Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “apartheid”

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.

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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.

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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.


Whiteness just isn’t what it used to be – book review

Whiteness Just Isn't What It Used to BeWhiteness Just Isn’t What It Used to Be”: White Identity in a Changing South Africa (Suny Series, Interruptions: Border Testimony by Melissa E. Steyn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For most of my lifetime obsession with whiteness has dominated South African politics, society, economy and even the landscape. When I heard quite recently that there was an academic discipline called “Whiteness Studies” my immediate reaction was negative. Some of my blogging friends assured me that they had found it useful, and this was one of the books they recommended, and since it was based on stories told by people I found it in the library and began reading it.

Melissa Steyn collected stories from 59 white people in South Africa and divided the narratives into different categories, and commented on the various approaches. This book is the result.

The first chapter is a kind of potted history of “Whiteness Studies” and the various view its practitioners have taken to the phenomenon of “whiteness” in a global sense. In part it deals with the fairly well-known phenomenon of Western modernity, where Westerners (mainly from Western Europe and North America) thought that their society was central and normative, and others quaint and peculiar and exotic. So, for example, Western anthropologists confined their studies to non-Western cultures (and often did so in the service of colonial rulers). The proponents of Whiteness Studies call this kind of cultural chauvinism “whiteness”. But even after reading Steyn’s book, I am not convinced of the adequacy of the description, and I find that Steyn herself falls into the same cultural chauvinist trap by not disclosing where she is coming from, and pretending to be “objective”, even when she is aware of the dangers of that approach.

The main manifestation of this in the book is that, while the bulk of the book is devoted to the the analysis of people’s responses to Steyn’s questionnaire, the questions that elicited those responses are not revealed to the reader. If this forms the bulk of the book, then surely the questions themselves could have been put in an appendix. Apart from anything else, that might give readera a chance to try to answer the questions too, and try to analyse their own responses.

In addition, while Steyn collected 59 narratives, these narrators are not really allowed to tell their own story. Steyn is the only narrator, setting the scene, telling the story, and pulling a quotation, sometimes as short as a single sentence, to illustrate the point in her story. So I get the impression of a stage magician, displaying tricks to an audience, with the quotations from the stories being pulled out like a rabbit from a hat or a coin from the sleeve at the appropriate moment, with only Steyn really knowing what is going on behind the scenes.

For instance, there is this:

Such is the fear of being perceived to be aligned with what is morally reproachable that even to talk about “race” could implicate one in racism. The topic is a no-no:

“Whites can never know how blacks were affected by Apartheid. [computer analyst] “

At first sight, this seems to be a complete non-sequitur. It certainly doesn’t seem to be an instance of race being a “no–no”, because it mentions race (“whites”, “blacks”) and the relations between them (“Apartheid”). Either Steyn is misrepresenting the narrator, or she is interpreting it in the light of its context, which she has failed to quote, and this is withheld from the reader.

Taken on its own, the sentence can be interpreted in a variety of ways, of which the most likely (it seems to me), is that since, because of Apartheid, whites were separated from blacks, they could not know how blacks were affected by apartheid because they were kept isolated, and whites could not see what was happening, and their was little comparable in their experience. For instance, if a black man died in town, his wife and children, if they were allowed to live in the town at all, would be endorsed out to a “homeland” because they became surplus to the labour requirements of white society. Much of this was invisible to most whites, and so they did not know and could not know the extent to which this took place, nor what it was like do be endorsed out and forced to go and live in a rural area where you knew no one.

Maybe the context shows that the narrator meant something different, but Steyn does not show us the context.

Similarly, Steyn castigates those she regards as adopting a liberal “colourblind” approach, saying that they are “in denial”, yet when, in another section of the book, she cites an example of that approach, she praises it.

The Apartheid system tried to make me think about “white” in a certain way and about “black” in another way. I strive to define my own reality and I try to avoid being hamstrung by other people’s projections. [lecturer]

Steyn says “Whatever whiteness may have meant in the past, this narrative perks up in tone when it considers what may develop now that whiteness has lost its power to dominate.”

Yet elsewhere she says that to claim that whiteness has lost its power to dominate is to be in denial. The difference, if any, isd hidden behind the stage magician’s black cloth that she pulls away to reveal the rabbit in the hat.

One of the narratives, however, I could identify with:

I have discovered that, despite apartheid, I have more in common with black South Africans than with other whites, be they British, Dutch, French or American… When I first went overseas in 1986 I thought because of my colonial British background I would find Britain home. Instead I became increasingly aware that I was not British, and that I was African. This is how I came to see myself as a white African. [lecturer]

I wrote something very similar in a blog post at What is African? Race and identity | Khanya long before I had ever heard of “whiteness studies”.

Steyn summarises the argument of the Introduction in her conclusion

In the Introduction, whiteness has been theorized as the racial norm, the invisible center that deflects attention from itself by racializing the margins, and constructing them as the problem. Whiteness then believes in its own homogeneous neutrality. Whites are then described [in the Introduction – STH] as generally unaware of their own racialization, unconscious of their privilege, or of how their implicit assumptions of white entitlement are a consequence of certain historical relations, not something essential about whiteness itself.

I’d go along with that, especially where North America is concerned (and Steyn wrote the book while living in North America). South Africa, however, is somewhat different. Whiteness was anything but unconscious.

But it appears that Steyn was also suffering from the same disease.

On page 26, writing of English-speaking South Africans’ attitudes towards poor rural Afrikaners, she writes, “Like ethnic working class whites and partially racialized groups in America, Afrikaners had to ‘fight’ for the status of first class citizens.”

“Ethnic working class” what are they? Just as “whiteness” is invisible to the dominant white group in America, so is ethnicity. “Ethnic” whites are the “other”, the “them”. And Steyn uses that terminology without batting an eyelid, withouit scare quotes, without even the almost obligatory [sic] used in some academic writing when politically incorrect language comes up. But Steyn is not quoting, she is using the terminology herself, thus identifying with those who believe they have no ethnicity, and manifesting “ethnic blindness”.

Perhaps I might have read this book differently if I had read it before engaging in a discussion on whiteness studies with some others (see Whiteness, whiteliness and White Studies | Khanya).

And one of the biggest problems I have with this book is that it seems to be saying that even if we have deconstructed whiteness, and dumped it, we must now reconstruct it in order to deconstruct it again, like Sisyphus. It’s a bit like a child being told by its mother, “You must have a bath tonight, whether you need it or not.” And the proponents of whiteness studies seem to be saying “You must have an identity crisis, whether you need one or not.”

One thing I will say, though. I didn’t find it boring. It was a page-turner.

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The generation gap

The other day I was at a seminar on The Mission-shaped Church, and I became aware of the generation gap.

There were a couple of questions that baffled me.

One was quite amusing, or rather the response was. A couple of people from Malawi spoke about Africa having an oral culture rather than a written one, and so in their church, where the Bible was regarded as important, they had difficulty in getting people to read the Bible. A young guy, who is well-known for his enthusiasm for electronic technology, and who blogs and tweets and does all that good stuff, asked one of the speakers, “What is the literacy rate in Malawi?” The response came quick as a flash, “You can look it up on Google.”

I don’t think the speaker knew the questioner, but many in the audience did, and knew of his fondness for computer communications, so there was much laughter. The speaker went on to explain that he didn’t go around with statistics at his fingertips.

I was puzzled by the relevance of the question to what the speakers had been saying.

And the same questioner asked a question of another speaker at the same meeting. Just “Why?”

And I didn’t understand why he asked the question.

Forty or fifty years ago, when I was at meetings like that, I often asked questions that old fogeys didn’t understand. That was the generation gap. And now, suddenly, without being aware of crossing it, I’m on the other side of the gap.

So that got me thinking about the generation gap.

And I “googled it”.

Well, not quite. I did a search in my diary for the word “generation” within three words of “gap” to see what I had said about it in the past, and if I could see when and where I had crossed it.

But sticking with last Saturday, for the moment, I wrote

As we were leaving I talked a bit to Annemie Bosch, and she said that though progress was slow, the Dutch Reformed Church was beginning to reinvent itself. And I thought that perhaps it was succeding in doing so, with all these hippie-like dominees in their casual clothes at the meeting today, so different from the formal
besuited dominees I had known in the past, among whom I felt out of place. Things have changed a lot. But then I realise that my picture and experience of dominees, like Tom Carpenter of Melmoth, who was concerned about petty morality and strained at gnats like fishing on Sundays, but swallowed camels like racism and apartheid, is way out of date. They’ve come a long way since then, but then it was a long time ago – 30 years, a whole generation. And it is now nearly 20 years since David Bosch died, and Annemie continued to be a warm and cheerful motherly figure…

What a drag it is getting old, as the Rolling Stones used to sing in my youth.

More than 40 years ago, on 5 December 1968, to be precise, I went to supper with some friends, John and Shirley Davies, in Parktown, Johannesburg. John was the Anglican chaplain at nearby Wits University. About 3 weeks earlier I had stopped being a full-time student for the last time. The Davies’s three children were Mary (10), Mark (8) and Elizabeth (6). This is what I wrote:

We had supper then, chicken salad with Mackeson Porter, Mark pulled a wishbone with me, and won, and asked me to choose the pieces, and won again. I said he had already won in pulling it. Mary explained that one could win twice. John spoke of a conference on the generation gap, Shirley said cynically, “I suppose all the speakers are over fifty.” We had a bit of an argument as to what constitutes the generation gap. I said it was people between 40 and 65 who, as a group, were most conservative. Shirley said I only said that because of where I am. Then she asked Mary what she thought. Mary said, “Nothing.” “What do you think about anything?” I asked her.
“Nothing,” she said.

Mary is now a grandmother.

Nearly four years later I was a hanger on a student conference, a conference of the Anglican Students Federation being held at KwaNzimela, in Zululand. I’d been deported from Namibia, and was hanging around waiting to be banned, staying with Rich and Phyllis Kraft. Rich was Director of Christian Education in the Anglican diocese of Zululand, and had arranged community development training and experience for the students. So on 6-July 1972 I wrote

In the morning I took some of the students to Nkwenkwe. Among them was Simon Shikangala, who comes from Ovamboland. Daphne Mahlangu and Mary Theyise said that Simon would not teach them any Kwanyama songs, so I said I would teach them a Herero one, and taught them Matutjandangi. I took photos of the work projects when I got back to KwaNzimela, and in the afternoon went to fetch more poles, and in the evening went to fetch the students from Nkwenkwe, with Fr Sibiya. They were an all-black group, as it is a reserve area. They had done guite a lot of work. The girls had hoed in the orchard, and the boys had put new doors into one of the buildings. Patrick Lebethe, one of the city kids from Joburg, had asked Father Sibiya
how the people came to live so far from civilisation, and Fr Sibiya said “You’ve come to civilise them, haven’t you?” On the way back we sang Herero songs all the way, and Zulu choruses that Mary had taught us the other night.

Back at KwaNzimela Phyllis said I had been very subdued since coming back from Johannesburg, and said I could stay with them as long as I liked, if I was certain I was going to be banned. She said on previous occasions when I had visited them, I had been creative and looking forward to doing new things, and now I wasn’t doing things like that any more, but just content to be sent to Nkwenkwe, and to fetch poles and things. It’s true, one can’t plan for the future when one will in all probability be banned. In a way banning will come as a kind of liberation, because it will take away the uncertainty of not knowing what can be planned for.

I had accepted Rich Kraft’s invitation to stay and help with the ASF conference readily, mainly because they were friends and I enjoyed their company, which I would not be able to do after I was banned. It would also extend the limited time of freedom remaining to me, as the SB probably did not know I was there. I was sure that my banning order had been signed on the same day as Dave’s, and I wanted to enjoy what little freedom remained to me. I also enjoyed the company of the students.

One reason for being subdued, as Phyllis Kraft had noticed, was that I had said goodbye to many friends – the Schmidts (a family I knew in Windhoek, who had returned to America) possibly for ever, the Morrows had gone back to Windhoek, and if I were banned, I might never see Dave de Beer, who had been banned while I was staying with in in Johannesburg a week earlier) again. Running errands for the ASF conference made me feel useful, and it was living for the day. When the conference was over, however, it would be yet another parting, and if I were banned to the Melmoth district, I’d just be a drag and a sponger, a burden on all. A local farmer did offer me a job on his farm maintaining the tractors, but I was strictly an amateur mechanic, and was not confident that I could do it.

Since Nkwenkwe was in a black reserve, white students would need permits to go there, it was one of the projects that only black students could work on, so they were the ones I got to know best. Patrick Lebethe, who had grown up in Soweto, amused me with his city slicker attitude. When we turned off the Eshowe-Melmoth road at the top of top of the hill, and went down over dirt tracks into the valley, he asked “Where do these people go to the shops?” and we said at the shop up at the turn off, where there was a small general dealer. He was astounded. “How do they get there?” he asked. “They walk.” we said. I loved them. They were lovely kids. I called them “kids” because that was was how Larry Weeks, the American student who had visited us in Windhoek, talked. But there was also a generation gap. It was only four years since I had been a student, but we were a different generation. I was a student of the sixties, these were the students of the seventies. They seemed to have a stronger faith, a stronger commitment to Christ — not divided into pietists and activists, like so many in the sixties, but holding both commitment to Christ and social concern together in a holistic way. That was to be shattered by the rocky rioter teargas show in Soweto four years later, and by the subversion of Inkatha by the National Party in the 1980s. I wonder how these kids made it through those times.

And now, of course, those “kids” will all be old farts like me.

And then, 25 years later, on 14 September 1997, I wrote

The papers were full of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings about the death of Steve Biko. It’s hard to think that it was 20 years ago, and the SB men applying for amnesty are all old men. It makes me feel old too. Apartheid, and the struggle against it, dominated and gave meaning to our lives, and a new generation knows so little of it. It is a real generation gap.

And then, less than three years ago, we were visiting some friends who had retired to a dacha in the Drakensberg, Martin and Wendy Goulding. And they had other friends staying with them, Erich and Glenda Dokoupil. It was 1 September 2008, the first day of spring, and the september was all in bloom (in the northern hemisphere those bushes were called “may”, because that’s when they bloom there, but in South Africa they bloom in September).

We had dinner, and sat around the table talking about all kinds of subjects. I supose if I were like Dr Boswell I would record all the conversation, as he did with Samuel Johnson, but I can’t remember all of it. At one point Wendy mentioned that we were living in a more visual culture, with films showing blood and gore and murder. In classical plays someone would come on stage with a message that someone had been killed, but now the death would be shown in graphic detail, and this must influence the minds of people, especially impressionable children, and their dreams. I said that was one of the reasons no one in our family went to see the film of “Lord of the rings” because it would interfere with the pictures in our heads when we read the book. Glenda said she had seen the film and not read the book, and didn’t think much of it anyway.

We discussed the generation gap, and the changes that had taken place in our lifetime, but I said there was a bigger gap between us and our parents than between us and the younger generation. I remember seeing my father in a business suit, wearing a hat, and discussing business with simmilarly attired gents. We had a photo of them at a building site, possibly the still for Gilbeys gin, built at Isando in about 1952. I hated the idea of dressing like that, and wanted nothing to do with “business”. But we dressed in much the same way as the kids of today. Perhaps our generation had started that dress revolution, and it has been accepted by subsequent generations. I mentioned old Deacon Petros Nghandi in Namibia, who had been born in about the 1870s, and came down to Windhoek from Ovamboland for a synod, and had never tasted ice cream, and when he was born there were no aeroplanes, yet he was looking at “Scope” magazine with pictures of men landing on the moon. That generation of people who had been born in the late 19th century had seen more changes than any other before or since. In our day people fly in the same airliners that they did when our children were born. Most airlines still use Boeing 747s which have seen few design changes since 1970, and though there is a new double-decker Airbus that carries more passengers, it doesn’t look much different, and there are still fewer of them. There were far more design changes in aircraft in the preceding 30 years, in our lifetime. Yet our parents, born before air travel was anything but
a hobby for the very rich, had lived to see and fly in the same jumbo jets that our children had known all their lives. The only things that had changed from the 1970s was the electronics, with more sophisticated radar, GPS navigation and things like that.

Well, there are my reminiscences about the times when I used the term “generation gap”. And if you did not enjoy my tale, as Tom Lehrer said (anyone remember him?) you’ve yourselves to blame if it’s too long: you should never have let me begin.

Racial epithets

There has been an interesting discussion on the English usage newsgroup alt.usage.english recently. It started with someone asking whether African-Americans should be referred to as “Black” or “black” (with or without a capital “b”.

I kept out of it at that stage, because I’m not American and certainly not a fundi on American usage.

But then it broadened, as these things inevitably do, and some people were asking about racial and ethnic terms in South Africa, and one person said he thought that Hindus in South Africa were called “black”. And someone else said that the apartheid terminology was “Indians”.

Well, no. “Indians” was the pre-apartheid terminology, and it was applied to Hindus and Muslims indiscriminately if they or their ancestors came from the Indian subcontinent, which is now divided into India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

One of the first acts of the apartheid government was to pass the Population Registration Act of 1950, which required that everyone have their population group registered, and this was done in the population census of 1951. Everyone was given a race (or population group) classification, which was one of Asiatic, Bantu, Coloured or White (all with capital letters, because they were official). Indians, Nepalese, Pakistanis etc were all lumped together under “Asiatic”. In the 1970s the canons of political correctness were changed, and Asiatics became Asians, while Bantu became Blacks.

Then there was this snippet, with my reply:

>Apparently “brown” is now used to some degree to refer to
>Hispanics/Latinos in the U.S.

It is also used as a self-description by some former so-called “Coloureds” who are still so called in official documents in our so called “non-racial” democracy (scare quotes deliberate, indicating two-finger gestures with both hands in viva voce situations).

The Population Registration Act has been repealed, yet the same racial epithets continue to be used, though they are no longer defined. Apartheid may be dead, but it still rules from the grave, and its legacy lingers on.

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