Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “liberation struggle”

Underground People

Underground PeopleUnderground People by Lewis Nkosi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me a while to get into this book, and it took me 100 pages to work out what period it was set in, but the interest and pace picked up as the story went along, and in the end I enjoyed it very much.

At first the descriptions seemed over the top, like one of those old TV sets where the colour and brightness levels were turned up too high. For example, “She was slim but strong, with long haunches like a well-bred horse, impressive in a solemn kind of way, shy yet provocatively earthy, painfully reticient but when drawn into converstion likely to unfold suddenly, as a quick responsive mountain flower after rain.”

It’s set in the dying days of the apartheid era (OK, I’ve given the game away, but it’s not really a spoiler, just a puzzle I had, trying to work out if it was set in the 1960s or the late 1980s). The National Liberation Movement sends Cornelius Molapo to his home ground of Tabanyane, to coordinate a local uprising with the national liberation struggle. To account for his disappearance they put around the story that he had been detained by the Security Police, which brings Anthony Ferguson, who works for an international human rights NGO, to South Africa to investigate his disappearance. For Ferguson, a South African expatriate who had been out of the country for 15 years, it was as much of a strange homecoming as going home to Tabanyane was for Cornelius Molapo.

There are many surprising twists in the plot, and eventually Anthony Ferguson comes face to face with Cornelius Molapo, in circumstances he could never have imagined.


A couple of extra notes, not included in the Good Reads review.

One of the things that makes books by South African authors more interesting is that they are likely to be set in places one knows, and sometimes, as in this case, one may even have met the author. I met Lewis Nkosi when he spoke at a Progressive Party house meeting in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. It was in October 1960, just after the republican referendum, and he was asked to speak to the predominantly white audience on “The African and the republic”. He was then a journalist on Drum magazine, and said that Africans were not much interested in the republic question, as it would not make much difference to their oppression. I got to drive him to the meeting, and found him an interesting person to meet. Soon after that he left South Africa, and spend the next 30 years in exile, and perhaps that was why I found it hard to work out the time his book was set in — he may have been drawing on old memories in writing it.

One example of this is that in the book white people refer to black people as “natives”, but during the 1950s the politically-correct Afrikaans term became “Bantoe”, and among English speakers it became “African”, and remained so during the 1960s. In the 1970s “black” became more common, and “native” was seldom heard, and by the 1980s “native” seemed to have vanished completely.

I was sad to learn that Lewis Nkosi had died; you can read his obituary here.

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Memories of Pete Seeger

The news of the death of Pete Seeger was not surprising, but was sad nonetheless. since he was one of the first singers I ever became a fan of, though at first I never even knew his name.

When I was younger we lived on a smallholding at Sunningdale, just outside Johannesburg (the bit where we lived it has now been absorbed by the megalopolis, and has another name). Because it was outside the municipal area, there was no mains electricity or water, and so any music and records we played  we heard on an old wind-up gramophone. My parents had about 10 records, and the only ones I can remember were Ravel’s Bolero on a 12″ 78 record, and two 10″ ones with songs — Rum and Coca-Cola by the Andrews Sisters, and Old Paint by The Weavers.

I used to ride horses a lot in those days, and when I was about 11 or 12 years old I used to ride around singing Old Paint because I knew it was about a horse, even though I didn’t understand some of the words, like couleesdraw and hoolihan. I didn’t know then that Pete Seeger was one of the Weavers, but ten years later I certainly did, when I was a student in the 1960s, and in a way his were the songs that shaped our generation.

My mother worked for SARRAL, the South African Recording Rights Association, which kept track of musicians’ royalties, and then she was headhunted by Teal Records, who wanted her to sort out their copyright department, which was a mess. They used to get all sorts of samples from overseas record distributers, and Teal would decide whether to import them, or, if they were likely to be popular, to press and distribute them locally.

seegerMy mother picked up quite a lot of these samples, especially the ones that weren’t distibuted in South Africa. Pete Seeger’s We shall overcome album was one that was not distributed, not because Teal thought it wouldn’t sell, but because the Publications Control Board immediately banned it. My mother nicked the sample copy and brought it home.  By that time we lived in Johannesburg, had mains electricity, and so had upgraded our wind-up gramophone to an electric one that could play LPs.

And we played it so much that it almost wore out.

And thirty-five years years later, when our kids were about the same age as I was when I used to sing Old Paint they had most of the songs on the record word perfect, right down to the accent — “what was going on in Birmingham, with the daags….” and breaking into I ain’t scared of your jail ’cause I want my freedom, I want my freedom now.

Pete Seeger taught us to express our desire for freedom in song. May his memory be eternal!

Nothing but the truth

I recently finished reading Nothing but the truth, by Ben Turok.

Ben Turok was a member of the Communist Party and the Congress of Democrats in the 1950s, was jailed for attempted sabotage in the 1960s and went into exile, first in Tanzania and later in Britain, where he was expelled from the Communist Party.

He returned to South Africa in the 1990s after the unbanning of the ANC and other opposition groups, and after the first democratic elections in 1994 was a member of the Gauteng provincial legislature, and later a member of parliament.

Perhaps the chief value of the book, as a political memoir, is that it provides some history os struggle politics in the 1960s, which was hidden to most South Africans, since many of the people in a position to record such history were banned, and therefore not allowed to write about such things, nor was anyone allowed to read them. Apart from that, little was recorded because of the need to keep activities secret and out of the hands of the Security Police. As Turok notes, most of those who participated in the activities of the banned Community Party and Congress of Democrats are dead, and he is one of the few survivors in a position to record what happened.

Another thing I found interesting was his inside view of some of the first things that happened after the ANC came to power in 1994. This was a different situation, the era of democracy and transparency and there was no need to hide things from the Security Police. But Turok nonetheless manages to throw some light on some mysteries, such as what happened to the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). In a TV interview at a victory party when it became clear that the ANC had won the 1994 election Nelson Mandela emphasised that the RDP was not negotiable, yet within a year it had been abandoned, and the ANC had become Thatcherist.

The full story of that probably has yet to be told, but the consequences of the abandonment of the RDP are still being felt today, among them the support of Cosatu for Jacob Zuma, I suspect that the consequences will be felt in South African politics for a long time to come.

Blog for Burma!

Blog for Burma on 4 October!

International bloggers are preparing an action to support the peaceful revolution in Burma. We want to set a sign for freedom and show our sympathy for these people who are fighting their cruel regime without weapons. These Bloggers are planning to refrain from posting to their blogs on October 4 and just put up one Banner then, underlined with the words „Free Burma!“.

Free Burma!

Hat-tip to: The Uninhabited Man: Free Burma!

Pan’s Labyrinth

Having read a great deal about Pan’s Labyrinth on other blogs several months ago (for example Theofantastique), I had to wait impatiently for it to be released in South Africa, and wondered if it ever would be.

I finally got to see it last night, and it lived up to expectations. Even my wife enjoyed it, and she is not normally a fan of horror films, and this one, as those who have seen it will know, is a blend of fantasy, horror, and stark brutal realism.

It probably had a greater impact on me because I’m in the middle of reading George Bizos’s Odyssey to freedom, a memoir of his time as a human rights lawyer in the apartheid era. Pan’s Labyrinth is set in Spain in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, where Franco’s fascist forces are mopping up the remaining groups of Republican insurgents hiding out in the woods.

The villain of the film, Captain Vidal, could stand in for just about any of the police witnesses that George Bizos had crossexamined in court, when any evidence of torture of political detainees was denounced by prosecutors, and sometimes by the flagrantly biased judges, as attempts to besmirch the good name of the South African Police.

I wonder if the release of the film in South Africa wasn’t timed to coincide with the release of Bizos’s book. In the torture scenes in the film I kept thinking of the lonely death of Steve Biko, or the defenestration of Phakamile Mabija, a church youth minister who was being interrogated by the Security Police in Kimberley. The day we heard the news of his death, I was with a group of people who were saying Anglican Evening Prayer, and the Psalm set for the day was Psalm 94, which seemed most appropriate, especially verses 20-21:

You never consent to that corrupt tribunal
that imposes disorder as law
that takes the life of the virtuous
and condemns the innocent to death.

About 10 years ago I tried to write a children’s fantasy novel set in the apartheid era, with a similar blend of fantasy and reality. It wasn’t very good, and was probably too dark for a children’s novel, so I abandoned it. But one thing different about Pan’s Labyrinth was that the this worldly and other worldly realms appeared to have different agendas, which coincided quite coincidentally, as when the little girl’s ailing mother gets better following the advice of the faun who sets her tasks for the other world. In this there are echoes of Narnia, where the young Digory Kirk is seeking an apple from Eden to heal his sick mother.

But there are also sharp contrasts with Narnia. In Narnia the faun, Tumnus, regrets and repents of his role as a Security Police informer, and ends up being detained himself, but in Pan’s Labyrinth the faun turns out to be not much different from Captain Vidal, demanding unconditional obedience in the same terms and in the same tone of voice.

I go out to see films about once or twice a year, and Pan’s Labyrinth was well worth seeing. Thanks to all my blogging friends who wrote reviews of it and made me want to see it. If it weren’t for that I would probably have missed it.

Mugabe, Verwoerd and Human Rights Day

Today is Human Rights Day in South Africa.

It commemorates the massacre of a group of peaceful protesters outside a police station in Sharpeville, near Vereeniging, on 21 March 1960. The protesters had gone to the police station without the passes that blacks had to carry on them at all times, and ask to be arrested for not having a pass. The campaign was started by the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC).

A couple of days later a young PAC leader, Philip Kgosana, led a march of 20000 people into the middle of Cape Town. There was a strong police presence, and after discussions with the senior police officer present, Philip Kgosana led the 20000 protesters peacefully back to the townships. The National Party cabinet was furious, because there had been no bloodshed. They wanted another massacre like Sharpeville, and the career of that police officer was ruined as a result.

There was a storm of protest from the leaders of other countries over the Sharpeville massacre, and one of Dr Verwoerd’s favourite mantras at the time was “we will not tolerate any outside interference in our domestic affairs.”

This was trotted out whenever other countries, especially those in Western Europe and North America, criticised the policy of apartheid, or the use of violence against political opponents, as at Sharpeville massacre.

Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has been uttering the same mantra for the last few years, and his policies look more and more Verwoerdian, with the violent suppression of political opposition. He has had as many Sharpevilles as Dr Verwoerd ever had, if not more. For years Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa have been telling how they have been beaten up by the police, had their homes burnt down or demolished and worse. Until recently this happened mainly to the less prominent opponents of the government. The beating up of Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, puts it on a different level. In Verwoerd’s South Africa, opponents of the National Party regime were beaten up, detained without trial, banned, banished, exiled, and sometimes killed. And the response to criticism of this from the USA or Europe was, “We will not tolerate any outside interference in our domestic affairs.”

A cartoon in the Johannesburg Star of 2 April 1960 showed Dr Verwoerd surrounded by a group of world leaders preparing to throw stones at Verwoerd, with a Sharpeville label round his neck. There is an anonymous USA figure, with a label of “Little Rock, negro lynchings, Ku Klux Klan”, Nehru of India with the label “Kashmir”, Krushchev of the USSR with the label “Hungary”, and Nkrumah of Ghana with the label “prison for political opponents”. And the caption is, “‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…’ St John, Chapter 8”

Today Mugabe is taking a similar line, and it could be argued that the other world leaders have more blood on their hands than those of 1960. The US government was not itself responsible for the Ku Klux Klan or lynchings, but it is responsible for Guantanamo Bay and the endemic violence in Iraq, which is worse than anything taking place in Zimbabwe, a state of affairs for which Tony Blair of the UK is equally responsible, along with the continuing human rights violations in Kosovo. Tony Blair indeed wanted to introduce 90-day detention in Britain, as was done in South Africa under Verwoerd, and was lauded by the British media for “taking the moral high ground” in doing so — how the mighty have fallen! They certainly have no room to point fingers at Mugabe, but neither does Mugabe have any room to point fingers at them. Mugabe and his detractors are indeed birds of a feather. But the behaviour of other world leaders does excuse Mugabe for the human rights violations that are taking place in Zimbabwe.

Where the situation differs is that South Africa did not get into serious foreign military adventures until after the death of Verwoerd.

What brought Zimbabwe to its present state?

The main cause was, ironically, its interference in the domestic affairs of the Democratic Republic of Congo, when Mugabe sent troops to support one of the factions in the civil war raging there in the 1990s. Zimbabwe could not afford this, however, and the result of the foreign military adventure was a critical shortage of foreign exchange. This led to a shortage of fuel, which disrupted imports and exports. Zimbabwean businesses that relied on imports and exports began to go bankrupt, unemployment rose, and the urban workers, in particular, became disgruntled with Mugabe’s government. The opposition coalesced in the movement for Democratic Change, which derives its main support from the urban workers, much as Cosatu does in South Africa.

Mugabe saw the writing on the wall when he lost a referendum that would increase his executive powers as president. He adopted a two-pronged strategy to win back his lost electoral support: intimidate the urban workers, who were unlikely to switch to supporting him, and bribe the rural peasants. The bribe he could offer the rural peasants was agricultural land owned by commercial farmers, most of whom were white. Farms were expropriated and redistributed to ZANU-PF supporters, or potential supporters, to win back their support at the polls. The farm workers for the most part were evicted, and lost not only their jobs but their homes.

The resulting disruption to agricultural production meant a further dramatic drop in export earnings, which exacerbated the foreign exchange crisis. There was even less money to buy fuel, which meant it was more difficult to export the dwindling cash crops. Maize production also dropped, and Zimbabwe hd to import maize to feed its population, whose army of unemployed was growing and couldn’t afford to buy the maise at ever increasing prices. Thousands of Zimbabweans have emigrated as political and economic refugees to other countries, including South Africa, where many have taken to a life of crime.

People sometimes talk of economic sanctions on Zimbabwe, but that would make no difference at all. Economic sanctions imposed from outside could not possibly harm the economy of Zimbabwe any more than the policies of Mugabe’s government has done. Mugabe has already imposed the most effective sanctions himself.

Some have suggested that the South African government should “do something”, but it is difficult to see exactly what it could do. It could, possibly, emulate George Bush, and send in the army to bring about “regime change” as Bush did in Iraq. But the result of the Iraq adventure is not very encouraging. Life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, bad as it was, was nothing like as bad as life in Iraq is under George Bush. There is no reason to believe that Zimbabwe would be any better.

And the South African government is divided on the issue. The South African government is a tripartite alliance of the ANC, Cosatu and the Communist Party. Cosatu and the Communist Party have protested vociferously about human rights violations in Zimbabwe, because it is their class allies, the urban workers, who are suffering most under Mugabe’s regime. A Cosatu delegation to Zimbabwe was turned back at the Harare airport, with minimal protest from the ANC.

And the spectre of Zimbabwe looms over the tripartite alliance: if Cosatu and the Communist Party split from the ANC, they could very soon find themselves in a similar position vis-a-vis the government as the MDC does in Zimbabwe. Some have suggested that there should be a break, with the Thatcherist ANC and the socialist Cosatu and Commubnist Party appealing for support for their policies from the voters. But if they were outside the government, Cosatu and the Communist Party would have less influence in moderating the Thatcherism of the ANC. So the alliance as a whole would prefer to shut its eyes and hope the Zimbabwe problem would go away. It is one of the roads South Africa could go down, and we don’t want to go there.

Today is Human Rights Day.

And while the focus in human rights violations has shifted from South Africa to Zimbabwe, we are no nearer to a solution to the problem of human rights violations in southern Africa than we were 47 years ago.

Youth day – 2006

Today is Youth Day, and I’ve described some of the events of the day more fully elsewhere in my LiveJournal, with more pictures.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingFr Pantelejmon Jovanovic (in picture) spoke to the Orthodox youth on the monastic life, and Advocate George Bizos, the human-rights lawyer, spoke on the meaning of the day.

If anyone is interested in the meaning of the day, there are two books I recommend. One is fiction, A dry white season by Andre Brink, which really does tell it like it was. Names and events may have been changed, but these were indeed the kind of things that happened. The other book is The rocky rioter teargas show by Pat Hopkins and Helen Grange, which is illustrated by photographs and documents not available at the time, including secret cabinet documents giving explicit approval to more deaths through police action.

spoke on the damage caused by Bantu Education, but in 1976 Andries Treurnicht, the Minister of , and his Deputy, Ferdi Hartzenberg insisted that in black schools half the subjects in high schools should be taught through the medium of English, and half through the medium of Afrikaans. The irony of this was that 70 years earlier Afrikaners, in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War, had suffered something very similar under British rule, when Dutch was forbidden as a medium of instruction, and all teaching had to be in English. They learnt the lesson that the language of the conqueror in the mouth of the conquered is the language of slaves.

But Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educationist, points out in his book Pedagogy of the oppressed that the oppressed internalises the image of the oppressor as the image of what it means to be truly human. So true humanity becomes linked with the power to oppress others. And this clearly happened in the case of Andries Treurnicht and Ferdi Hartzenberg. They were the avatars of Alfred Lord Milner, who had almost single-handedly started the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1899, and oppressed the Afrikaners after the war.

The disease of Bantu Education was harder to eradicate, however. When it was introduced in 1954, it was part of the ideology of Christian National Education, which, as its Christian liberal opponents pointed out, was neither Christian, nor national, nor education. In 1942, when South Africa was at war with Nazi Germany, B.J. Vorster, who was prime minister in 1976, was reported to have said

We stand for Christian Nationalism, which is an ally of National Socialism. You may call the anti-democratic system dictatorship if you like. In Italy it is called Fascism, in Germany National Socialism, and in South Africa Christian Nationalism.”

One thing that interested me was that when George Bizos spoke of the ravages of Bantu Education, and Fr Pantelejmon spoke of growing up as a young person in a communist country, they spoke of very similar experiences, though they themselves did not perhaps realise how similar they were. The generation of young people Fr Pantelejmon spoke to had indeed not experienced much of the repression that Fr Pantelejmon spoke of, but the generation of Soweto 1976 certainly had.

To the youth of today all this is ancient history, and history is one of the boring school subjects that is being downplayed in modern education, with its emphasis on science and technology, which our youth must learn if we are to compete in the dog-eat-dog competition of neoliberal economics. Humanities, which do not have quantifiable economic value, are downplayed. We must gain riches instead of soul, and the all-pervasive ideology of free-marketism could well be responsible for the complaint of many of the Class of ’76, aired in radio talk shows and the like, that the youth of today are shallow and materialistic.

Where does this come from? Well, one possibility is that the current crop of ANC leaders, including some of the generation of 1976, spent a good part of their exile in Thatcher’s Britain, and this may go quite a long way towards explaining the ANC’s Thatcherist policies today.

But I think the image of the youth of today projected by the radio talk shows and the like is not a complete one. The people they interview are mostly “Model Cs”, who often speak with Woozer (ie WUESA – White Urban English-Speaking South African) accents. “Model C” was the last attempt of the dying National Party regime, in 1992, to perpetuate Christian National Education in white schools, or at least white Afrikaans schools, by privatising them. “Model Cs” are black pupils who have attended such schools (still referred to as “Model C” schools, in spite of their having been in existence for less than three years).

The Model Cs are the ones most advertising is aimed at, and the ones most likely to make it in the broadcast media. But the young people at the Orthodox youth gathering do not fit the Model C stereotype. Their concerns may be different from those of the Class of ’76, but they give me hope for the future.

Other views, and other ways people spent Youth Day

The Front Line: Youth Day, 3 Decades of Struggle.

the moon’s favors: Poem for Youth Day

the imperfect poet: More irrelevant conversation

Morphological Confetti: Youth Day: 30th Anniversary

Reluctant Nomad: The day that changed South Africa for ever
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