Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “politics”

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.

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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.

Do something. Kill someone.

Over the last few days I have seen floods of emotional demands on social media that somebody should do something about reported gas attacks in Syria. These appeals are sometimes accompanied by gruesome pictures of unknown provenance.

I haven’t seen any actual media reports of these gas attacks. Perhaps that it because the South African media have been so preoccupied with reactions to Jacob Zuma’s recent cabinet changes that demands for regime change in South Africa have taken precedence over demands for regime change in Syria and the United States.

The demands on social media that someone should “do something” do, however, appear to be media driven, and there seems to be an Alice in Wonderland quality of unreality about them. As the Queen of Hearts proclaimed, it seems to be sentence first, then the verdict, then the evidence.

I think this article is worth reading Disharmony: The religious response to Syria’s travails is prolix and confused | The Economist:

Generally, the local Catholic and Orthodox churches remain reluctant to condemn Bashar al-Assad, whom they regard as their protector against the furies of Islamism. That in turn influences the hierarchs and adherents of those churches in other places. Meanwhile, some luminaries of America’s religious right (though not of the isolationist far-right) saw their country’s missile attack as a noble act by Donald Trump: a sign of his virtuousness compared with the wicked sloppiness of his predecessor.

I see media reports of a “US-led coalition”, but I seem to have missed the formation of this coalition, and its purpose. I know there was a “coalition of the willing” to bring about regime change in Iraq in 2003, and plenty of scorn from people in the US for the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” (the French) who didn’t join it. Someone pointed out that there seems to have been a coalition against ISIS, but the main aim of the current coalition seems to be to put ISIS, or some group very like them, in power in Syria.

The only constant and consistent factor in US intervention in the Middle East has been to establish more anti-Christian regimes, and has led to Christians being killed or driven from their homes in increasing numbers in a form of “religious cleansing” that parallels the ethnic cleansing seen elsewhere. It should therefore not be surprising that Christians in Syria generally take the attitude of “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Which of the groups seeking to overthrow Assad will treat them better?

But the “Do something” response shows that people outside Syria, including Christians, would behave no better than the people in Syria if they had the chance. It was people who felt they had to “Do something” who attacked the World Trade Center in New York on 9 September 2001. It was people who felt they had to “Do something” that bombed a Metro train in Moscow last week. It was people who felt they had to “Do something” who attacked the offices of a publication in Paris a couple of years ago.

In most of the social media calls to “Do something” about gas attacks in Syria the “something” was unspecified, but I’m pretty sure that in most of them the “something” that the posters had in mind was something violent.

We sometimes read about psychologists and profilers trying to understand the minds of terrorists. But they really don’t have to look far. We are all terrorists at heart, especially when we call on someone to “do something” when that something is violent.

Until we tame that “do something” in ourselves, there is little hope of it being tamed in anyone else.

Lent is over, but we still need to pray, Grant that I may see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother.

 

Liberal genocide

There seems to be a trend, not exactly new, because it’s been going on for several years now, to blame anything that’s perceived to be bad on liberals. Here are a few examples that turned up in my Facebook feed this morning:

Liberal Mom Aghast as Huge Guy Wearing Lakers Jersey Walks Into Ladies’ Room:

A liberal mom got a rude awakening that changed her views about the “bathroom debate” and decided to share her story regardless of what the backlash would be. This is a reality check like no other.

Kristen Quintrall Lavin runs a blog called, The Get Real Mom, in which she exposes the harsh realities of what she calls, “momming.” However, on a recent trip to Disneyland with her young son, Lavin, she was exposed to another harsh reality — the reality of bathroom stalking, which made her question her progressive liberal views on the bathroom debate.

Zille’s Tweets and History’s Miasma | The Con:

In the departure lounge of OR Tambo (taking a break from complaining about the missing TV remote and milk) Helen Zille, the former leader of South Africa’s opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and premier of the Western Cape, casually invoked one of the continued liberal myths of colonisation – that Europeans brought with them medical care to the colonies.

Liberal moms and liberal myths.

My question is, what does the gratuitous insertion of the word “liberal” contribute to either story?

I suspect that the answer is that the not-too-heavily disguised purpose of both articles is to make liberals and liberalism look bad or stupid.

But this kind of devaluation and debasing of the word “liberal” and turning it into a kind of general signal for disapproval tends to make it meaningless.

The main reason that people dislike liberals and liberalism is that they themselves tend to be authoritarian. Authoritarianism can range all the way from mild bossiness through being a control freak to being an absolute dictator, like Hitler or Stalin. But people who diss liberalism do tend to be control freaks of one kind or another.

<SATIRE>

Another trend, also not exactly new, is to devalue terms like “genocide” by applying them to things that are a great deal less than genocide.

If I wanted to follow that trend, I could say that all this anti-liberal propaganda is calculated to provoke liberalophobia (fear and loathing of liberals), in which the next step would be a genocide of liberals.

That wouldn’t be true, of course, because “genocide” means the systematic and planned extermination of an entire race of people, and liberals are not a race (in spite of the attempts of racists to make liberals seem to be a race by prefixing the word “white” to “liberal” when the latter is used as a noun). If it isn’t hate speech, it is at least anti-liberal propaganda.

My daughter recently accused me of mastering the art of clickbait when I reblogged another post recently (the curious can find it here). Well yes, the heading of this post probably may be seen as clickbait, Whether you believed or anyone expected what happened next is up to you.

</satire>

So no, I don’t expect a liberal genocide (but see here), but authoritarian governments do tend to kill off or at least crack down on liberal opposition. And most colonial governments have been authoritarian, at least vis-à-vis the colonised, whatever Helen Zille or Matthew Wilhelm Solomon may say.

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.

 

 

Why I’ve stopped buying newspapers

Twenty years ago I used to buy newspapers quite a lot. Now I may buy a Sunday newspaper once a month or so. Sometimes the newspaper publishers run surveys to find out why people buy or don’t buy their newspapers, but they usually ask all the wrong questions.

I suppose the main reason I don’t buy as many newspapers as I used to is that since I retired I don’t get out much. Going out usually costs money. We do go out to church on Sundays, and on the way home stop at shops, and so for a while bought the Sunday newspapers most Sundays, but even that has dropped off, partly because of financial constraints, but also because of this — What is the Labour Party for? On the mystery of Jeremy Corbyn:

There is a preference in the media’s political coverage – and in political campaigning altogether – for symbol and personality over policy and fact. The media coverage of Corbyn, who despite being an MP and unusually active campaigner for over thirty years had not much figured in the press until the leadership contest, has been by any measure persistently negative.

Of course South African Sunday newspapers only rarely refer to Jeremy Corbyn, but in their coverage of South African politicians, the same general principle applies: The emphasis is on image rather than substance, personality rather than policy.

Almost every Sunday there will be a full-page article on some politician, and the article will usually be about some political rival threatening to take over their position. I rarely read beyond the first paragraph, because I know from experience that if there are no facts in the first paragraph there will be none on the rest of the page. The policies of the politician in question are not important. What’s important is that there is conflict, and that increases circulation, or so they say.

Jeremy Corbyn

The problem with Jeremy Corbyn is that he has no ambition, and it ambition that fuels the conflict that journalists like to write about. Corbyn talks too much about principles and policies, and not enough about his rivals or their voters. If he started calling Tory voters “a basket of deplorables” he’d probably get a better press, though whether it would get him more votes from Labour supporters is a moot point.

So where do we get our news nowadays?

A few days ago our TV was on all day on the channel showing the Constitutional Court hearings about the crisis in social grants payments. When it comes to the judges of the Constitutional Court, they are not interested in the fluff about personalities, they want the facts. And if they don’t get the facts, they ask. They don’t concern themselves with speculations about who might get Bathabile Dlamini’s job because she messed up, or how much sushi was consumed at her last birthday party. They want to know what she has done and what she hasn’t done about the payments of pensions and other social grants.

Bathabile Dlamini, Minister of Social Development

Even the Daily Maverick, which is usually better an more insightful than most, writes, Sassa grant crisis: In this game of thrones, can Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini survive? | Daily Maverick. The important question, you see, is not whether 17 million social grant recipients will get paid. The important question is the personality-cult one: the political survival of one celebrity politician, rather than 17 million people who might have no food on the table in April.

When it comes to the media and their predilection for personality cults, one wonders which came first, the chicken or the egg. The scramble for power of ambitious politicians makes great copy, at least in the opinion of journalists, and so if politicians want the publicity they crave, they must spend more time on polishing their images than on fine-tuning their policies. It’s a vicious cycle, the one feeds off the other.

And politicians like Jeremy Corbyn break that mould. That’s why the media hate him, and why I rather like him.

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”.

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Political correctness

I have always understood the primary meaning of “political correctness” to refer to the subservience of burrowing apparatchiks who try to align their opinions with those perceived to be in power.

A primary example in South Africa today would be ANC members of parliament, and of provincial and municipal councils, who do not dare to criticise Jacob Zuma, even though they may have private misgivings about him.

I believe the term originated in Marxist or Communist party circles, where people might precede some criticism of the party line, however mild, with an ironically self-deprecating phrase such as, “It may not be politically correct to say so, but…”

From there it spread to other groups and other power structures, but with the same general meaning of unwillingness to criticise those perceived to be in power, and an unquestioning adherence to the party line, whatever the party might be.

Then the meaning seemed to become restricted to the use of language.

The Vicar of Bray

The Vicar of Bray

Undoubtedly political correctness did get expressed in language. When South Africa was ruled by the National Party, “natives” became “Bantu” and later “Blacks” (with a capital B), and the politically correct changed their usage in accordance with the approved pattern. When “Native Reserves” became “Bantu Homelands” the politically correct changed their terminology accordingly. The politically incorrect would precede “Homelands” by “so-called”, or would use air quotes when they said it.

The primary example, the paradigm and model of political correctness is the Vicar of Bray.

But now there seems to be a further narrowing down of the meaning of political correctness, especially in the USA, for example in the following article, in which it seems to be defined solely in terms of “offense sensitivity” — The Personality of Political Correctness – Scientific American Blog Network:

The researchers found that PC exists, can be reliably measured, and has two major dimensions. They labeled the first dimension “PC-Egalitarianism” and the second dimension “PC-Authoritarianism”. Interestingly, they found that PC is not a purely left-wing phenomenon, but is better understood as the manifestation of a general offense sensitivity, which is then employed for either liberal or conservative ends.

It’s an interesting article, but I think it is a pity that the term is narrowed down in that way. It seems to leave a gap in the language. If you reduce political correctness to offence sensitivity, what do you call real political correctness?

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