Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “apartheid”

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).


Racism and Race Relations in South Africa

Earlier this morning someone asked a question on Quora, which I found interesting, and thought it worth trying to answer. I’ve posted the question here, but have expanded my answer a bit, because I think it is an important issue, amnd it has been bothering me recently.

How has the race relations in South Africa been? And how is it now? And where does it seem like it’s heading? Are there any pressing issues not covered in the general media?

Steve Hayes
Steve Hayes, former Senior editor and junior lecturer at University of South Africa (1986-1999)

And here’s my answer, modified and expanded for this blog post.

You can click this link to Quora to see my original answer.

After the first democratic elections in 1994 race relations improved, as the ANC sought to establish its goal of a democratic non-racial society. White people who had been taught to despise and fear black people discovered that the sky did not fall if they socialised with black people. One saw black and white children playing in the streets, or socialising in malls, which would have been unthinkable in the apartheid time. The importance of race gradually diminished in many people’s minds.

After about 2005, however, things changed again. There was a gradual increase in racial rhetoric, some of it imported from the USA. During apartheid race was seen to be very important, and after a drop between 1994 and 1999 it began to pick up again. Some white people, influenced by current thinking in the USA, began emphasising “whiteness” again, and promoted “whiteness studies”. They denigrated the ANC goal of non-racial democracy, and promoted racism while claiming to be anti-racist.

During the apartheid people white people were indoctrinated by the government with the idea that whiteness was the most important thing about them, and after 1994 many white people were being disabused of that notion. It therefore seemed very odd to me when people who called themselves “antiracist” began trying to resuscitate that decaying corpse. See here for more.

At about the same time, or soon afterwards, a different group gained control of the ANC, which had lost the vision of the struggle leaders, who were old and retiring from public life or had already died — people like Oliver and Adelaide Tambo , Walter and Albertina Sisulu, and Nelson Mandela. There was a new generation, led by Jacob Zuma, who were more interested in what their country could do for them than in what they could do for their country (to misquote J.F. Kennedy).

They teamed up with some crooked businessmen, the Guptas, who hired a British public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, to promote their cause, and Bell Pottinger’s strategy was a massive campaign to increase racist rhetoric by promoting anti-white racist slogans on social media. They paid large numbers of people to propagate these racist messages with an effectiveness that the Nat propagandists of the 1950s probably never even dreamed of.

Right-wing white organisations like Afriforum have run similar racist propaganda campaigns to promote the narrative of white victimhood, with stories of “white genocide” which they promote all over the world. Again, the theme of “whiteness” comes to the fore. When a farmer is murdered in an armed robbery, it is the whiteness of the farmer that is the most important thing in the message. Whiteness is everything. The obsession with whiteness is like a dog returning to its vomit.

And then there is this op-ed piece by Mondli Makhanya in last Sunday’s City Press, about how black people too are becoming Obsessed with Whiteness.

Along with this, we’ve been exposed to a lot of talk about “white privilege”, though I’m not sure what the point of it is. The place where we associate most with white people is a thing called TGIF, which happens early on Friday mornings. Someone speaks about a topic for 45 minutes, there are 15 minutes for questions and discussion, and it’s over by 7:30 so people have time to get to work. We enjoy it because we usually find the talks stimulating and its a way of being exposed to different ideas in one’s retirement. But quite a lot of the talks have been about “white privilege”.

I suppose I first became aware of white privilege at the age of 7, when the Nats came to power and apartheid was nothing more than an election promise that had yet to be implemented. My father, a chemist, got a new job in Germiston, which entailed a move. We had sold our house in Westville, near Durban, and so my mother and I spent two months at a hotel at Ingogo, about midway between, until we could find somewhere to live. As a result, I missed two months of School. I was in Standard 1 (Grade 3). The hotel was run by a cousin of my father’s, and their daughter Gillian was 8. I don’t know why she wasn’t at school, but we wandered the countryside and fished in the river. There is more about that in another blog post here.

On a few occasions Gillian and I visited a farm school held in a rusty corrugated iron church about a mile from the hotel. All the kids were black, and were probably children of farm labourers. The teacher welcomed us, but she was teaching several different classes in the same room. She asked questions, and my cousin and I were first with the answers.Why? White privilege.

When we lived at Westville I went to kindergarten. It wasn’t just any kindergartend; one of the neighbours had a governess for their daughter, Annabelle Dougal, and several other kids were invited to join her for lessons. As a result when, in the following year, I went to Class I at Westville Government School I was there for a month or two, and then promoted to Class II, which had a different teacher. White children had separate well-equipped classrooms with a teacher for each class, the black children at the farm school had Grades 1-5 in the same room, taught by the same teacher, with poor equipment. And if they reached Grade 5 most of them would go no further. So naturally we white kids knew the answers to questions we were asked in our own language, while the black kids were having to answer in a language they were still trying to learn. The sums the teacher was writing on the board were things I had learned two years earlier from Annabelle Dougal’s governess.

At the age of 7 some aspects of white privilege were obvious to me, others were not. The poorly equipped classroom, the teacher having to deal with different classes were obvious. That these were reasons that we white kids could answer questions more promptly only became apparent later. And what I only became aware of much later still was the class factor — that the children of chemists are likely to have better educational opportunities than the children of farm labourers.

How did my father become a chemist? He went to Durban High School and Natal Technicon, where he studied organic chermistry. His father, my grandfather, was a stockbroker and a mine secretary. My grandfather’s father was a builder and later a hotel keeper. My great grandfather’s father was a carpenter and then became a building contractor. And his father was… a farm labourer. The class privilege built up over six generations. The race factor was superficial and obvious, the class factor less so.

So what good does the obsession with whiteness and white privilege do? I can’t go back 70 years, and tell my parents no, I’m not going to the Witwatersrand with you, I’m staying here in Ingogo, and will complete my education at this farm school. Yes, I do believe that history is important. If we can understand where we have come from we can plot a different course for the future. And in 1948 the Nats had just come to power and immediately revved up the obsession with race. We know what that led to, so why are we doing it all over again? When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president he said “Never again” and he’s hardly been in his grave for five years and here we are doing it all over again.

But 70 years seems to be a kind of magic figure. In 1906 Alfred Lord Milner was trying to force Afrikaans-speaking children to learn in English after the Anglo-Boer War, and 70 years later Andries Treurnicht and Ferdi Hartzenberg, who were surely not unaware of the toxic resentment that that had caused, tried to do exactly the same thing by forcing black kids to learn in Afrikaans. Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But twenty years after Milner, Afrikaans became an official language of South Africa.

And 20 years after apartheid began Christian theologians rejected it as a heresy and a false gospel when they said,

… we are being taught that our racial identity is the final and all important determining factor in the lives of men. As a result of this faith in racial identity, a tragic insecurity and helplessness afflicts those whose racial classification is in doubt. Without racial identity, it appears, we can do nothing: he who has racial identity has life; he who has not racial identity has not life. This amounts to a denial of the central statements of the Gospel. It is opposed to the Christian understanding of man and community. It, in practice, severely restricts the ability of Christian brothers to serve and know each other, and even to give each other simple hospitality. It arbitrarily limits the ability of a person to obey the Gospel’s command to love his neighbour as himself.[1]

We we still persist in talking about race as if racial identity was the most important thing about us.

We are not alone in this obsession with race, however.

When I look at questions on Quora, about half of them seem to be about race, and about two-thirds of those seem to make racist assumptions.

So racist rhetoric seems to be making a comeback, driven by different sectors of society with different agendas, but the same general goal — to promote racism. And to some extent they seem to be succeeding.

Where it will lead to, who knows? But I think South Africa will be a lot more racist in 2019 than it was in 1999.

Notes and References

[1] A Message to the People of South Africa published by the South African Council of Churches and the Christian Institute of South Africa, August 1968.

Between mountains

Between MountainsBetween Mountains by Maggie Helwig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At one level this is a love story. Daniel is a journalist who has been reporting on the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. He meets Ljilja, who is an interpreter at the war crimes tribunal at the Hague. One of her professional obligations is confidentiality, she should not speak to journalists about anything she hears. And Daniel’s obligation as a journalist is to report what happens, while protecting his sources. They are attracted to each other, but their professional obligations are in conflict.

Once a month a small group of us meet at a cafe for informal discussions of Christianity and literature and when we met last week my wife Val mentioned this book, which she had just finished reading. I’ve already mentioned some of the things that struck her in a report on that gathering here Neoinklings: alienation and otherness | Khanya. One of the bits she read out at the gathering was about the Orthodox monks at Decani in Kosovo, who gave asylum to those fleeing from the violence, and urging people to talk instead of fighting.

And that is really what the book is about — the inability to communicate, which breaks down into violence.

One of the things that struck me, and which is alluded to in the book in passing, is that at the very time when South Africa was turning from violent confrontation to talking, and abandoning apartheid, much of Eastern Europe was going in the opposite direction. I’ve also dealt with this more fully in this article Nationalism, violence and reconciliation, which I think also gives some of the background story for this novel. And so the book rings true.

I recall a member of our church, a school teacher who originally came from Dubrovnik, whose father was an Orthodox priest, saying that people she had grown up with and gone to school with, whom she had regarded as friends and neighbours, would no longer talk to her, no longer answer her letters, because of the hatred being fostered between different ethnic groups.

And the descriptions of those rising ethnic barriers captured for me the essence of the spirit of apartheid. Yugoslavia was entering a nightmare that we were just leaving. One of the characters, accused of war crimes and awaiting trial…

He had felt the cold clear satisfaction of a job done well, the decisive pleasure of colours shifting on a map, the weight of a gun at his waist. But only because it had to happen, there was a force of history behind him, if it had not been him it would have been someone else, anyone else, history would have its way.

And I could picture the apartheid apparatchik in his office in Pretoria, looking at his map with satisfaction on receiving a report of these people moved from that area, those people moved to this place, as the territory and its population changed to conform to the Platonic ideal of a map in his office.

And again the same character in the novel, echoing the same faceless bureaucrat in Pretoria:

To be able to say, I will draw this line here, and these people will be on the other side of it. Apart from us. So that we can be alone, and pure and safe, and these people will be the darkness of the other side. No one who has not had this chance could understand the sweep of it. The exaltation.

And there it is again, the essence of the unclean spirit of apartheid, exorcised from South Africa, moving to the Balkans, but not excluding the possibility of returning. No, not at all.

View all my reviews

Race and identity: what is “coloured”?

Why is it that, more than 20 years after the “end of apartheid” we seem to be getting more obsessed with “race”? After Wayde van Niekerk won the 400-metre event at the Olympic Games the term “coloured” suddenly started trending on Twitter.

Why Wayde’s gold is a win for coloured identity | IOL:

The term “coloured” began trending on Monday morning and my immediate reaction was: “But why? Let this boy bask in his well-deserved glory, at least for a day.” But almost as soon as I thought that, I realised what Wayde’s win could do for the coloured narrative in South Africa. Now see, I have recently started proudly identifying myself as coloured. This was something I fought for many, many years. I was taught to resist society’s attempts to box me, to resist feeling defeated when asked “What are you?” every day for as long as I can remember. If I was to identify myself racially, it should be black, as was always the case with my family during apartheid. But then, particularly over the last two years, I began self-identifying as coloured for a number of reasons. You begin feeling marginalised, excluded from the South African narrative, called upon only when the Democratic Alliance and ANC needs your coloured vote in the Cape. You’re not white enough or black enough.

Back in the days of apartheid even the apartheid theorists had problems with the “coloured”
race classifications, they divided it into sub-categories, including “Other Coloured” for those  who didn’t fir neatly into their scheme. Also back then, most of my “Coloured” friends, when using that term to describe themselves, would use air quotes while saying “so-called coloured”.

Page from apartheid-eria ID book

Page from apartheid-era ID book

But someone recently tweeted:

If someone can be proudly Zulu for instance …. Someone should equally be able to be proudly, Coloured.

And this begs the question of what is “coloured identity”.

Comparing “coloured” with Zulu implies a cultural identity, and from the article quoted about Wayde van Niekerk that implies that “coloured” means “Cape Coloured” in terms of the old apartheid ID numbers.

We lost the old apartheid ID numbers over 20 years ago, when everyone, regardless of previous classification, was given an 08 number, and so race classifications lost some of their rigidity. But we are still asked to specify our race for things like census returns. The article quoted seems to assume some of the apartheid “own people” thinking in discussing coloured identity, as if it were simply a cultural category, like Zulu.

But a few years ago I knew a child who was born in South Africa of a Nigerian father and a Ukrainian mother. In terms of the old apartheid classification system she would be “other coloured”, but who would her “own people” be now? How should she appear on the census? Isn’t talk of a “coloured identity” marginalising people like her?



Naked Racism

Someone posted this photo on Facebook with the caption: White South Africans leaving SARS offices after paying their taxes.

White South Africans leaving SARS offices after paying their taxes

White South Africans leaving SARS offices after paying their taxes

That’s a good example of the racism that still pervades our society, with whites demanding special privileges, and lower tax rates just because they are white. It reeks of the culture of entitlement.

This is far more evil and insidious than anything said by that Theunissen bloke or that estate agent auntie or that arrogant privileged student who bullied a waitress.

People like that make news headlines and spark waves of indignation, but stuff like this doesn’t because so many people think it is “normal”.

Ironically enough, the picture might have had a point under the old National Party government, where blacks and whites were taxed separately and at different rates. But since 1994 tax rates have been the same for people of all colours, both sexes, and any sexual or genderial orientation. So the picture is just a lament for lost white privilege, and demonstrates the truth of the saying that equality seems like oppression to those who previously benefited from oppression.

Just for the record: under the National Party government, blacks had a lower tax threshold than whites, and so poor blacks paid more tax than poor whites and so were forced to subsidise their own oppression. On the other hand, rich blacks paid less tax than rich whites — hence the appropriateness of the picture for that era.

Don’t be suckered into propagating this racist propaganda!

Growing up in apartheid South Africa (book review)

The Persistence of MemoryThe Persistence of Memory by Tony Eprile

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Bildungsroman about growing up in apartheid South Africa — a white boy at school, then an army conscript, and afterwards.

I would like to be able to say that this book “tells it like it was” in the same way that Andre Brink‘s A Dry White Season does, but two things make me hesitate to say that. One is that I never served in the army, so I cannot say that the middle section, which deals with that, is accurate. Secondly, there are several inaccuracies about known things in the book, which cast doubt upon the accuracy of some of the other parts,

The inaccuracties bothered me. One of the most egregious errors is a reference to the Australian national rugby team as the All Blacks. Another was a reference to a Xhosa chief, Makhana, which goes on to say that Makhana wasn’t his real name, but a reference to his left-handedness. There is a footnote to the effect that his real name was Nxele. But it is Nxele, and not Makhana, which is a referwence to left-handedness.

At first sight these errors (and there are several more) are not about matters central to the plot, and one might attribute them to careless writing and editing. But on second thoughts, they relate to something that is central to the plot and is embodied in the very title of the book. The protagonist, we are told, has an excellent memory, and at one point, when he testifies before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the reliability of his memory is both demonstrated and brought into question.

If the protagonist’s memory is crucial to the plot, then perhaps these errors scattered through the book (told in the first persion) are intended as hints that the protagonist’s memory was not as good as he claimed it was, and therefore, far from “telling it like it is”, the book is a kind of bizarre fantasy, reminiscient of Jean Genet‘s The Balcony.

So though I wanted to give it four or five stars, in the end I gave it only three.

View all my reviews

The Native Commissioner (book review)

The Native CommissionerThe Native Commissioner by Shaun Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Apartheid and racism in children’s literature

A couple of years ago I reviewed a book on Apartheid and racism in children’s literature, and commented on how I had tried to deal with that theme in a book I had written, Of wheels and witches.

wheelscovSince my book has now been published, I thought it might be good to link it with the blog post that deals with how I tried to deal with those themes in writing it. If you’re interested in reading it, you can get a free 20% sample at Smashwords, with the option of downloading the whole thing if you haven’t already been bored by it.

There is at least one review of it on Good Reads here, and I hope others may be moved to post reviews of it there or elsewhere, either before or after reading the linked post on apartheid in children’s literature.

There’s one other thing.

Good Reads has lists of books of various types, and there didn’t seem to be any list for children’s or young adult books set in southern Africa, so I created such a list, and added this and a couple of other books to it. Please feel free to add more books to the list, and to vote for this book if you liked it, or for others in that category that you have liked. Please add it to any other lists on Good Reads that you think it may belong to.


Racism in Pietersburg

Thirty years ago I was visiting a then-disadvantaged (now previously-disadvantaged) university, the University of the North at Sovenga, near Pietersburg (now Polokwane).

It was one of the “tribal colleges” founded in pursuance of the Extension of University Education Act No 45 of 1959. This act made “it a criminal offence for a non-white student to register at a hitherto open university without the written consent of the Minister of Internal Affairs” (Lapping 1986: 184).

It also “provided for the establishment of a series of new ethnically-based institutions for Blacks, together with separate universities for Coloureds and Indians”.

The University of the North was one of those creations of apartheid, but in conversation with a couple of lecturers I learnt how it bit back at its creators.

Extract from my diary for 13 May 1984

After lunch I had a long chat with one of the churchwardens and another bloke who were lecturers at the university. One of them told me that the presence of the university had made a big difference to the attitude of the whites in Pietersburg. The whites had always insisted that a black man get off the pavement when a white man came along, and if blacks did not move into the gutter, the whites would elbow them off.

That all changed when the university started. One group of students, who were karate experts, went to town and walked down the street, and when some whites tried to elbow them off, they remonstrated with them, and were attacked for their pains, but were able to give as good as they got, and were charged with assault. They were defended by a lecturer in the law faculty, who asked the magistrate if, when there was a fight between whites and blacks in Pietersburg, it was more likely that the whites would have attacked the blacks or vice versa, and the magistrate decided the whites were more likely to have started it, and let the blacks off.

I had thought of including this as one of my Tales from Dystopia on my other blog, but decided it was too much of a second-hand story, and not something that related to my personal experience. But I still think it is worth telling.


Google+ sowing confusion?

Someone posted this statement on Google+, which sounded to me rather like a justification for apartheid:

Children will be confused as long as they live in multiple cultures incoherent internally and disharmonious in such proximity with each other. Study after study says that the kind of diversity so many people believe strengthens group and makes them more tolerant has the opposite effect. More than that it dangerously undermines our sense of self.

I made a comment to that effect and referred to a post on my blog which gave a fuller explanation, Apartheid wasn’t so bad – historian | Khanya, in this passage in particular:

According to apartheid educationists (or pedagogicians, as they liked to call themselves) it was the “greatest possible injustice” for a child to be taught by someone of a different ethnic or cultural group. Think about that for a moment: “greatest possible”. You could starve a child, whip him, push burning cigarettes into her, lock him in a lightless cellar, make him slave in a mine or factory or farm at starvation wages, keep her as a sex slave, but none of those would be as great an injustice as being taught by a teacher of a different ethnic or cultural group.

But it seems that Google+ separated my comment from the text I was actually commenting on, and attached to to some other text I had not seen before, and which meant nothing to me, dropping the names of a lot of people I had never heard of.

I’m posting this on my blog, where I hope it won’t be messed up by Google*.

But now at the top of my blog I read this:

Tip: Connect to Google+: Increase your readers’ engagement with your content by connecting your Google+ profile and enable publicize for Google+ to share your posts to Google+.

So it looks like they want Google+ to mess up our blogs too, to cause even more miscommunication and misunderstanding!

Thanks but no thanks — when this is the kind of “engagement with my content” it produces:

Do you think it’s fair just to rattle off a brusque and exceptional comment like that, post a link to an article you wrote about an article someone else wrote about apartheid and … well, anyway, if you’d care to answer David or say something more, you’re welcome to. As it stands right now, and pardon my own boldness, your comment more resembles the tactic of some teenage boy trying to stir things up with a bit of pithy trolling.

— I’d rather keep Google+ as far away from my blog as possible!

Postscript – 23 Dec 2013

For more on the substantive issue, see my post on Apartheid and multicultural education.

This post is mainly about the role of Google+ in promoting misunderstanding.

I’ve now left Google+, and no one seems to have noticved except Google itself, which now nags me to join Google+ every time I log in to Gmail.


Post Navigation