Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “history”

Interrogating silence

I’ve been reading an interesting article by André Brink, on Interrogating Silence, which was in a book I found in the library.

No this isn’t a review of the book, which got poor reviews on GoodReads, and I haven’t finished reading it yet. This is rather some thoughts sparked off by reading a couple of the articles, and memories of old friends, and the kinds of silences that are imposed on us by changing circumstances.

Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995 by Derek Attridge

I took this book out of the library mainly because it had an article by an old friend, Graham Pechey, who died in Cambridge, UK, in February 2016. I had known Graham Pechey when I was a student in the 1960s, and it was he who introduced me to Bob Dylan. He lived in a flat next door to another friend, John Aitchison, and had borrowed the Dylan records from yet another student, Jeff Guy, who later became a historian.

On one memorable evening, on 11 November 1965, after Ian Smith had unilaterally declared the independence  of Rhodesia, and Bram Fischer had just been rearrested after several months on the run, and I had received an official warning from the magistrate in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act, John Aitchison (who was banned) and I sat with Graham Pechey in his flat, and drank toasts to Bram Fischer, Harold Wilson, and Queen Elizabeth II. I’ve described the occasion more fully in another blog post here.

At that time Graham Pechey was an atheist and a bit of a Marxist, but he later explained his sympathy for monarchy, which I am inclined to agree with, on Facebook on the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II:

‘The rise of Hitler, Franco and Stalin showed that there are worse institutions than a Monarchy–that a people deprived of a Royal Family can turn to far more dangerous gods. As one Socialist said before the war: “If you throw the Crown into the gutter, you may be sure that somebody will pick it up”‘. Wise words from the Observer, June 1953, reprinted in today’s issue.

Graham Pechey, 1965

Graham Pechey later married my philosophy lecturer, Nola Clendinning, who took to paining ikons, and in Cambridge, I am told, he was a pillar of the local Anglican Church. I would love to have been able to meet with him and chat about these things over a beer, but the last time I saw him was in 1971, and though we  were later reconnected on Facebook, it’s not the best medium for that kind of conversation. So now all I can do is interrogate the silence.

Though I do have the article in the book: The post-apartheid sublime:rediscovering the extraordinary.

The first article in the book, however, is by André Brink, on Interrogating silence.

In it he writes:

The experience of apartheid has demonstrated that different kinds or levels of silence exist. There is the general silence of which I have spoken above and which exists in a dynamic relation with language/literature; but there are also more specific silences imposed by certain historical conjunctions. If any word involves a grappling with silence, the word uttered in the kind of repressive context exemplified by apartheid evokes an awareness of particular territories forbidden to language. Just as surely as certain sexual relationships were proscribed by apartheid, certain experiences or areas of knowledge were out of bounds to probing in words. These were often immediate and definable: certain actions of the police or the military; certain statements or writing by ‘banned’ persons; the activities of the ANC or other organizations of liberation.

That recalled John Aitchison, who was banned from 1965-1970, and after a year of freedom, again from 1971-76. During those periods he was not allowed to publish anything, nor was any publication allowed to quote him. As described in the article mentioned earlier, in 1966 I went overseas to study in Durham, UK and was away for two and a half years. During that time John Aitchison and I were in frequent correspondence, writing, on average, about once a fortnight. In our correspondence we were constrained by the suspicion (which later proved completely correct) that our letters to each other were being read by the Special Branch (SB) in South Africa, so there was a kind of imposed silence there. The SB reports to the Department of Justice frequently referred to “a sensitive source” (‘n delikate bron) for information that could only have come from letters we wrote to each other when I was overseas.

John Aitchison, 1965

At one point John wrote to me expressing the fear that it would become even more repressive. There was a proposal to extend the restrictions in banning orders so that In addition to not being allowed to publish anything, a banned person would not be allowed to write, compose, compile or distribute any document, photograph etc which was not a publication within the meaning of the act, if it contained any political reference at all. That would have been yet another level of silence. Even private letters not intended for publication would have to be bland and non-political.

I returned to South Africa. We shared many ideas and talked about them and bounced ideas off each other. We published a small magazine called Ikon which shared some of these ideas, about human and inhuman settlements, about theological trends and various other things. John was still banned, so his name did not appear as an editor. Articles we wrote jointly bore only my name. By that time John had married my cousin Jenny Growdon, who was an art teacher and did much of the artwork. But silence was still imposed.

Ikon was originally published under the auspices of the Christian Institute, an ecumenical group that was itself founded to counter some of the silence imposed by apartheid, particularly on members of the Dutch Reformed Churches. But Ikon proved too radical even for the Christian Institute, which was seen by the apartheid government as dangerously radical, and was eventually itself silenced by being banned; both the organisation itself and its leaders were banned in 1977. But it was the Christian Institute itself that attempted to silence Ikon, so we had to publish it independently. Nine months later I was in Windhoek, sitting in the boss’s office in the Department of Water Affairs. After working there for a month as a waterworks attendant, I was told that I was sacked; no notice, leave immediately. I could see a press cutting on top of the file folder open on his desk,. As it was upside down I could only read the headline: CI keer wilde jeugblad (Christian Institute rejects radical youth magazine). O! the ideological perils of being a waterworks attendant!

John’s ban expired in 1970 and communication was freer, but he was banned again  within a year. I was deported from Namibia in March 1972 and stayed with John and Jenny Aitchison in Pietermaritzburg. We had embarked on a new project, the promotion of Theological Education by Extension (TEE) in the Anglican Church. John wrote a 20-page executive summary of a 600-page book called Theological Education by Extension edited by Ralph D. Winter. I duplicated it on a stencil duplicator on green paper and we sent it to all the Anglican bishops in Southern Africa, and all those responsible for theological education in the Anglican Church.

Then I travelled the country (at my own expense) trying to sell the idea to the those we had sent the document to. Many of them were suspicious because the “Green Thing”, as we called the document, was anonymous. It was anonymous because if the SB discovered that John was responsible for it, he could go to jail for five years. In 1972 a lot of Anglican bishops were still rather politically naive, and were not really aware that South Africa was a police state. The following year the government expropriated the Federal Seminary, run jointly by the Anglican, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, showing that they did indeed regard theological education as an ideological threat.

My career as unpaid promoter of TEE ended abruptly in July 1972 when I was banned. I was living in the same house as John Aitchison, but was henceforth not allowed to communicate with him in any way at all. More silence. The Minister of Justice dealt with that by banning me to Durban, even though I had nowhere to live there, and was dependent on the generosity of clergy (Anglican and Congregationalist) who took me in.

Steve Hayes and John Aitchison, 13 July 1972, about to part for 4 years, both banned and prohibited from communicating with each other in any way. If the SB had seen this photo and known when it was taken it could have meant 5 years jail for both.

But in a sense, that enforced silence was never lifted. It seemed to have a permanent effect. Even after our bans were both lifted in 1976, our friendship was never again as close. Instead of communicating once every couple of months, or once every couple of weeks, it’s now once every couple of years. Did the double ban make the effect permanent. Apartheid is dead, but perhaps in ways like this its ghost still haunts us. How does one interrogate that silence?

After the end of apartheid I wrote a couple of novels set in the apartheid years. One was a children’s story, Of wheels and witches, set in 1964. You can read more about it here. The other was for adults, set 25 years later, but having some of the same characters. It is The Year of the Dragon.

In these books there is a release from some of the immediate and definable constraints of apartheid that André Brink speaks of, the things that were out of bounds to probing in words, namely certain actions of the police and military.

For such things, the silence has been lifted — or has it?

In the last week of 2018 review copies of the book were available free, and I wondered if anyone would like to talk about these things. Eighty review copies were taken, but so far there have been only two reviews. One you can see on GoodReads here.

John Davies, sometime Anglican chaplain at Wits university, now retired in the UK.

The other review, by Bishop John Davies, has not hitherto appeared on the web, but I did send it, along with the invitation to take review copies of the book, to members of three book discussion groups I’m a member of. One group meets face to face once a month, the other two meet on line.

In all three forums The Year of the Dragon has been met by a resounding silence. Apartheid has ended, and so cannot be blamed for this silence. No one has said they have liked the book or disliked it. No one has said anything at all. It seems as though everyone is avoiding the subject.

How does one interrogate this silence?

In an attempt to get a wider readership than just people I talk to anyway, I promoted the book on Twitter, among other things by using the hashtag #iartg. That is the Independent Authors Re-Tweet Group. It provided an interesting assortment of books on my Twitter feed, quite a large proportion of which had covers featuring male human torsos. Perhaps they’re more attractive than dragons’ torsos.

I’ve invited people to ask questions about the book on GoodReads. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Lutho. Silence.

Can you interrogate this silence?

There is something else about the Writing South Africa book.

As I said, I haven’t read all the essays in it, only the introduction and a couple of the other articles. And it did get bad reviews. But it was about the period before 1995, and so was looking forward to a kind of postcolonial literary future, that would not be dominated by struggle literature. It is interesting to read it 20 years on, and compare hopes and expectations of 1995 with the reality.

After the Zuma years that sanguine outlook seems a little naive and unreal. Most of us are a lot more cynical and pessimistic than we were back in 1995. Is there any hope? Is there any reason for hope?

One lesson some of us may have learned is from a Psalm that is sung at almost every Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church:

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.

And as for hope after the Zuma years, perhaps this:

And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you.
And ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, that hath dealt wondrously with you: and my people shall never be ashamed (Joel 2:25-26).

 

The Winnie phenomenon

When I heard the news that Winnie Mandela had died, I was sad. She made a significant contribution to the struggle against apartheid, but I didn’t intend to blog about it because I didn’t know her well enough, and thought I could leave that to people who knew he and could tell her story.

But what has struck me since then is not Winnie Madikizela-Mandela the person, but rather the Winnie phenomenon. And the phenomenon indicates to me that something has changed in our society and our culture, and the change does not seem to be a good one.

The first thing that struck me was that after her death most of the people who had anything to say about he either had nothing good to say about her, or they had nothing bad to say about her. And the few public commentators who did mention both the good and the bad were attacked by the other two groups, heach of which lu8mped them with the other.

There was a kind of polarization there that, it seems to me, had not been there before. For one group, anything written about Winnie had to be hagiographical or it was worthless. And for the other, nothing good that she had ever done could outweigh the evil, whether real or imagined, or planted by the SB.

The second thing that struck me about it was the personality cult.

Nelson Mandela was sometimes praised for many things, but he always shrugged off personal responsibility for them. He would say that if he said anything good he was speaking on behalf of an organisation, the ANC, and that he was simply enunciating policy decisions of the ANC. It was not anything good on his part, but rather he was part of an organisation that was trying to make a better life for all.

And there was a time, in the 1990s, when that really did seem to be true.

I do think that the ANC made some bad decisions in that time, among the worst of them was the abandonment of the RDP, which Nelson Mandela himself had said, right after the 1994 election, was not negotiable. But that too was a collective decision. It wasn’t just Nelson Mandela arbitrarily changing his mind.

The media helped to develop a personality cult mentality.

Day after day, week after week, they presented politicians as celebs. They reported who was in and who was out, who was favoured and who was disfavoured, and the merits of the policies they espoused were not reported on. One didn’t even know what policies they espoused until much later.

So the Winnie phenomenon that has emerged after her death seems to be all about polarisation and personality cult; whether her persona is regarded as good or evil. Those who are not for Winnie are against her, and those who are not against her must be for her.

 

 

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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Early Social Media

It was 30 years ago this month that I first encountered online social media.

I borrowed a modem from a friend and used it to access Beltel, which was run by Telkom. The modem was a Saron (perhaps made in Saron in the Western Cape, perhaps not). It is so far lost in the mists of history that a Google search produced no information. A few months later I bought one. There were two gadgets we wanted back then — a modem and a microwave oven. We could not afford both, so we got the microwave oven. But then someone who had upgraded their modem to a faster one advertised a Saron modem second hand, and so I bought it.

Ceefax screen display from the UK. The Beltel display was similar.

Beltel was accessed by a 300/75 baud modem. It would download data at 300 baud, and upload it at 75 baud. “Baud” for those who don’t know, was roughly equivalent to bits per second. The Beltel system was similar to the Prestel and Ceefax system in the UK, and lasted until 1999, when it closed because the software was not Y2K compatible.

The Beltel system produced a 40 character screen display.

One of the features of Beltel was Comnet, which was like a bulletin board, with sections for discussing various topics. It worked a lot like Facebook, except that it had very crude graphics, it was much slower, and because it used 40 characters across the screen, it was easier to read.

There was also a more sophisticated version of Comnet called “The Network” for which one had to pay extra.

Most of the discussion was about computers. The main exception was a couple of right-wing white racists Adrian and Karen Maritz, who used it for racist propaganda. The were supported by someone using the pseudonym “Computer Advisory”, whom I suspect was Henry Martin, who later also posted racist propaganda under his own name. Most of the other users were white middle-class computer geeks, who whatever they may have thought about people of other races, reacted against the very crude racism of the propagandists.

A few years later Adrian Maritz and Henry Martin booby trapped a computer, which they sent to Durban, where it blew up and killed some poor innocent computer tech who was trying to compare it. They were arrested, and made it on to the news when they had a hunger strike in prison. An investigative journalist, Jacques Paauw, followed up the story, and 30 years later he’s still around, still digging up the dirt on politicians and the like. Henry Martin and Adrian Marits scarpered overseas to the UK. Perhaps they are still involved in right-wing politics over there.

Through Beltel I discovered BBSs — Bulletin Board Systems. These could be set up by anyone with a computer, a modem and a telephone line, and could both transmit and receive data at 300 Baud, and quite soon 1200 Baud. Then Baud as a measurement became obsolete, and new modems could transmit and receive at 2400 bits per second, which could not be measured in Baud. But even at 300 Baud, seeing characters appear on my screen and realising that they were coming from another computer 150 km away was an amazing thing. Now I’m typing this and it’s being saved on a computer on the other side of the world and I think nothing of it.

One of the first BBSs I used was Capital ComTech, run by Geoff Dellow from Centurion, which was only a local call away. I visited him one day, and also met the notorious Adrian and Karen Maritz, who were visiting at the same time. Most BBSs were run by computer geeks, and the main thing most of them wanted to talk about was computers. They would make their systems available to those who wanted to talk about other things, but regarded those as irrelevant fluff, and not the really important stuff. That seemed weird to me — like people only wanting to use telephones to talk about telephones (well, since the introduction of cell phones I think many people do want to use telephones to talk about telephones, but back in the 1980s it did seem to be ridiculous). Nevertheless, most BBSs had about 10-20 sections, called “conferences”, for discussing various aspects of computers, and perhaps one or two for non-computer stuff, which most sysops (BBS system operators) regarded as an unnecessary luxury, needed only to keep off-topic stuff out of the computer conferences.

So I wonder how many people are around who remember those early days of social media, who participated in ComNet and The Network on Beltel. Somewhere on my hard disk I’ve still got some conversations saved from those days.

Land: expropriation without compensation

Parliament has just voted to re-examine the clause in the constitution that prohibits arbitrary deprivation of property.

This was introduced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was also the one who oversaw the drafting of the constitution in the first place, so he should know what he’s doing.

I have certain misgivings about this, because the arbitrary deprivation of property that that clause in the constitution prohibits was one of the features of the National Party government from 1948 to 1994, and that is the kind of behaviour that that clause of the constitution is explicitly designed to prohibit.

In the ethnic cleansing that took place under the apartheid policy of the National Party government, thousands of people were arbitrarily deprived of property with little or no compensation. Part of the intention of this clause in the constitution has also been to allow the government to make restitution for those who were arbitrarily deprived of property in the past, and that process has been slow and cumbersome and badly managed. Changing the constitution on this point, we are told, bill improve this process. But will it?

Back in the 1960s I was a member of the Liberal Party, which was hated by the National Party because of this very issue. The NP regime expropriated land owned by people who belonged to the “wrong” ethnic group for a particular area, and wanted to do so with little or no compensation. The Liberal Party opposed this policy and helped many people who were so deprived to take cases to court to obtain better compensation. This, of course, made the ethnic cleansing exercise more expensive, and thus slowed it down.

One example was Khumalosville in Natal, where black people lived on two-acre plots where they kept a few cattle. Khumalosville was declared a “white” area, so the people who lived there were forced to move to Hobsland. They were offered R42.00 in compensation for their two acres in Khumalosville, and were given a “free” half-acre plot in Hobsland, with the option of buying an additional half acre for R110.00. But even if they did pay the extra to have half the land they had previously owned, the smaller plots would not support the same number of animals.

Twenty-two years after the present constitution came into force, have the people of Hobland had restitution of their land in Khumalosville? I have no idea, and many of them are probably dead by now, and their descendants have probably moved away, and no longer have the animals nor the desire to keep them. Expropriation without compensation will not help them, but it will facilitate the kind of abuse that they suffered under the National Party regime.

Of course the ANC will not do this, and we must trust them not to do that kind of thing even when they want to give themselves the power to do so. But nine years under the Zuptas have shown that no government can be trusted. Put not your trust in princes nor in any child of man, for there is no help in them.

 

 

Divisions of England, then and now

In 1966 I went to study in England, and spent two and a half years there. It took me about a year to get over the culture shock, and to appreciate different aspects of English culture — or rather English cultures, for there are several regional cultures.

Forty years later I visited England again, on holiday this time, and revisited some of the places I had known, and explored some new ones. I found that there were many changes, some expected, some unexpected. I’ve described that, and some of the changes I noticed here.

Then someone posted this graphic, which illustrated some of the changes I had noticed, and some that I hadn’t.

The most startling change to me is the one on chips.

Back in 1966 the area marked above as “gravy on chips” was definitely salt and vinegar.  I never, ever saw anyone have gravy on chips.

Whether bought from Sarah’s or Sweaty Betty’s, it was only ever salt and vinegar.

And in the area marked on the map as “salt and vinegar”, chips were unheard of. No matter where I went in London (and I went to most places on my London Transport free pass), there were no chips, only “French Fried Potatoes”. Chips were strictly north of the Trent.

The area marked “curry sauce on chips” was unknown territory for me, so I can’t comment on that.

So what happened? Did “French fried potatoes” go out with the bowler hats?

The bit about Greggs, I don’t understand much, but when we visited Cornwall in 2005, pasties were as scarce as chips in London in 1966. We asked at several places, and they sent us somewhere else, until we eventually foudn them at the 6th place we tried. And everyone in Bodmin spoke with Estuary accents.

The most astounding thing of all, however,  is the beer.

Before starting my studies in Durham I worked as a bus driver in London for 6 months. After a union meeting, which was held in a pub (the Telegraph on Brixton Hill), I was accosted by a conductor, who wanted to know about the big buses in Johannesburg that I had talked of at the meeting. Then I bought him a drink and he told me  he was the king of Streatham, and offered to take me on a tour of London and a trip to Brighton. He had been in many jobs before he became a conductor — street sweeper, rider on the wall of death, barrow boy. He had been in the cooler once for three months for scaling a motorbike. He bought me a drink. Then we went round the corner to another pub, his favourite hang-out, it appeared.

There we pooled our meagre resources and bought another drink. He scorned me for drinking cider, and said I should drink bitter. I said that draft bitter was usually flat. He said that didn’t matter, it was the taste that counts. The English like their beer warm and flat. I can think of nothing more insipid or puke-provoking. Then John starts waving and beckoning to his friend Reg, who is over at the other bar opposite. Reg, he tells me, is a tit-tat man. What the hell is a tit-tat man? Well, he’s the chap at the races who stands at one end and waggles his fingers and the bookies then know what every horse is doing. Reg is one of the best tit-tat men there is. Reg comes round and joins us. I like Reg. John introduces me as Steve, and Reg called me “Stephen”, so I called him “Reginald”, which provoked much giggling. Then he tried to guess my age, and said I was 32. Then changed it to 27 (I was actually 25). He said I’d never guess his age to within five years. So I said he was 57. No, he’s 56. He seemed rather amazed. He talked a little more. Then I said goodbye to John and Reg, and slipped away quietly, leaving them talking in a very lively way to someone else. The closing bell had rung, and I came home.

That was London, the area shown on the map as “craft ale”. Does bitter count as craft ale? There was bottled ale, but that was too fizzy. So English beer was either too flat or too fizzy. Nothing in between. Then I went north to Durham and discovered Newcastle Brown Ale. Now that was beer, the best in the world, I thought. Lion Ale, the beer Natal made famous, came a rather poor second, but still way better than bitter, or lager. And in Durham no one had ever heard of lager, except perhaps a few people who had gone to Germany on holiday.

So when did ale move south and lager move north? Was that yet another thing wrought by Margaret Thatcher?

 

 

 

 

The Midwich cuckoos: dresses and mannequins

We go into Woolworths to buy hummus because tomorrow is Wednesday, and there are two mannequins near the door, with little girls’ dresses. Val says that when she was little girl she would have loved to to have a dress like that. I barely notice the dress, I am struck by the mannequins, which look like something out of a horror movie, the Midwich cuckoos or something.

I stopped to take photos of them. As we leave Val mentions the dresses again, and how she liked them. I said I was so struck by the eyes of the models that I hardly noticed what they were wearing, and she was so struck by the dresses that he did not notice the eyes at all.

We walk down the mall, discussing how people rarely make their own clothes nowadays, and think of our family history research, where the occupation of so many people in 19th-century census records was given as “dressmaker”. Back then it was probably rare to buy clothes off the shelf.

Well, there’s my photo, but the eyes are far less scary in the picture than they were in reality. They look as though they are peacefully sleepwalking, but in the shop the eyes were fiercely glittering. Perhaps I should have turned the flash off.

But it is interesting how people can look at the same things, and yet see something completely different.

Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, what saw you there?
I saw a little mouse under a chair.

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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Pandering to colour prejudice

Graham Greene is writing about the French occupation of the Rhineland after WW 1, in 1923. Greene writes disapprovingly of the arrogance of the French, and their ill-treatment of the native Germans.

One of the most startling indictments of the whole futility of French policy, of her cries of “security” and “revenge”, was the sight of a small Spahi, with his ragged beard and dirty khaki cloak, lounging beneath the Porta Nigra, the great Roman gateway that has stood there for sixteen hundred years.

It must be remembered, however, that the French claim that there are no blacks on the Rhine. Blacks, they say, are negroes, and their troops Senegalese or Moroccans. It is an interesting distinction, and in Bonn especially I “imagined” many negroes. The fact, however, that a Frenchman is free from colour prejudice is no excuse for quartering them on a population that is known to possess it. It is a deliberate insult against a defenceless people.

Source: Greene 1991:10.

I’ve long been an admirer of Graham Greene as a writer,m and it took me a while to get my head around that.

It’s not that the attitude is unknown to me. I’ve encountered it before — the idea that failing to pander to people’s racism is somehow unjust. But in the past I’ve usually seen it from those who feel themselves to have been unjustly treated in this way, not from a relatively neutral observer, a journalist reporting on the occupation, and a writer I have rather admired.

In his articles on the occupation Greene reported that the way the Germans were bring oppressed by the occupiers would lead to a fresh outbreak of war within 20 years. In that he was right, though it came sooner than that, it took only 16 years. And yes, it was that repression and French revanchism in particular that facilitated the rise of Hitler and the Second World War.

But with hindsight we can also see clearly what German racism would lead to — mass murder and genocide, and Greene did not foresee that.

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.

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