Tony Blair, George Bush, Vladimir Putin, Robert Mugabe and others — I thought we were much better off. And most of the present-day leaders are unspeakable, so I won’t mention their names.

PR firms: igniting the fires of ethnic hatred

The public relations firm of Bell Pottinger have just apologised for fanning the flames of racial hatred in South Africa, for money. Bell Pottinger’s full, unequivocal, absolute apology for selling Gupta lies – BizNews.com:

LONDON — Here’s a very big win for the good guys. The £100 000 a month London agency which promoted the Gupta agenda in South Africa – including instigating a threat to use the UK courts to close down Biznews – has suddenly seen the error of its ways. After steadfastly denying any wrongdoing by his company and claiming its clients were innocent victims, Bell Pottinger’s owner and CEO James Henderson today issued a grovelling apology: “full, unequivocal and absolute” to quote from the statement. News like this takes time to digest. Nice. But given the damage this firm’s dark media arts has created in South Africa, and the personal attacks and despicable social media deeds conducted under its instruction, I’m pretty sure this doesn’t close matter. But perhaps, to paraphrase Churchill, it is the end of the beginning. – Alec Hogg

That’s all very well. It’s fine for the arsonist to apologise for starting the fire, but the flames are still burning, and the apology does not put them out.

This is also not the first time that a PR firm has made a handsome profit from fanning the flames of ethnic hatred, and it probably won’t be the last. But to my knowledge it is the first time that a PR firm has apologised for its role in this.

Victoria Geoghegan, MD Financial and Corporate at Bell Pottinger.

The secret to PR spin is not to tell absolute lies, but to put a spin on the truth.

To put it crudely, what Bell Pottinger were paid to do was to bring about “radical economic transformation” in South Africa by promoting the replacement of White Monopoly Capital by Indian Monopoly Capital (the latter represented by the Gupta family).

Some might think that “radical economic transformation” should begin by questioning the role of monopoly capital in the economy, regardless of the race, ethnicity or nationality of the capitalists. The truth that is at the basis of the spin is that historically there has been white monopoly capital in South Africa, and part of the “white privilege” narrative is that it has had sufficient clout to fight back and wrest a public apology from Bell Pottinger.

Those who don’t have that kind of clout aren’t so lucky.

I’ve yet to see an apology from the firm of Ruder Finn for their role in fanning the flames of ethnic hatred that led to the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession, for example. Ruder Finn’s work for Croatia – SourceWatch:

On 12 August 1991, the Croatian government hired the American public relations firm Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs to “develop and carry out strategies and tactics for communication with members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate as well as with officials of the U.S. government including the State Department, the National Security Council and other relevant agencies and departments of the U.S. government as well as with American and international news media”. On 12 November 1991, Ruder Finn’s contract was renewed to include lobbying in relation to diplomatic recognition, sanctions, and embargoes, as well as briefings for officials of the first Bush administration and preparation of special background material, press releases, both reactive and proactive articles and letters to the editors to appear in major newspapers, briefings for journalists, columnists, and commentators. In January and February 1992, Ruder Finn organized trips to Croatia for U.S. Congressmen. The United States recognized Croatia as an independent state on 7 April 1992.

Truth is the first casualty in PR offensive | The Independent:

The Ruder Finn strategy has been to build a congressional and Senate coalition in the US in support of Croatia. The strategy has included mobilising the 2.5 million Croats in the US to lobby their own representatives in Congress.

Central to all this activity was equating the Serbian forces with Communism and the Croats with Western freedom and democracy.

In October 1992, Ruder Finn took up the job of public relations for the ethnic Albanian separatists in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

Bell Pottinger’s work in South Africa hasn’t yet led to death and destruction on that scale, but the story isn’t over yet, and the flames fanned by Bell Pottinger are still burning.

 

Guptas’ troll armies trying to infiltrate Orthodoxy?

Some time ago I started a Facebook group for Orthodox Christians in South Africa to share news of events and happenings, so that people could learn about things that were happening in parishes other than their own.

Last week there was a flurry of requests from people wanting to join the group. Most of them were from outside South Africa, though they appeared to belong to several other Orthodox groups on Facebook.

Eventually I posted a request in some of those other groups asking that people not ask to join the Orthodoxy in South Africa group unless they had personal connections with the Church in South Africa, otherwise the South Africans in the group would soon be outnumbered by people from other places. There are plenty of worldwide groups they could join.

Some people from other places have joined the Orthodoxy in South Africa group and then post little devotional articles, which you then see several times a day, so that every Orthodox group on Facebook looks just the same, and you can’t see the real news for the padding, and eventually no one bothers to put any real news up at all.

For example, I heard rumours of a monastery being started in South Africa, but nobody said anything, even though several members of the group probably knew about it. That was real news, so why did no one in the group see fit fit to mention it? Why didn’t anyone post photos of it? Yet people post photos of monasteries on the other side of the world.

But something more sinister than devotional spammers has come up. On one of the groups where I pleaded with people not to ask to join the South African group unless they had real South African connections someone suggested that I Google “Putin’s troll army”

I Googled it and this came up — Invasion of the troll armies: ‘Social media where the war goes on’ | Media | The Guardian:

You can hire your own troll army if you have the cash. In 2011 the PR firm Bell Pottinger told undercover journalists that they could “create and maintain third-party blogs”, and spruce up Wikipedia profiles and Google search rankings. Indeed marketing has a rich history of so-called “astroturfing”, which is laying down fake grassroots. Take Forest, “the voice and friend of the smoker”, which at least admits in nearly invisible small print that it is paid for by the tobacco industry.

It’s that ubiquitous PR firm of Bell Pottinger again. PR firm Bell Pottinger ‘exposed’ as masterminding Gupta plots | The Citizen:

The extraordinary emails released on Sunday by both the Sunday Times and City Press have once again cast a light on the role played by British PR firm Bell Pottinger.

The firm dropped the family as clients last month in the wake of protests against their company for allegedly driving the attempt to repair the Gupta family’s image in South Africa.

Could it be that Gupta’s troll armies are trying to infiltrate our Orthodoxy in South Africa group? You’ve got to wonder when someone who asks to join says they live in Venezuela and come from Arizona, and belong to several Orthodox groups and 679 other groups on Facebook.

No one who joins that many Facebook groups can be legit, and I’m sure they don’t want to join the Orthodoxy in South Africa group- because they want to know about Benoni parish’s panigyri or the open day at Saheti School. It does make me wonder why they are members of all those other Orthodox groups as well.

Remember the 1990s TV series Pinky and the Brain, where in every episode they were planning to take over the world? Maybe Bell Pottinger have already taken over the world. Maybe they planted these trolls in all those other Orthodox groups on Facebook as well.

In South Africa Bell Pottinger came up with the phrase “white monopoly capital” as a diversionary tactic to try to take people’s minds off the dangers of Indian monopoly capital, where the Gupta family had their fingers in every pie. The ran a campaign of promoting naked racism, deliberately trying to stir up racial hatred in South Africa because they were paid by the Guptas to do so.

Maybe all this is turning me into a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but never forget the old adage: just because you’re paranoid it doesn’r mean that they aren’t out to get you.

Singapore, colonialism and Helen Zille

A few days ago there was a big tizz-wozz on Twitter about Helen Zille tweeting that colonialism was not so bad because piped water.

You can read more about that at Zille’s career in ruins:

She has a million followers on Twitter and as she waited for her flight she engaged, as is her wont, in some argument with her followers and critics.

And then, for some maniacal reason, at 8.25am, she tweeted: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”

So powerful was the outrage from (mainly) black South Africans, who don’t have quite so rosy a memory of colonial South Africa, that by 9.59am she was obliged to tweet this: “I apologise unreservedly for a tweet that may have come across as a defence of colonialism. It was not.”

Except, of course, that it was. We are all prisoners of our time and our generations.

The timing could not have been better for those who were facing embarrassing questions from the judges of the Constitutional Court for the mess-up of SANSSA and CPS and the possibility that 17 million pensioners and other recipients of social grants might not get paid. That was a big joke, according to the president. Seventeen million people could go hungry, ha ha ha. They could be evicted for not paying rent, Heh Heh Heh.

But a silly tweet about colonialism, and suddenly the pressure is off.

And it was a silly tweet.

Did Thailand (then known as Siam) have no piped water until they were colonised by the Japanese in 1941? And did the Japanese have no piped water because they weren’t colonised? Did Ethiopia have no piped water before they were colonised by the Italians in 1936? Seeing the judiciary, transport infrastructure and water reticulation as products of colonialism is really daft.

But, like the misdirection of a stage magician, that silly tweet distracted the attention of the nation from something much more serious.

And, to give Helen Zille her due, she sometimes says and writes things a lot more useful than that silly tweet, and I think this is much more worth reading From the Inside: Lessons from Singapore | Daily Maverick:

I thought loftily: “What can we learn from Singapore? It’s an authoritarian country. We are the South African Miracle, the rainbow nation, that moved from being the skunk of the world to democracy’s poster child in less than a decade. Our transition was even faster than Singapore’s! They can learn something about democracy from us.”

I had drunk the Kool-Aid of South African exceptionalism.

She writes about how Singapore has changed in the last 35 years, a single generation, and what South Africa can learn from Singapore.

But I visited Singapore a generation ago, back in 1985, when South Africa was still wracked by P.W. Botha’s States of Emergency and Magnus Malan’s Total Strategy to meet the Total Onslaught.

Singapore was probably more authoritarian then than it is now, and though there weren’t Kasspirs and Hippos visibly prowling the streets there was, underneath the surface calm, that knowledge that somewhere behind the scenes Big Brother was watching.

But one other thing impressed me.

Singapore was a small country, and had no natural resources. The only resource it had was its people, and to make the most of that it invested heavily, very heavily, in education.

Back then, in 1985, the South African education system was broken, and had been badly broken for a generation, since Bantu Education and Christian National Education were brought in in the 1950s. The education wasn’t too good before the 1950s either, but at least then the government wasn’t deliberately trying to cripple it, as the National Party regime set out to do after 1948. And we can see the difference even today, when we meet the much-looked-down upon immigrants from Zimbabwe, legal and illegal, who are generally much better educated than their South African counterparts. Whatever else Mugabe and Smith before him (authoritarians both, like Singapore) managed to destroy, they did not set out to destroy the education system as the Nats did in South Africa.

Then came 1994, and all the talk of “transformation”.

But was the education system transformed? Hardly at all.

So yes, listen to Helen Zille when she talks about Singapore.

Singapore managed to transform their education system. We haven’t transformed ours.

 

 

Embrace (book review): recollections of childhood

EmbraceEmbrace by Mark Behr

A book about a 13-year-old boy in Standard 6 (Grade 8) in the Drakensberg Boys Choir School.

It’s a long book (over 700 pages) and written partly in “stream of consciousness” style. It follows Karl De Man though his school year, but it also jumps back to his memories of earlier events in his life, from his earliest childhood.

The novel is semi-autobiographical, as the protagonist, like Behr himself, was born in Tanganyika (before it united with Zanzibar to become the United Republic of Tanzania). When he was 2 years old the family moved to South Africa where his father became a game ranger for the Natal Parks Board, and he then attended the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School from the age of 11. The main period covered by the book is his third year at the school, when he develops a crush on one of the teachers and also on a fellow pupil, as well as a girlfriend whom he sees in the holidays, who is two years older than him.

Another teacher recognises his ability in art and writing, but his macho father wants him to ignore his talents and prepare for a more lucrative career, even if it is in fields that don’t really interest him. So a lot of the book deals with teenage angst, and probably quite authentically, since it is based on the author’s personal experience.

The chronology is at times confusing, as the “present” moves through his year at school, but there are conversations in which he refers to previous events in his life, which he later recalls in stream of consciousness fashion. He also tries to sort out what are genuine memories, and what he has been told by others, and he becomes quite lyrical in his descriptions of the Mfolozi, Hluhluwe and Mkuzi game reserves where he lived until the age of about 7.

I found that in some parts the book, like Frankie and Stankie, was evocative of my own childhood and life. Both books mentioned not only childhood experiences that were similar to mine, but also people whom I had met in real life, though not as a child — Alan Paton in Embrace, and Ken and Jean Hill, and John and Andy Argyle in Frankie and Stankie.

At one point he writes of shooting mousebirds with an air rifle, and I remember doing that, standing in our paddock, and shooting at mousebirds in the almond trees. I was with someone else, I forget who, and my mother stormed out, very angry, and said she would confiscate my air rifle if she ever caught me shooting birds again. Eventually the air rifle was given to a younger cousin, but I sometimes wish, in my more xenophobic moments, that I still had it to take pot shots at Indian mynahs, exotic birds that tend to drive indigenous birds away.

Another similar childhood experience was when he was riding a horse behind another, which kicked him, and he had to have stitches in his knee. I recalled being kicked by pony Tom, on the sole of my foot, in similar circumstances. I could recall the cold and the wet and my bare feet in the stirrups, my wet jeans, my wet shirt clinging to me, and down below the Jukskei River, flowing through Lyndhurst. I thought he had kicked me on the knee too, but perhaps that was another occasion, and I remember my knee being bruised and swollen, though not so that I needed stitches.

But memory is funny. What I wrote in my original diary I don’t know. I still have the blue 1953 one from McDonald Adams that my father gave me, but the 1954 one, with a maroon cover, is lost. But what I wrote in it at the time was simply an aide memoire, to remind me when it had happened. My pony Tom had run away, and I chased him on our other horse Brassie. Five years later I wrote it down more fully, and ten years later I rewrote it, adding to it from what I remembered of the day — how Tom had run away from home, and I jumped on to our other horse Brassie, not even stopping to put shoes on, and caught up with him at Lyndhurst. At the time I was 12 yeas old, a little younger than the protagonist of Embrace. I could not get Tom to come home, and eventually put him in someone’s garage for the night, and returned for him the next day when I had dry clothes and shoes on.

With my pony Tom, March 1953

But now all I have as a memory is a snapshot, a single image of me sitting on Brassie, the feel of cold and wetness, and the cold slipperiness of the wet metal stirrup, and Tom flicking his hooves up and kicking the sole of my foot, and the anger I felt at him. The rest of what I wrote is like a story told by someone else. I know I chased him down to Lyndhurst, but I cannot recall the route I took, or even the garage where I wrote that he stayed overnight, or how I got him back home. There is just the single image of the cold, the rain, the wind and the kick. And Behr writes about memories like that. He recalls his father teaching him to shoot with a revolver at the age of five, but his father does not recall, or denies that he does. Memories of events seem to become compressed into snapshots, single images and one cannot recall what led up to them or what followed. So it is a book about memory and recall, and the narratives that shape our lives.

There were also considerable differences, however. Mark Behr describes the racist and white supremacist views of many of the pupils and teachers at the Drakensberg Boys Choir School in the 1970s. It was a private fee-paying school, and therefore under no obligations to give the National Party indoctrination that went on in government schools, but apparently it did. When I was the protagonist’s age I attended St Stithians College in the 1950s, and I don’t recall such racist attitudes among the teachers at all, and relatively rarely among the pupils.

The headmaster at St Stithians, Wally Mears, used to provide magazines for the common room, and when I went to fetch them one day he explained the selection — The Motor and Autocar for those interested in cars, Flight for boys interested in aircraft, Amateur Photography for those interested in photography, and Contact “because it’s best on the position of the natives,” as Mears put it.  Contact was the journal of the Liberal Party, which was then the only legal non-racial political party in South Africa, and was forced to disband about 10 years later when multiracial political parties were banned by the National Party regime.

Another thing that struck me, which has nothing to do with the content, was that the publishers (Abacus) had obviously paid no heed to the adage “Putt knot yore trussed in spell chequers.” The book really could have made use of a human editor, but was apparently produced by an el-cheapo publisher who tried to save money by dispensing with their services and relying on a semi-literate typist using a spelling checker. Among the numerous errors were “in cohort with” where “in cahoots with” was obviously intended, and “pallet” instead of “palate”.

View all my reviews

Steinbeck & Coetzee as chroniclers of their times

The Wayward BusThe Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What do you think of your fellow passengers on a bus, or a plane, or a suburban train?

Usually they are anonymous.

You might sometimes idly wonder about their lives outside the conveyance that briefly brings you into the same moving space, but rarely does it go beyond that.

But in this book it does go beyond that. A group of people, with their own lives and thoughts and histories are drawn together as passengers (and a driver) on a bus, and by the end of the book they have all interacted with each other, and their lives have all been changed in some way.

Some knew each other before they got on the bus: there is a family travelling on vacation, and two of the passengers were employees of the driver, but none knew all the others before they gathered for the bus trip, and before the journey ended they knew things about the others, and about themselves, that they had not known before.

There is little action, and no real plot. The book is a study of character and human interaction between people whose paths briefly, and apparently randomly crossed.

One of the other reviewers, Kim, writes (Goodreads | The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck — Reviews, Discussion):

The narrative is in the third person, with shifting points of view and an uncomplicated linear progression. The point of the work is not so much the plot – because not a lot happens – but more the characters’ internal conflicts and Steinbeck’s critique of post WWII American society. Steinbeck sets the work in a fictionalised Salinas valley and starts it with a quote from Everyman, the 15th century English morality play. This is a clue to the fact that the characters represent more than themselves and are to an extent allegorical figures.

And that invites a comparison with another book I have just read, Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, because Coetzee seems to be trying to do for South Africa what Steinbeck was doing for America. Disgrace could be said to be about the characters’ internal conflicts and Coetzee’s critique of post-apartheid South African society The difference is that Coetzee writes from the viewpoint of one character, and all the other characters are seen through his eyes.

I disagree about the extent to which the characters are allegorical figures, though. They are stereotypical rather than allegorical. They don’t really represent abstract qualities or concrete historical personages, as those in allegories do. But they do represent types of people — the war profiteering businessman, the manipulative wife, the celebrity-obsessed shop assistant, the lecherous mechanic, the ex-serviceman salesman. And in Disgrace the disgraced professor, the hippie-going-on-earth mother daughter, the uptight puritanical school teacher, and the peasant, who calls to mind Roy Campbell’s poem The serf

I see in the slow progress of his strides
Over the toppled clods and falling flowers,
The timeless, surly patience of the serf
That moves the nearest to the naked earth
And ploughs down palaces, and thrones and towers.

And there is a similar abstracted “feel” to Steinbeck’s Of mice and men and Coetzee’s The life and times of Michael K. This quality is hard to put a finger on, but I find it in both Steinbeck’s and Coetzee’s writing. It’s more noticeable in Coetzee, because I have been to the places he describes his characters as visiting, and they feel like the same places in an alternative universe, where there are points of resemblance, but history has taken a slightly different turn. But in both the buildings feel like stage sets, and not places where real people live and work.

I compare The Waward Bus with Kerouac’s almost contemporary On the road. It’s not my favourite Kerouac book, but that characters are alive and the places real. And I had a similar feeling when reading Coetzee’s Youth. It feels as though a lot of important in-between bits were left out.

Disgrace

DisgraceDisgrace by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book won the Booker Prize, so someone must think that it’s great literature. I’m not so sure. I nearly stopped reading after the second chapter. I just didn’t connect with any of the characters.

It’s about a university professor who seduces a student. Her father complains and he is asked to resign and does. He goes to stay with his daughter in the Eastern Cape, and doesn’t really connect with her.

I didn’t connect with any of the characters, and their motivations seemed strange to me. Or perhaps their actions seemed to be unmotivated. I found the ending very sad.

That was about all I could say in my review on Good Reads, but I read it at a time when I was seeing a lot of posts about “farm attacks” and “farm murders” in social media. One of the scenes in the book is a “farm attack”, which which seems to link with what I was reading elsewhere, but that goes beyond what the book says, so I’ll say more about that aspect of it here.

One of the stories was this: Zuma should face the International Criminal court charges over murder of farmers: former Miss World Anneline Kriel:

Former Miss World Anneline Kriel has suggested President Jacob Zuma face charges of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court for failing to protect farmers in South Africa.

Her call‚ which includes the deployment of the military to protect vulnerable farmers‚ comes after a string of farm murders and the release of quarterly crime statistics‚ which revealed that there had been 116 more murders than the same period last year.

And I think, how stupid can she get. Zuma has many faults, but he did not give orders to criminals to murder farmers, as George Bush did to his air force to bomb Iraq, or Tony Blair and Bill Clinton gave orders for their air forces to bomb Yugoslavia. If they weren’t charged in the ICC why should Zuma be?

The increasing bombardment of racist propaganda about “farm attacks” as “white genocide”, seems calculated, by its very irrationality and its racist assumptions, to make one lose sympathy for the victims of farm attacks. The propaganda tends to create the impression that the victims of farm attacks were themselves as racist as the propagandists and that that they therefore somehow deserved what they got.

I wonder, why this singling out of one occupational group, and I want to say “all lives matter”, not just farmers’ lives, but then we are also bombarded with constant propaganda from a different quarter that it is wrong, evil and wicked to think that all lives matter.

But then I think about my own personal experience. As far as I can recall, I knew four people who were murdered. They weren’t close friends, but they were people I had known and talked to. And three of the four were murdered in farm attacks. The fourth was murdered in a town attack. Those are the ones I can recall now. Neil Alcock, Theo Vosloo and Jan van Beima were murdered in farm attacks; Fritz Bophela was murdered in a town attack (a drive-by shooting). So among the people I have known who have been murdered, farm attacks outnumber others by 3:1. But all of them were pre-Zuma, and that is just my experience. Other people may also know people who were murdered, but possibly in different circumstances.

And that brings me back to the book.

It did not make racist propaganda about the farm attacks, such as one sees on social media. But nevertheless there was a racist subtext. The only black people in the story are described in a racist way, not directly; it is a subtext, not the main text, but it does tend to leave the reader with the impression that all black people are like this.

It is also from the viewpoint of the protagonist, and the protagonist’s viewpoint is not necessarily the author’s view. It is sometimes too easy to think that it is — I’ve seen people attributing views to Dostoevsky through quotes from his novels, but they were quotes from his characters, not from Dostoevsky himself. So it is dangerous to attribute the views of a fictional character to the author. Part of the skill of a novelist is to create believable characters with their own views.

Nevertheless, at the end of the book, the reader, or at least this reader, is left with the impression of black people that “give them an inch and they’ll take a yard”. That’s a common white racist stereotype. Yes, it’s the view of one character, but it’s also the impression created by the book as a whole.

Perhaps it did not strike the people who awarded the Booker prize like that, but that is how it struck me.

 

 

 

 

New traffic laws?

I saw a link to this article on Facebook, which seems to me to have some ominous implications Read: From 11 May SA will have new speed-limits and other driving regulations:

From 11 May SA will have new speed-limits and other driving regulations: Every festive season we hear about numerous deaths from road accidents, sadly the end of last year was no different. The minister of transport Dipuo Peters, has been actively working on new regulations and plans that can get the accident rate down. Not just over the festive period but for the entirety of the year.

This seems to hark back to the days of John Vorster, who used to try to solve all problems by legislation to make things illegal that were already illegal, and so enhance his public image of kragdadigheid — if there is a problem, pass a new law so you can be seen to be “doing something”.

Donald Trump seems to be doing the same thing in the USA — giving executive orders with little thought given to the practical implementation or their effects.

So are these changes necessary, and what are the likely effects?

  • When renewing your license [sic] drivers will now have to undergo a practical re-evaluation.
  • K53 is going to be completely reviewed and revamped (finally)
  • A variety of speed limit changes: Speed limits to be reduced from 60km/h to 40km/h in urban areas, from 100km/h to 80km/h in rural areas, and from 120km/h to 100km/h on freeways running through a residential area
  • Large goods vehicles above 9000kg GVM to be banned from public roads during peak hour traveling [sic] times.

I think this might be just as much subject to the law of unforeseen consequences as the travel ban on children without full birth certificates.

Take the first one — a practical re-evaluation for drivers.

Who will do it? Do they have qualified staff who are competent to re-evaluate drivers when they have difficulty in coping with applicants for new licences? And will they be any less susceptible to demanding bribes than the existing staff?

Part of the problem is the number of unlicensed drivers on the roads, because many have got their licences through bribery. The way to deal with that is surely to implement the existing laws properly. I foresee a huge increase in the number of unlicensed drivers on the roads, because the process for renewing licences will have become so cumbersome as to be unworkable. It will not weed out the incompetent, but will penalise the competent.

n1ct

It would be far better to improve the enforcement of existing laws, many of which seem to be increasingly disregarded. It used to be quite rare to see vehicles driving through red robots, but now I see it once a week or more frequently (and I don’t go out much). I’m not referring to occasions when the light has just changed and the driver did not have time to stop, but when it has been red for ten seconds or longer, and someone has just sailed through. There are also practices like going straight from turning lanes that are dangerous as well.

Passing legislation is relatively easy. But the difficult part is the implementation. And trying to apply the changes described here will probably lead to more mess and muddle, and not reduce the road accident rate at all.

 

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