Culture General

Blast from the past

calvinia1File this one under “random weirdness”. A few weeks ago, the editor of an anthology of poems, intended for South African high school students, asked for me to renew permission for them to include this poem of mine.

I’d forgotten that I was in this anthology – in fact, I’d pretty much forgotten that I used to write poetry. Anyway – for the interest of very few of you, here’s a free verse something about the death of my grandfather, from (I’d guess) 1993 or so.

Calvinia, 1976

Kicking pebbles along cracked pavements,
my brother and I strolled through this Karoo town.
Past pale houses, dusky streets, past the Saamstaan store
where we could always find a spinning top, stop
to listen for the sound of windmills, or watch
the trucks pass by with their smell of sheep;
their cargo destined for a place alongside potatoes
and an occasional vegetable on blue china plates.

In Calvinia, I slept in my Oupa’s bed, both of us tired
from mending farm fences, or from circling this small town
in the hours between the day’s labour, evening’s quiet.
We would wake at dawn, when he led me to the kitchen
to pour five spoons of sugar into my enamel coffee mug.
Strangely, the thermos was always full and waiting –
waiting to be emptied, along with the small jars of lard
that lined one pantry shelf; lard to spread on our toast,
or to fry the bacon and eggs of a Sunday feast.

My brother and I found a chest of drawers
in Oupa’s room one day – inside lay his store of treats:
Wilson’s toffees, the peppermint creams he placed
in our palms after dinner, or presented in small plastic bags
when he came to visit us in Cape Town. As he grew older,
and I grew older, I began to realise the purpose of these trips
to the Cape – not the gift of sweets, but a hospital bed,
transfusions, chemotherapy.

He began to visit once a week, but only to sit, drink tea,
smile weakly at my brother, me. Before long
he no longer visited, but became a regular shadow
on the living-room wall. It wasn’t too long
before the hospital became his home, and the hospital
was not his home for long.


One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo

9781770227460Last night, some of the English liberals that Dan Roodt is currently whining about in court gathered at a launch party for Darrel Bristow-Bovey’s One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo, and I came away with a copy of the book in question. Well, so did everyone who paid for a copy, but I mention this as a prelude to saying that I’ve read it, and can recommend that you procure yourself a copy too.

It’s very funny, for starters. There was something worthy of a laugh on the vast majority of its pages, and at some point, I noticed that I’d been reading with a constant smile for some sustained chunk of time.

From lines that are simply funny (“I’ve never run the Comrades but I have flown long-distance in economy class, which is more or less the same thing”) to extended self-deprecating observations on awkward encounters with doctors, sales assistants, and friends, it’s a constantly enjoyable read.

But it’s more than simply funny and charming. The book deals with many serious themes too, and is on occasion heartfelt (not sentimentally so), and often thoughtful and thought-provoking. At its heart, the book is about ageing, and about coming to terms with loss and failure, and there’s much in it to relate to.

Many of you will know that Darrel Bristow-Bovey spent a long time in the media wilderness after having been caught out plagiarising content from Bill Bryson, a mistake for which he has apologised. Opinions differ on these matters, but my perspective is that it’s unreasonable to hold someone hostage to an isolated incident from a decade ago.

Furthermore, he’s a fine writer, one I’d like to see more rather than less of in our newspapers and magazines. In sum, if you’re looking for Christmas gift ideas, or for something to read while taking a break from eating and drinking too much over the next couple of months, keep this book in mind.

Culture Morality Politics

The United Nations: perhaps irrelevant, but now also offensive

Foreign minister KutesaAlthough some of you might always have considered the United Nations an irrelevance, it would be an unfair critic who claimed that they do no good at all – their World Food Programme, for example, claims to provide food to 90 million people per year.

But they have their critics, ranging from those upset by the UN’s failure to endorse the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to claims that the arrival of UN peacekeeping troops tends to reliably correlate with an increase in child prostitution. As with any large political organisation, criticism can be partisan and ideologically-motivated, often forgetting that realpolitik comes with compromise.

Culture Politics

The Afrikaner Broederbond – a legacy of racial nationalism

BroederbondLiberalism – liberal ideas, or self-identified liberal parties – has caused its fair share of trouble in South African politics over the years since Alan Paton’s formation of the Liberal Party in 1953. But for all the argument liberal ideas can provoke, an argument can be made that an ideology premised on individual freedom is never provocative of necessity.

In other words, there is no reason to assume that there is a logical inevitability of  liberalism leading to distrust, anger or violence, particularly of the physical rather than verbal sort. By contrast, nationalism – and particularly racial nationalism – is rooted in and reinforces conflict. This is because it sets up a necessary opposition between them, and us, however those groups are defined.

With this in mind, I regard the formation and trajectory of the Afrikaner Broederbond in 1920 as a key element in recent South African history. This is thanks to the way in which it set a tone and laid the foundations of racial nationalism, leading not only to very fertile ground for National Party dominance and the normalisation of apartheid in white culture, but also in setting a precedent for the racial nationalism of today’s African National Congress.

The AB grew out of an organisation called Jong Suid Afrika (Young South Africa), formed in 1918 (O’Meara, 1977). But understanding why it was formed and had the influence it did requires looking back to the South African War of 1899 to 1902, where the Afrikaners were defeated by the British (Encyclopedia Brittanica, 2013).

The “scorched earth” policy of the British during the war devastated farmlands, particularly in rural areas. Tens of thousands of Boer women and children died in British concentration camps. On top of this privation, there was gloating – Lord Milner’s policy of Anglicisation serving to rub salt into very open wounds.

Not only did this defeat leave the Afrikaners humiliated, but it also set the stage for what was to follow: the formation of the Broederbond, the National Party and also the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism in general.

While a class divide always existed amongst Afrikaners, the war helped to accentuate it. Some Afrikaners suffered financial as well as other forms of defeat in consequence of the war – poor conditions in agriculture, and deaths due to influenza, crippled families who had already suffered internment, or death in battle. Other families, especially in the Cape, enjoyed relative prosperity (O’Meara, 1977).

Responses to this crisis amongst Afrikaners varied, but the political consequences were undeniably profound. In 1913, the split in the South African Party was one consequence, with Louis Botha having dissolved his cabinet in the face of irreconcilable differences of opinion regarding how to deal with the competing interests of the Dutch and the English.

The National Party was a product of this split. It was founded in 1914 on a platform of “two stream” development, with Hertzog insisting on the Dutch and English pursuing their interests in parallel channels, by contrast to Botha’s ‘one stream’ policy whereby the two groups would converge as one people, in union (South African History Online, 2013).

There should however be no doubt that Hertzog and Botha were of similar mind when it came to black traditions and interests. While views differed on the two white groups in question, they agreed that black South Africans should be on an entirely different stream, totally segregated from whatever might occur with regard to white interests.

Except, of course, when white interests required black labour. As agriculture recovered and expanded, white interests were placated through measures such as the Native Land Act of 1913, that assisted in the recovery of the white farmers while crippling the interests of black South Africa.

Contemporaneously to these developments, 1912 saw the formation of the Native National Congress, later renamed the African National Congress. Despite the fact that some within the ANC championed the cause of non-racialism, the existence of such a strong climate of Afrikaner (and, white) nationalism cannot help but have informed the motivations and strategy of the ANC. When moderation, open debate and equal consideration of interests seem to be off the table, why waste ones’ time pursuing those goals?

Still smarting from the humiliating defeat suffered in the war, and still trying to rebuild their families, as well as their economic structures, the Afrikaner – or at least, some proportion of Afrikaners – now had to also contend with a growing voice of black dissent.

In one hypothetically possible version of history, the fact that Afrikaners knew full well what defeat and humiliation felt like might have inclined them to listen to the concerns of black South Africans, leading the country closer to the sort of equality we now enjoy (at least in law, if not entirely in reality).

But that sort of unselfish, forward-thinking attitude proved to be impossible, at least in those years. Much of this had to do with the formation and subsequent power – even if often behind the scenes – of the Broederbond.

As Schönteich and Boshoff put it in ‘Volk’ Faith and Fatherland. The Security Threat Posed by the White Right (2003), “the Afrikaner Broederbond was born out of the deep conviction that the Afrikaner volk has been planted in this country by the Hand of God, destined to survive as a separate volk with its own calling”. If God insisted on a separate destiny, one might think, who is man to quibble?

The origins of the Broederbond are in feelings of persecution – of being threatened by enemies known and unknown, but also of being proud, stubborn, and resilient. Even though the enemy might have been the British at the time the organisation was formed, that was only tangentially the point. The point, instead, was that whatever adverse circumstances were encountered, the Afrikaner would prevail.

Prevail they did, as all South African born before the 1980’s knows full well. The Broederbond was a key part of their success, in that not only did the Broederbond launch several cultural organisations as breeding grounds and reinforcements of Afrikaner values and culture (gathered under the umbrella Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge, or Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Societies), but they also ensured linguistic and cultural – and thus, racial – “purity” in positions of influence in education, commerce and politics.

It was in the 1920’s that the Broederbond became properly organised, and began being properly influential. In 1921, they started campaigning for Afrikaans schools and the preservation of Afrikaans culture in schools, which led to a rapid surge in membership. In 1927, this (now secret) society resolved “to take an active part in the life of the community, leaving no avenue neglected” (O’Meara, 1977).

The extent to which the Broederbond reinforced cultural and racial myopia is clear from its selection and membership criteria. Only “financially sound, white, Afrikaans-speaking, Protestant males, over age 25, of ‘unimpeachable character’, who actively accepted South Africa as their sole homeland, containing a separate Afrikaner nation with its own language and culture” qualified to be members (O’Meara, 1977).

Some highly-combustible elements were therefore being thrown into one pot – a group of pious Calvinists with persecution complexes (thanks to the British and the war), armed with a sense of religious predestination (or more crucially, entitlement), were setting up a structure that ensured that no heterodox thinking would be allowed to penetrate into their structures.

Psychologists and behavioural economists speak of confirmation bias (Wason, 1960) and concepts like the “filter bubble” (Pariser, 2011). Confirmation bias refers to our predisposition to ignore evidence that counts against (or, disconfirms) existing beliefs or hypotheses, and also to over-emphasise the relevance of evidence that confirms what we already believe.

The term “filter bubble” was coined to describe the results of Internet search personalisation, whereby we tend to get search results that play into our confirmation biases – if you tend to read liberal media, Fox News will tend to not show up in your Google results.

Even though the Broederbond didn’t have Google, what they did have was a trusted community of leaders and influencers who would tell them – and you, if you wanted to succeed – exactly what you needed to believe, and usually, exactly what you wanted to hear.

Little surprise, then, that Afrikaner politics was far more concerned with internal power-struggles than with the continued alienation and disempowerment of the majority of South African residents (“citizens” being too generous a term, if we are to be accurate). This incestuous dominance of power structures would enable and buttress decades of apartheid rule, and also allowed for the arrogance that led many within the National Party (in its 1948 – 1994 guise) to never question their divine right to rule, even as the country burned at Sharpeville and elsewhere.

This messianistic, Calvinistic and conservative Afrikaner nationalism, promoted by the Afrikaner Broederbond, was tremendously successful. “Every prime minister and state president in South Africa from 1948 to the end of Apartheid in 1994 was a member of the Afrikaner Broederbond” (Boddy-Evans, 2013), and its members occupied positions of power throughout other areas of South African society also.

The legacy this leaves us is not only racial distrust and tension, as exemplified in the modern-day Broederbond-lite of a Dan Roodt or Steve Hofmeyr, but also in the fact that nationalism, and perhaps tribalism, comes naturally in South African politics. We are attuned to that discourse, which makes the discourse of liberty outside of tribe, language group or race difficult for some South Africans to hear.

Afrikaner nationalism was premised on victimhood, and a commitment to never be victims again. It is perhaps little wonder that some Afrikaners felt – and continue to feel – threatened by the African nationalism sometimes apparent in the South Africa of today, and that the rhetoric of difference continues to prove so successful in South African politics.

This is a trap from which the country needs to escape in order to leave the divisive politics of identity and race behind. Only when African nationalism can mean, simply, a nation of Africans, can we truly say that apartheid has been defeated.


  1. Boddy-Evans, A. 2013. Afrikaner Broederbond. [Online]. Available: [8 July 2013]
  2. Encyclopedia Brittanica. 2013. Afrikaner-Broederbond. [Online]. Available: [8 July 2013]
  3. O’Meara, D. 1977. The Afrikaner Broederbond 1927-1948: Class Vanguard of Afrikaner Nationalism. Journal of Southern African Studies. Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 156-186
  4. Pariser, E. 2011. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, Penguin Press.
  5. Schönteich, M; Boshoff, H. 2003.’Volk’ Faith and Fatherland. The Security Threat Posed by the White Right, Institute of Security Studies. Monograph. No 81
  6. South African History Online. 2013. Louis Botha. [Online]. Available: [8 July 2013]
  7. Wason, Peter C. 1960. On the failure to eliminate hypotheses in a conceptual task, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (Psychology Press) 12 (3): 129–140.
Culture Daily Maverick Morality Politics

A culture of dying

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

623156_314164Kabelo Mokgweetse ran away from his initiation school in Pampierstad in November last year, to look for food. He was tracked down and thrashed with a sjambok, before having his feet burnt as further punishment. Then, he was left for dead at the side of the road, where a passing motorist happened to spot him.

Initially only his toes were amputated, but the nerve damage eventually required further surgery, where his right foot was removed in its entirety, along with most of the left. The question that’s difficult to ask – never mind answer – is whether he might prefer to instead be one of the 23 youth who recently died as a result of initiation ceremonies in Mpumalanga.

Mokgweetse and thousands of boys like him are sent (and often willingly go) to initiation schools to mark the transition between boyhood and manhood, undergoing ritual circumcision and being instructed about their social responsibilities. And in most years, children die in the course of “becoming men”. It’s so typical, in fact, that a government news agency can use a headline like “Traditional leaders welcome no initiation deaths”.

That headline was for a story about Limpopo in particular, and dealt with the 2010 season, where attendance at initiation schools was reportedly down by 75% thanks to the World Cup. Limpopo does seem to be a province that has taken the health of initiates particularly seriously, with deaths in the low single-figures for the past few years.

The key question that arises for outsiders like myself is this: do the children who go to initiation schools, the parents who send them there, and the Ramophato (initiation school owner) think that this is a fair price for preserving these cultural practices? And if one death is a fair price, how many would be too costly?

Part of the reason for the continued survival of poorly regulated initiation schools is surely that they provide a narrative to life – a structure, and a reinforcement of community and communal values. But if those goods can be acquired at a lower price – and they undoubtedly can be – then the dozens of deaths we’ve seen so far this year are surely not only too many, but also reason for widespread outrage as well as legal action against those responsible.

Because this is a matter of culture, though, people prefer to tread lightly, tempering their criticisms with politically correct noises about tolerance and respect. But isn’t this in itself condescending, perhaps even racist? Could we instead wonder whether, if the average adolescent in Mpumalanga knew that they had a decent prospect of a good education, a good job and so forth, they’d rather be joining protests against such schools – opting for medical circumcision at the very least, if not entirely rejecting cultural instruction of this sort?

But it’s been – and will continue to be – a long wait for more people to have a better shot at a good life through adequate healthcare, education, and those goods many of us take for granted. And what we put in place as substitutes to give meaning to life – namely cultural practices such as these – result in initiation schools, genital mutilation, corrective rape, culturally embedded homophobia, sexism and so forth.

“Culture” is used as an excuse for all sorts of things (in South Africa, often as a simple vote-getter). But it’s only when you get to choose what your “culture” is – and not have it forced upon you – that it stands a chance of being respectable. And even then, it should never be a stand-alone justification for doing or believing something.

Culture can explain why we do things, even if they appear to be irrational to outsiders. Justification is a different matter, though – if not, how could we complain if a Eugene Terre’Blanche, for example, cites culture as a reason to keep black slaves? Culture cannot serve alone as a reason for doing something.

Equally, culture should not serve as a reason to avoid intervening when needless deaths can be avoided. Last week, a caller to Radio702 recounted his experience of an initiation school (where a close friend of his happened to have died). The caller, Sam, explained that deaths were common thanks to initiates being deprived of water until the last week of proceedings, and also poorly fed – meaning that they had few physical reserves to cope with the gruelling nature of the rituals.

Furthermore, they would also be less able to fight off infection, more common as a result of the lack of qualifications of many who perform the circumcisions. All of these factors can be managed, and to some extent have been managed in Limpopo. This is clearly not the case in Mpumalanga.

Interviewed on eNCA, the MEC for Health in Mpumalanga said that, as a woman, she couldn’t get involved. Her precise words were: “This is a tradition. This is a tradition. So in other tradition whether there are deaths or what but a woman can’t come closer to that”. A competing tradition here involves avoiding needless death, and doing your job. Someone who chooses the tradition of turning a blind eye to death deserves to lose her job, at the very least, and seems at least partly responsible for any future deaths.

Appeals to culture, tradition and the like have causality entirely back-to-front: things could become cultural norms because they are good norms; but the fact that something is a cultural norm has no bearing on whether it’s a good or respectable norm or not. And a cultural practice in which there is no age of consent, poor or no medical oversight, and wilful ignorance on the part of government officials is problematic, to say the least.

“Only God knows who’s going to die, when” was Msebenzi Masombuka’s (a representative of King Mabhoko) comment following the deaths in Mpumalanga. Even if one does believe that, we’d still present ourselves as candidates for earlier or later deaths, through our actions or inactions.

Or sometimes, it’s others we present as candidates for an earlier death. And we sacrifice them on the altar of “culture”. In May 2013, culture killed at least 23 boys – yet we should respect it, just … because.

Culture Morality Politics

Maiming, killing and dying for “culture”

Originally published on SkepticInk

Parts of a 17-year-old boy’s feet from Bonita Park, in Hartswater had to be amputated, after he ran away from an initiation school in Pampierstad in search of food.

After he was tracked down, he was thrashed with a sjambok, while his feet were burnt with fire. He was later abandoned along the side of the road, where he was left for dead, naked and bleeding, until a passing motorist noticed him and alerted the police.

Due to extensive nerve and muscle damage, his toes had to be surgically removed.

667532_612441This boy, and thousands like him, are sent (and often willingly go) to initiation schools to mark the transition between boyhood and manhood, “through ritual circumcision and cultural instruction regarding their social responsibilities and their conduct”. Ever year, children die in the course of “becoming men” – and in South African society, being a man correlates quite positively with thinking you can dictate the course of the lives of women.

Part of the reason for the continued survival of poorly regulated initiation schools, with poor hygiene and cultural instruction from previous centuries, is that they provide a narrative to life – a structure, and a community. If the average adolescent knew that they had a decent prospect of a good education, a good job and so forth, they’d probably be joining protests against such schools – opting for medical circumcision at the very least, if not entirely rejecting cultural indoctrination.

But it’s been – and will continue to be – a long wait for more people to have a better shot at a good life through adequate healthcare, education, and those goods many of us take for granted. And what we put in place as substitutes to give meaning to life – namely cultural practices such as these – result in initiation schools, genital mutilation, corrective rape, culturally embedded homophobia, sexism and so forth.

“Culture” is used as an excuse of all sorts of things (in South Africa, often as a simple vote-getter). But it’s only when you get to choose what your “culture” is – and not have it forced upon you – that it becomes remotely respectable. And even then, it should never be an explanation or justification for doing or believing something. As I tell students, appeals to culture, tradition and the like get the causality entirely backwards: things could become cultural norms because they are good norms; but the fact that something is a cultural norm has no bearing on whether it’s a good or respectable one or not.

Culture Daily Maverick People

I get (real) mail

It’s been very many years since I’ve received a handwritten letter in the mail (not counting letters from the UCT Registrar, who sometimes prefers to record official business on paper, with pen. I’m afraid I have little idea as to his heuristic for deciding when email is sufficient and when pen and paper are necessary, and in realising this, resolve to ask him that question soonest.) It’s probably been at least 10 years since any other correspondence has arrived in this format, though, so I was quite surprised to find this in my postbox at work today.

Seeing as the Daily Maverick has a real names comment policy, and this was intended as a comment to my column last week, I’ll presume that it’s okay to post it here, before briefly responding. I’ve shrunk the images, so in case you can’t read them, the covering letter includes the question:

If you could single out what distresses you most about life in South Africa, what would it be? For me, it is the Aztec-like acceptance of violent death in civil society.

This gave me little indication of what was to come, considering that the question is sensible even if (to my mind) put somewhat hyperbolically. The letter itself reads:

Failed attempt to submit to the Daily Maverick, in reply to Jacques Rousseau’s article on culture.

Our ‘sentient and compassionate’, ‘affirming and inspirational’ culture condones ‘oppressive and restrictive’ attitudes towards those it deems ‘inferior and unworthy’ for questioning its orthodox principles.

A paid-up member of this ‘groupthink’ culture is required to:

  • Replace puritanical attitudes to sex with puritanical attitudes to thought.
  • Endorse strident feminism.
  • Support pugnacious homosexuality (see Pierre de Vos’s bitchy reply to the unfortunate Mulholland).
  • Be sceptically deconstructive (see Richard Poplak’s diagnosis of J.M. Coetzee as a substitute for examining his sensible speech at the Wits graduation ceremony).
  • Excoriate the government but sanctify The People, and increasingly untenable position.
  • Curse colonialism, Christianity, apartheid and big business (modish apocalyptic horsemen, past).
  • Lament racism, poverty, inequality, and unemployment (modish apocalyptic horsemen, present).
  • Embrace multiculturalism while proselytising his own.
  • Hound the carriers of our plagues, usually conservative, white, heterosexual men or black men who understand the efficacy of patronage within their own culture.

A tall order, but then virtue was never easy.

To be honest, I have no idea what to make of this. I was hoping that typing it out would make it more clear, but I still have little idea whether Ms Vorster thinks I am either a member of this ‘groupthink’ culture, or a campaigner against it, or neither.

It seems that her first paragraph introduces a dissatisfaction with political correctness and groupthink, and that her letter is concerned with some negative effects this culture could have in allowing for unfair judgements against ‘outsiders’. The quoted bits describing culture are plucked from various paragraphs of my original column, though, where some were descriptive, some aspirational, and some facetious. She seems to have read me as describing an actual and extant culture, which I certainly wasn’t. The major point of my column was that we normally can’t be prescriptive about culture, and that it’s as meaningless or meaningful as you’d like it to be. We can be prescriptive about behaviour, though, and if your culture involves harming unwilling participants, I’ve got no problem with saying that aspect x of culture y is reprehensible, and must change.

If it wasn’t for her covering letter, where she refers to reading my columns “with pleasure”, I’d have no problem interpreting this letter as a rant against lefties, and an appeal for less wishy-washy tolerance of various cultural norms. Because this seems to imply that she thinks me an ally. Fair enough, I might say as a general response to many lefties, in that I hate the soft relativism of not making judgements as much as some of you might do. But then, this doesn’t need to be accompanied by an endorsement of bigotry, as Ms Vorster seems to be demanding when referring to my colleague Pierre de Vos’s “pugnacious homosexuality” and his “bitchy reply to the unfortunate Mulholland”.

Mulholland deserved all he got from de Vos, and more (though I preferred Rebecca Davis’s response myself). To pick up on a few of the other points Ms Vorster makes, I’ve got complicated responses to feminism, in that we’d first need to agree on what the term means. If “strident feminism” entails pointing out the pervasive privilege afforded to men in society, and campaigning to eliminate it, then I’m a strident feminist myself – even though the need for feminism as a special cause can be interrogated, seeing as this particular inequality could be captured in a general assault on discrimination. But if strident feminism means thinking that “The Rule of Men” informs any potential experience, then we speak very different languages (and, live on different planets).

If Poplak’s critique was flawed, Coetzee would – from the little I know of him – be concerned with the flaws, but nevertheless applaud the attempt at a challenging and interesting reading. As for excoriation, I’m happy to excoriate both or either of the government or the people, depending on which of them do or say the most stupid things while I’m trying to come up with a column idea. Of all the horsemen listed, I don’t like any besides big business, which can be good or bad depending on what it does and how it spends its profits (if any). If groupthink means it’s bad to not like apartheid, poverty and so forth, I really hope that Ms Vorster thinks I’m a victim of it.

I don’t embrace multiculturalism. I embrace the idea that people should leave each other the hell alone, regardless of culture, that arguments should be judged on their merits (with cultural longevity or popularity certainly not counting as a merit), and that if we end up agreeing (“groupthink”) it should ideally be because we’ve all considered the issue, and come to the same reasoned conclusion. Maligning our general agreement on something like anti-sexism as “groupthink” obscures the fact that reasonable people tend to agree on what’s reasonable, for good reasons.

As for the “carriers of our plagues, usually conservative, white, heterosexual men or black men who understand the efficacy of patronage within their own culture” – it’s little surprise that these categories are responsible for most of our social ills. For much of white South Africa, those conservative, white, heterosexual men wrote the rules, and the rules are bad ones (because they are aimed at inequality and perpetuating privilege). For much of South Africa, the same is true for powerful black men, who dominate through similar networks of patronage. Are we supposed to be blaming the poor for our misery, or the otherwise disenfranchised?

Back to the covering letter:

If you could single out what distresses you most about life in South Africa, what would it be? For me, it is the Aztec-like acceptance of violent death in civil society.

That too many people seem to think that complaining, signing a petition, or Tweeting furiously is going to make any difference to anything. If you have a skill, you could donate some of it to a civil society movement. If you can teach, do so. If you have time, give some of that. If you have money, find a worthwhile charity. That’s the high-minded answer. The more banal answer is that it’s distressing to have the same debates, each and every year/month/day, where (sometimes) it seems that nobody is doing any listening at all.

Covering note Page1 Page2

Culture Daily Maverick Politics

President Zuma: dogging South Africans with stereotypes about culture

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

sad-dogCulture is restrictive and oppressive, and it is used to generate further oppression. Not simply because you’re told what to believe in the name of culture, but because what you are told to believe can be oppressive or restrictive. Perhaps, that you’re not the equal of a man. Perhaps, that as a man, you are necessarily responsible for the oppression of women.

Culture is also a reference point for where we’ve come from, and how we ended up here. It’s what binds us in times of strife, or when others tell us that we’re somehow inferior or unworthy of survival or happiness. Culture is what gives us beautiful art – music, paintings, books – and it is what renews our creativity through the wellspring of ideas it provides.

Culture is a handy card to play when trying to rally political support, especially if you can appeal to a version of culture that speaks of a struggle against oppression, and therefore a historical debt that is owed to that struggle. Without the comfort and strength provided by culture, we would never have survived. Or so the narrative might go, if you thought that culture comes with chains.

Culture can be all these things. But most importantly, it can be what you want it to be, including nothing of any significance at all. And you can mix and match not only elements of culture, but also the respect with which you regard various elements of various cultures. But when the idea of culture is used as a straightjacket, as a way to enforce loyalty or groupthink, it is only and always restrictive and oppressive.

When a President says that black South Africans should stop adopting the customs of other cultures, such as appearing to care more for their animals than they do for their fellow South Africans, he ends up transgressing various aspects of logic as well as of decency. Decency, because one unspoken implication of that speech last December was that white dog-owning folk had no humanity, and that black folk who loved their dog were somehow less black.

Logic, simply because of the obvious contradictions immediately pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere, via photographs of Mandela, Vavi and others being friendly with various furry animals. Zuma’s speech clearly contained some foot-in-mouth, though, and it’s uncharitable to read reports of a speech like this literally. He was (at least, as far as I can tell) referring to the fact that it sometimes seems that people care more for (relative) frivolities than for their fellow human beings.

If this is accurate, it’s of course still deeply problematic to square the humanitarian Zuma with the one who appears in our headlines most days for some allegation of corruption, or the construction of multi-million Rand homesteads. Let’s leave that aside, as I have no trouble believing that he at least believes he cares, and was speaking sincerely.

What I want to highlight here is culture. Because what Zuma is saying in a speech like this is an insult to culture, or to the sort of culture I describe above as an affirming and sometimes inspirational one. Because Zuma could be accused of telling black South Africans to take direction from his repressive stereotypes, rather than the repressive stereotypes that the white man brought to Africa. He’s saying that black South Africans are free, but only up until the point where they butt up against the boundaries of culture that he is prescribing.

The point of freedom is to be free to choose. Zuma is correct that some people seem to care more for their pets than for humans, and I’d agree with him that it’s wrong to do so. Not because of culture, or at least not because of “black” culture or “white” culture – rather something like a “sentient” or “compassionate” culture. And perhaps, a culture that eschews opportunism, preferring to work towards the long-term benefit of all South Africans.

This means, at least in part, eliminating the race-baiting that has become such a reliable part of his rhetoric. I understand that many of us white South Africans appear (and often are) insensitive to culture and its manifestation, especially now that “our” culture blankets most of the world we get to hear about. But this doesn’t justify adding to the caricatures of what white and black people do and believe – and it certainly doesn’t justify telling people what they should believe.

Culture changes, and anyone who won’t allow it to is an oppressor. If you choose to hold on to some cultural elements and customs that are significant and not harmful to others, I shouldn’t judge you for that. When you use culture as a weapon to abuse common sense, and to guilt people into loyalty, I will judge you for that, as should we all.

And some of us will judge you even more harshly when you make it clear that you’re just making things up as you go along. Or is Mac Maharaj actually just trying to embarrass you, by protesting that you were simply trying to “decolonise the African mind” while you made noises about a national cleansing ceremony, to be hosted by none other than Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu – a representative of a faith that exists here largely thanks to colonialism?

Assuming that the vote of no confidence fails, Mr President – and assuming that you actually give more of a damn about your country than you’ve ever appeared to – why not spend 2013 and onwards focusing on speeches (and decisions, naturally) that help us to find common purpose, instead of on ones that deepen or even create divisions?

You have your second term, after all, and the threats you personally face during that term will come from people and institutions like the Public Prosecutor and Parliament. The threats to your party, on the other hand, seem to come mainly from people like you. To put it simply – if you don’t stop being such an embarrassment, South African voters may soon begin to consider having a cleansing ceremony of their own.

Culture External World Politics

COSAS is hamster number one

cosaslogoThere is never any reason to expect a new year to be any different from the previous one. The arbitrary shift from December to January is good for a few days off, and for many of us, too much indulgence – but changing minds and attitudes takes longer than that, and isn’t responsive to fireworks and Auld Lang Syne in any case.

So, it’s no surprise to find that – after a mere 5 days of 2013 – we already have (at least) 2 depressing examples of the hamster wheel that is discourse around race in South Africa. Much effort is put into keeping it spinning, but to little effect. And if one hamster dies, another – often indistinguishable from the last – takes its place.

COSAS is hamster number 1. This Black Consciousness movement was formed in the late 70’s to represent black pupils, following the Soweto uprisings. They have many proud moments in their history, regardless of whether you agree with their politics or not. You can read about their history here if you care to. The salient detail for my purposes is that the “organization’s principle aims were the conscientising of students and the wider community to the repressive nature of education in South Africa” (sic).

If you think the construction of that sentence poor, consider this, the first sentence of the recent COSAS statement on the 2012 Matric (Grade 12, the final year of secondary school) results:

The congress of South African students would like to unreservedly welcome the metric result of the class of 2012, this class is the class that reactionary forces anticipated negative outcomes from, as a way to put substance onto their argument which suggest that there is a severe collapse of order in the government that is lead by the ANC, the 2012 result beyond any other thing they are specially recognized by COSAS because they Are a reflection of a narrowing gap in terms of the quality of education between the model c schools and the township and the rural school, and such was made more than visible by the performance of a number of students who scored outstanding result from the lowest quintiles of our schools.

As a friend pointed out, this is a telling example, and “a massive indictment, of what mass education has done for born-free South Africans”. Not to mention proof-positive that COSAS’s work (as quoted above) is not yet done, in that the organisation’s Secretary General is still a clear victim of that repressive education himself.

The statement carries on in that vein (here’s the pdf), and in some respects gets worse when Tshiamo Tsotetsi (the Secretary General) expresses concern that publishing student names and results in newspapers is ill-advised because pupils are then targets for witchcraft: “All of these bad things can come to an end only if these results are no longer published. We would no longer loose our young people through depression or witchcraft.”

One of the leaders of an organisation devoted to improving school education, in other words, believes that children are being lost through witchcraft (and therefore, that witchcraft even exists). And of course, he’s right to some extent, seeing as pupils no doubt believe this too and are therefore victims of something people call “witchcraft”, despite their being nothing supernatural about it at all. But the tragedy is that 12 years of school isn’t sufficient to dispel these superstitions. Or, that nothing in the curriculum teaches skills and principles of reasoning that would help to do so. Worst of all, it’s probable that many teachers believe in witchcraft themselves.

The education system, the Matric results, and the gloating of the Ministry of Basic Education – even in the face of a reality where less than 1 in 3 pupils complete high school – could be the subject of an extended rant. As could hamster number 2, Gillian Schutte, with her recent prescriptive self-flagellation entitled  “Dear White People“. I’ll get to that in a separate post, and for now simply reiterate what I said on first reading her column (with apologies for misspelling Schutte’s last name):


Fetish – Little Heart (an album review of sorts)

Various disclaimers are in order here. Well, two, really. First, I’m not a music journalist. You’ll find one restaurant review on this site, and one review of a godawful U2 concert, but usually I stick to talking about politics, philosophy and religion. All of which are topics that could be said to feature on the new Fetish album, Little Heart – which you can listen to (and buy!) here – depending on how you define the topics, of course. But talking about that would be more philosophical rambling, and today we’re talking about rock. Not just any rock – rock that was born in the mid-90’s, then excited pretty much every South African I knew (sure, they were 95% white liberals) for 7 or so years, and then disappeared.

A few weeks ago, I watched Searching for Sugarman, the documentary on Rodriguez, a musician that international readers might not have heard of. As I remarked to the Doctor at the time, it was okay, except for the soundtrack. And the segue to Fetish here is that some folk also wondered what happened to them since they disbanded in 2004. They were too interesting to disband. At least, that’s what I thought, and therefore what I assumed all right-thinking people were thinking. But not only are they back, but they also have stories to tell. And you don’t need to be a dope-addled hippie to enjoy this soundtrack.

If I were a music journalist, I’d probably model myself on Charles Bukowski, who wrote this review of a Rolling Stones concert without seeing much of the show at all. Because music – for non-professionals like me at least – is far more about the mood and the time. This is true for Rodriguez (not in the mood, at any time) as well as for Fetish, and this is perhaps the right time to introduce the second disclaimer, which is that I’m in no way impartial here. Dominic Forrest (guitar) is a good and long-standing friend, and Jeremy Daniel (keyboard) is a more recent friend. In a archetypal-rock-star anecdote, I could tell you about that night that Dominic…

Look, as I say, I’m far from impartial here. But all right-thinking people trust me.

So, the new album. It’s certainly an evolution of their sound, which I think a good thing. First, because the time for 90’s rock was the 90’s, and second because artists should demonstrate growth (as should audiences – so if you still want only 90’s rock, the problem is you. And then, you’re incentivising people to make more of it, which makes your problem everyone else’s problem). The tracks are far more layered than the stuff you’d remember off previous albums, and that’s not only because of superb sound engineering – there are some quite delicate and compelling interplays between instruments, and tonal and rhythm shifts. So, it’s a more sophisticated album, certainly their most mature in lacking much of the bombast that was evident in early work.

But it’s still there – and this is something that many fans will like, even though I don’t. The first single, “All Time Low” is in parts quite the aural assault, which is what I imagine it’s intended to be. But it’s also the track which exemplifies, to me, one of the weaker elements of the album – the dynamic range of the vocalist, Michelle Breeze. I think she does certain sorts of vocal very, very well. I’ve just re-listened to “Malice”, off “So Many Prophets” – the Fetish track that is a constant on my iPod portable media player – and when you get to 2:10 or so on that track, she starts sounding really good for the duration of the chorus. It’s that angst-filled energy that thrilled us all on one of their first hits, “Blue Blanket” off the first album. But when Breeze is not in that mode (and that mode can’t – or shouldn’t – be sustained over an entire album), the vocals are sometimes rather monotone, in that it sounds like there’s a complaint but you’re not quite sure what it is, or why you should care.

The songs on Little Heart weren’t rehearsed at all before being recorded – the entire session time was a manic 10 days (if I recall correctly) which brought together musicians who hadn’t been in the same room together for years. In light of that, it’s a pretty impressive piece of work. But you can hear that unfamiliarity in the album too:  sometimes it reminds you of the band you knew in the 90’s, and sometimes it sounds like something different – as I say above, more evolved and layered. But you can hear that it’s not integrated – that the familiarity with each other, and with the material, is not wholly present. You can hear the sounds of what could/should have been, if life had worked out differently.

I say this mostly because there’s always an element of each song that stands out as superb – but the parts are often better than the whole. There are sections of superb vocalisation, or instrumentation, or lyrics – but then you’ll sometimes also be sometimes be listening to a beautiful bit of keyboard or guitar work and be struck by a jarringly banal lyric. These are things that I’d think would have been ironed out – at least in part – if Fetish had the luxury of months of rehearsal. Or, if they’d been writing and playing together for all these years between this album and the last.

In this age of digital music, it’s odd to remark that the second side of the album is markedly better than the first. But for me the album closes far stronger than it begins. So it leaves one with a good impression – not just of what could have been, but also of some genuinely interesting tracks which bear repeat listening. “Over the edge” is one of the strongest Fetish tracks ever, for example, and people who like things heavy will (I suspect) love “Paper skies”.

And as a concluding note – what is perhaps most notable here is how talent shines through. These folk haven’t been playing together in years, and then they put together something in little more than a week which should easily win the SAMA (do they still exist?) for local rock. Not that you want to aim to sound like the best local, of course – but listening to this does, once again, make me think that South Africa once boasted one of the most promising acts I’d heard in the 90’s, anywhere. And it’s good to have them back, for as long as they’ll stick around.

P.S. It’s been suggested that it’s not quite clear whether this review is positive or not, and that maybe a rating would be in order. I’m not sure I’m in favour of ratings, because the baselines seem too arbitrary unless someone has a history of reviews you can benchmark against, relative to your own tastes. For this sort of impression, the only rating that seems justified is a “‘worth buying/watching/listening to” or ‘not’. This album is certainly in the former category for me.