Fetish, Mercury Live, 15 February 2013

Just a brief note to say “wow”. And to say that if you’re a fan of Fetish, or more generally a fan of smart rock music and talented performers of it, you should get yourself to one of the gigs on their current South African tour. Tonight it’s Stellenbosch, and then (from the 20th, successive nights in) Bloemfontein, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban.

My advancing years led to a departure at the first encore, but I left wishing I was 20 years younger – which would have pretty much been when I first went to a Fetish gig, perhaps even in the same venue (but no, that’s too convenient – those early gigs were in skanky Observatory dives). Some highlights:

1. The tracks they played off the new album, Little Heart, were made to be played live. The album – even though I claimed it should win SA music awards – doesn’t do justice to their raw power.
2. Ross Campbell (drums) was fantastic last night. Connected to point 1, the drive and energy of these tracks requires a steady hand on percussion, as well as a heavy one where necessary, and Ross gave us both in spades.
3. You have to hear their cover of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”. It was wonderful.

So yes, go if you can. And buy some albums on Bandcamp.


General Politics Religion

Regardless of all else, Christmas is still a holiday

And for that, we can give a little bit of thanks. Thanks, to the conventions of calendars, and ostensibly secular states who continue to pay their respects to religious traditions. I don’t mind – as I’ve said before, this atheist thinks it entirely justified that our public holidays are mostly on religious holy days. But mostly, I can’t mind times like this, because the holiday offers a most welcome break not only from work, but also from the never-ending human stupidity that is reported in the news.

The stupidity goes on, of course – it’s just that less of it is reported. Here’s a lovely example, from IOL (today), explaining how the police in Swaziland are making victim-blaming in cases of rape their official policy. Yep, it’s true – police spokesperson Wendy Hleta

said the use of the 19th century law would be applied to anyone wearing revealing and indecent clothes. Women wearing revealing clothes were responsible for assaults or rapes committed against them.

“We do not encourage that women should be harmed, but at the same time people should note acceptable conduct of behaviour,” she said. The act of the rapist is made easy because it would be easy to remove the half-cloth worn by the women. I have read from the social networks that men and even other women have a tendency of ‘undressing people with their eyes’. That becomes easier when the clothes are hugging or are more revealing.”

2012 had good bits too, of course. Plenty of good company, good food and wine, and an exciting and productive year of work, both at the university and on the Daily Maverick (which you should of course be reading, if you aren’t already doing so). And on the secular activism/atheist etc. front, the unremitting infighting, misunderstanding and so forth shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that it seems we are making progress. The 2011 UK census results, released earlier this month, contain some quite interesting data. You can read the key stats here, but the piece of information that leapt out for me was this:

Between 2001 and 2011 there has been a decrease in people who identify as Christian (from 71.7 per cent to 59.3 per cent) and an increase in those reporting no religion (from 14.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent).

Also, remember that even among those who self-identify as Christian, being a Christian no longer seems to mean much of significance – at least in terms of where you get moral guidance, which metaphysics you subscribe to, and so forth. The Richard Dawkins Foundation data, released earlier this year, revealed that (for Christians in England):

  • 15% of them have never read the Bible
  • 32% believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus
  • 24% say that the Bible is inferior to other sources of moral guidance
  • 54% look to their own “inner moral sense” for guidance on morality, and only
  • 10% seek moral guidance from “religious teachings and beliefs”
  • 50% do not consider themselves to be religious

So that’s good. Here at home, I’d be lying if I reported that there seems to be any decrease in irrational beliefs. The churches seem to be going along strongly, and we’ve got a possible 7 more years of the buffoonish Jacob Zuma – a strong ally of theirs – as President. Besides religious belief, the continued dearth of good science journalism (with the occasional and honourable exception of the Mail & Guardian) isn’t helping to limit the growth of quackery, of late most prominently visible in the form of the formerly respectable scientist, Tim Noakes.

Yep, I’m also tired of all the medical journals banging on about the Bible. And Louis Agassiz himself still seems to be waiting for people to agree with his purported “great scientific truths” of a) the falsity of the theory of evolution, and b) scientific racism. I don’t know about you, but I’d be a little more wary of citing someone like that as an authority on how hypotheses gain acceptance. I guess that’s mostly because I eat too many carbs, though. I should be careful, in case I end up developing homicidal urges:

Anyway – merry Christmas to you all, whatever Christmas might mean to you. See you next year. And if you don’t know Tim Minchin, take a listen to his Christmas song, below.


Drama free? I guess we’ll see.

In one of the early posts here, John Loftus pledged that Skeptic Ink would be a “drama free network“, and I certainly hope that this proves to be the case. Or at least, that certain sorts of drama can be avoided, because having no drama at all seems the wrong ambition (if you’re not offending or challenging anyone at all, then you’re probably not worth reading). Of late – as you all know – we’ve had drama of a different, sustained, and harmful sort. I’m not getting into that (again), except to say that one can regret what various people (on all sides of the antagonism) have thought it necessary to say and do without being guilty of asserting a false equivalence.

Others can chronicle the history if they choose to. Those of us who aren’t interested in that project should at least ensure that we don’t (intentionally) add to the catalogue of harms, and I’d suggest that the Skeptic Ink mission statement is on relatively safe ground – even if only as a minimal commitment. But just as in any other networks, some breadth and interpretive wiggle-room is useful in allowing for different voices to emerge – and just as in other networks, those who contribute here can’t be assumed to agree with each other unless we say we do.

Arguments should ideally always be judged on their merits, rather than through the lens of history or personality. However, the merits of an argument (or the bona fides of an interlocutor) are sometimes difficult to see when people are yelling at each other, or making no effort to see beyond any stereotypes or prejudicial judgements they might have entered the conversation with. And history is relevant to whether one can be judged as sincere. For my part, I’ll be trying to be consistently fair to the evidence no matter who that involves disagreeing with, and I’d hope that readers would do the same. Please read my comment policy (and of course, feel free to make suggestions in terms of edits) to get a sense of what I believe that to entail.

Towards a Free Society was named thus for two reasons, but where one is really just a marker on the road to the primary reason. The Free Society Institute (FSI) is a non-profit organisation that I founded, and am currently chairperson of, which promotes secularism, social equality and scientific interests in South Africa. So, calling this site something related seemed a obvious thing to do from the viewpoint of consolidating the expressions of “the brand”. But of course, both the organisation and the site are so named for a more substantive reason.

South Africa is a deeply religious (mostly Christian) country, and also a deeply conservative one in terms of things like social justice. Yes, I realise that foreigners might have believed the hype of a liberated and transformed society, but sadly, things like “corrective rapes” for lesbians occur here, and our Chief Justice is a man who believes you can pray the gay away.

So, the FSI has been an advocate for free speech, free thought, gender and racial equality and so forth. We’re also emphatically secular, and almost all of us are atheists. For me, atheism is a simple by-product of critical thought – the inescapable conclusion which follows from the available evidence. This annoys some folk, I realise, but I don’t think atheism all that interesting in itself. More interesting are the thoughts, confusions, biases, cultural forces etc. that lead to religious belief, and the negative consequences that can follow from those factors.

It is these causes of belief – and the ways in which they manifest in society – that will be the primary focus of Towards a Free Society. Because identifying and eliminating these causes is surely part of the strategy for freeing us from dogma, superstition, and also – perhaps especially – prejudice.

Free Speech General Politics

The disappeared ANCWL post on Zapiro

Earlier today, the ANC Women’s League released a rant about the latest Zapiro cartoon, which I won’t reproduce here for fear of being shot. But the rant has now disappeared from their website, although you can read Jackson Mthembu’s (typically reflective) opinion if you like. I happened to have a browser page open to the rant, so it’s posted below. I took the liberty of making a couple of corrections to it.

ANCWL condemns latest Zapiro excuse for satire

6 July 2012

The ANCWL condemns in the strongest possible terms the disgusting and completely distasteful depiction of the President in the latest Zapiro cartoon. David Jonathan Shapiro has taken his attempts at satire too far. He clearly does not understand the reasons for the public outcry over “The Spear” and why it was hurtful to so many people. The cartoon is an insult to those who suffered under the indignity of Aapartheid and a slap in the face to real efforts for advancing the social cohesion of our fragile society. Shapiro is showing his disregard for the healing process which is currently underway in South Africa after the divisive era before democracy.

The furore created by “The Spear” is a clear indication that we still have a long way to go. The Zapiro cartoons rely on their shock value to make an impact, but by calling the President of this great nation a “dick” is unacceptable and the WL would like to know who the we he is referring to in the cartoon actually is, as the majority of the population who voted for the PresidentANC clearly did not think this of Zuma. This cartoon is a clear attempt to fuel divisions in our society and should be condemned by all proud South Africans, regardless of race or political affiliation.

The right to freedom of expression is a right enshrined in the Cconstitution, a constitution pioneered by the Multi-party Negotiating Process and Constitutional AssemblyANC, however this right is not absolute and one must always remember a founding principale of our constitution is the right to human dignity, which was denied to so many during apartheid. The cartoon like the painting before it, is a violation of the President`s right to dignity and an insult to the people of South Africa. It serves no public interest whatsoever and was clearly just an attempt to insult and defame the President further.

Zapiro has gone from being a sometimes controversial, yet relevant satirist to a sensationalist arbiter of attentionseeking properagandaer released purely for its shock appeal, and serves absolutely no purpose in society. DavidJonathan Shapiro has declared a hatred for South Africans with this insult to the President, of not only the ANC but the entire country. This disturbing cartoon was released the day the President will be addressing a massive delegation of women from across all sectors of society who are deeply disgusted by this terrible portrayal of our country’ies President.

Issued By:
Troy Martens (on behalf of the ANCWL)
ANC Women`s League National Spokeswoman

Contact: 078 120 9880
e-mail: [email protected]

Troy Martens
ANC Women`s League National Spokesperson
078 120 9880
011 376 1055
[email protected]

P.S. A (somewhat) corrected version of the statement has now been released. ANCWL CONDEMNS LASTEST ZAPIRO EXCUSE FOR SATIRE

General Morality Politics

Idiotic opinions on Zuma’s penis

There are of course plenty of examples to choose from, but here’s one instance of the sort of idiocy which has resulted from the Goodman Gallery’s display of the Brett Murray painting featuring Jacob Zuma’s penis (and the subsequent publication of the artwork by the City Press and others).

Ignoring the royal “we” of Qunta’s tweet below, as well as the (perhaps 140-character induced) spelling, there’s still enough here to ask why anyone would this an opinion worth expressing.

Legality isn’t the only thing that mediates art and speech. Legality is, though, the thing that ‘mediates’ (or rather, dictates) whether something is legally permissible or not. Beyond that, it’s a matter of taste whether you approve of something or not. But the point of a roughly free country is that your subjective preferences need have no bearing on what I’m allowed to see. Zuma, his daughters, his wives or whomever can say “we don’t like that” (the artwork, that is, rather than the penis. They could think that of the penis too, but that’s again a matter of taste. For the wives, at least) – but they can’t say “that’s not allowed”.

So, we have norms and values to inform (or mediate) the debate outside of law – to make the case for thinking something praiseworthy or blameworthy and so forth. But all this within a framework of recognising that it’s allowed, even if we don’t like it. And we have norms and values to guide us in areas that aren’t covered by law, and also to influence law via democratic processes, where you can vote according to those norms and values, and in doing so, hope to eventually influence the law.

But you can’t expect your norms and values to simply be the law. Because they are yours, not ours, and they’re not obviously the ones “we”should adopt. Because no matter how royal the “we” in your mind might be, it doesn’t include me – I see a portrait of a man who can’t be taken seriously for well-documented reasons, where that impaired moral standing is being highlighted through a certain form of artistic insult, and where the insult has been earned.

Of course this is insensitive to “culture”. But in this matter, where “culture” demands respect for a buffoon, or asks us to endorse the subjugation of women, it’s the culture that’s the problem rather than those who are disrespectful of it.


Installing Cyanogenmod on your Samsung Galaxy S2

Just as with my earlier post on installing Ice-cream Sandwich on your GS2, the risks here are all yours. The chances of anything going wrong are small – but if they do go wrong, the possible consequences are large (you could, for example, kill your phone). Having said that, if you want to try CyanogenMod out, here’s the idiots’ guide.

In my experience, CM9 is faster and smoother than stock ROM’s. I find I get better battery life. It looks far more attractive (to my tastes), and now that themes are integrated, you’ll increasingly be able to customise the look to your preferences. It’s completely stable for daily use. A few things aren’t (fully) working yet: FM Radio (which will most likely never be integrated – but Spirit Radio works fine); TV-out (working, but imperfectly); Wi-Fi direct (coming soon); and auto-brightness (works, but slightly laggy). For a snapshot idea of what’s possible (and upcoming) with “pure” Google ROM’s like CM9, check this out.

This guide deals with only CyanogenMod 9 (currently Android version 4.04) and the Samsung Galaxy S2. Many devices are supported by CM9, though, so if you’ve come here looking for CM9 for some other phone, check out the CyanogenMod site. As before, I’m heavily indebted to the work of others here, especially Codeworkx – nothing I say is original.

Yes, you will lose your warranty if you flash CM9. No, Kies or OTA updates to your phone will no longer work. You’ll lose any Samsung-bundled apps, like Polaris Office, Social Hub and so forth. And the procedure does require a factory reset, so you’ll have to reinstall all your apps. Finally, MTN are my service provider – Vodacom users have had issues with SMS’es, and here’s how they fixed them.

But if you ever need to make a warranty claim, you can go and download the latest official firmware for your device from Samfirmware, flash it using my previous guide, and your phone will look “official” again. Except for one thing, namely the yellow triangle on boot, which indicates that it’s been rooted. To get rid of that, buy a jig from eBay for $3 or so.

If you’re on stock Samsung firmware, and haven’t rooted your phone

Download these 4 files

The steps required are identical to those in my previous guide.
  1. install Kies (if you don’t already have it). While you’re in Kies, de-activate the ”Run Samsung KIES automatically when device is connected” option, seeing as you don’t want it to interfere with Odin flashes (the procedure outlined here).
  2. connect your phone with the USB cable, let the PC recognise it and install drivers (if necessary – if you’ve used Kies before, it won’t be).
  3. disconnect the phone, and close Kies (important – check the system tray etc. to make sure it’s closed, because it interferes with Odin).
  4. Put the disconnected phone into ‘Download’ mode, which you do by a) powering down, then restarting by b) holding both volume down and the main button on front of phone in when pressing power. Hold all 3 until you see the screen pictured above. You’ll be asked whether you’re sure you want to go to download mode. You are.
  5. Launch Odin. Connect the phone with USB cable.
  6. A block of the Odin screen (ID:COM) should go yellow if everything is in order. If not, something is wrong, probably driver related – but you must not proceed with flashing anything.
  7. Click on the PDA button and browse to the resurrection edition  .tar.md5 you downloaded earlier (251Mb or so)
  8. Do not select any other options in Odin. And make sure you’ve used the PDA block, not one of the others.
  9. Click start to flash
  10. Don’t disconnect the cable or turn off the phone – it will reboot when it finishes.

You’re now running CM9, but won’t have Google apps installed. Let the phone finish booting, and don’t bother setting anything up – you’ll be doing a complete wipe of your phone in a moment. You should already have copied two files to your phone earlier – if you didn’t, copy them across to your SD card or internal memory.

Now, when you press the power button and select “reboot”, you should see the option to reboot into “recovery”. Choose this. Once in recovery mode, do the following:

  1. Install zip from sdcard (volume up and down moves between options, and power selects an option)
  2. Either select “choose zip from sdcard” (if you copied those files to your sd card) or “choose zip from internal sdcard” (if you copied them to internal memory)
  3. Flash the CM9 Nightly build (the 4th file listed for download above)
  4. Flash the Google apps download
  5. Wipe data/factory reset
  6. Wipe cache partition
  7. Select “Advanced”, then wipe Dalvik cache
  8. Reboot

There you go – set up your phone, download your apps, etc. To get rid of the yellow triangle on boot, use TriangleAway from the Google Play store. Two other things you might find useful are Syncmypix (for Facebook contact syncing, which is unreliable in ICS generally, but especially in CM9) and an alternative launcher (so that you can put folders in your shortcut bar and so forth). I like Nova, but dig around on the Play store and try a few out.

Note: it’s quite common, on the first boot of CM9, to have no network data. For some reason, your APN settings aren’t read from your SIM card at first. A reboot has always fixed this problem for me – they’re back on the second boot, and then don’t disappear again.

For those who have already rooted.

If you have access to ClockWorkMod recovery (anyone who understands this won’t need further advice in this area, but just in case: reboot into recovery with power, home and volume-up. If you see a Clockwork recovery screen, you do), it’s really easy – just download the last two files linked above, boot into recovery mode and follow steps 1-8 in the list immediately above this.


While you’re at it, take Holomisa to the HRC

Take a look at the responses offered by Patekile Holomisa to Chris Barron’s questions in this weekend’s Sunday Times. I addressed his views in a Daily Maverick column reposted here, wherein I drew attention to the fact that his retrograde attitude towards equality seemed no less – if not more – offensive than dos Santos and Tshidi, whose racist tweets have recently caused such upheaval in the Twittersphere. (As a sidenote, the report on their “reconciliation lunch” with Mmusi Maimane is a wonderful example of how low journalistic standards can sink – “Dos Santos, who had plastered her face with make-up and pink blush” & “Thamane, 22, it has emerged, is not even a model” being two choice examples).

Holomisa has poked his head out of his cave for long enough to confirm that our suspicions are not at all unfounded, and that freedom is quite alright, so long as it’s according to cultural norms. And who defines cultural norms? Well, “traditional communities and traditional leaders”, apparently – except, that’s not quite true, because if you’re a gay person then your sexual preferences are “not part of our culture”. So, that leaves us with traditional leaders as the arbiters of cultural norms. And guess what – they’re all male, and will continue to be so, especially if the Traditional Courts Bill passes, and even if it doesn’t, because that’s the current status quo.

Gays and lesbians do what they do “despite of their culture”, according to Holomisa. But yet, this magnanimous man says they should be protected – “they can’t be assaulted, or raped or killed. According to the culture.” No, Holomisa, that’s not the only reason – it’s also according to law, which (currently) recognises sexual orientation as illegitimate grounds for discrimination. And one of the reasons for having this in law is that despite what you think the “cultural” rules are, people are discriminating against gays and lesbians. And exactly those people who you think define cultural norms are themselves frequently homophobic.

So it’s a cop-out to say that it’s “not because of the culture that they’re being assaulted and raped and killed. The culture doesn’t say they must be assaulted and killed and raped.” Because when “the culture” says “let’s remove the protections for gays and lesbians from the Bill of Rights” – as you are doing, Mr. Holomisa – then it is because of “the culture” that people are being assaulted and raped and killed. Because you know it’s happening, and you know it’s sometimes because of homophobia. And one way to change “the culture” is to put people in jail, often and always, when they assault, rape or kill (for whatever reason, but including as a result of homophobia).

Another way to change “the culture” is of course to tell people to stop doing these things. But that strategy isn’t working out too well, is it?


Installing Ice Cream Sandwich on your Samsung Galaxy S2

SOUTH AFRICAN READERS: The official firmwares are all out. So if you want them, you should be able to upgrade via Kies if you’re still on an official Gingerbread ROM. If you want to use the Odin method described here, go sign up for an account at SamFirmware, search for the i9100 (Galaxy S2), and download the appropriate firmware for your device. You’ll see three ICS ROM’s there – one labelled Vodafone (for Vodacom), one labelled XFM (for MTN) and one just called “South Africa” (for anyone else). The password to unzip all these should be “”. Or, go download CheckFus and get the firmware using that (no password on those downloads). If you want the rooted kernel, here’s a download link. If that link stops working, search for the LP7 kernel on this thread.

Also see a more recent post on installing CyanogenMod9.

For South African S2 owners sick of waiting for MTN/CellC/Vodacom to release ICS, here’s a dummies guide to installing it on your S2 (and optionally, rooting). If you don’t understand the dummies guide, please don’t even consider attempting this. And if you do decide to install ICS, the risks are all your own – if you end up with a R7000 paperweight, tough luck. Having said that, hundreds of people have followed this procedure without complication, and I’ve been running ICS for months now, thanks to the folks at XDA-Developers (a forum Android geeks would benefit from immersing themselves in). The guide below is really just a simplified version of Intratech’s thread at XDA, so the credit is all his.

File download recommendations and links are current as of today, but new ROM’s get released all the time and I probably won’t be updating this post. If you get to this late, rummage around in Intratech’s thread for new firmware. I also don’t use official ICS ROM’s, so it’s no use asking me how to do stuff with them, what works and what doesn’t, etc.

The instructions here assume that you already have Samsung’s Kies installed. You won’t need that to install ICS, but Kies does come with the drivers you need to follow the steps below. So install Kies if you haven’t already. I’m using a Windows PC, and have no idea how different things might be on other OS’es.

Files to download:

  1. Odin
  2. 7Zip
  3. Ice Cream Sandwich (see top of post for official SA firmwares)
  4. If you intend to root, the rooted kernel (likewise)

The ICS version you’ll be installing does not wipe the phone, and if you don’t root, your warranty is intact. This is an official (UK) ICS release.

Install 7Zip, then use it to extract the ICS Rom. If there are errors extracting, the download is most likely corrupt, and you certainly shouldn’t proceed. Try downloading it again. Odin and the kernel should obviously also extract without error. Extract these files into a folder somewhere on your PC, where all that matters is that you are able to find them. This guide assumes that you’re coming from a stock Gingerbread ROM – if you’re not, weird things might happen (see this comment, for example).

  1. install Kies (if you don’t already have it). While you’re in Kies, de-activate the “Run Samsung KIES automatically when device is connected” option, seeing as you don’t want it to interfere with Odin flashes (the procedure outlined here).
  2. connect your phone with the USB cable, let the PC recognise it and install drivers (if necessary – if you’ve used Kies before, it won’t be).
  3. disconnect the phone, and close Kies (important – check the system tray etc. to make sure it’s closed, because it interferes with Odin).
  4. Put the disconnected phone into ‘Download’ mode, which you do by a) powering down, then restarting by b) holding both volume down and the main button on front of phone in when pressing power. Hold all 3 until you see the screen pictured above. You’ll be asked whether you’re sure you want to go to download mode. You are.
  5. Launch Odin. Connect the phone with USB cable.
  6. A block of the Odin screen (ID:COM) should go yellow if everything is in order. If not, something is wrong, probably driver related – but you must not proceed with flashing anything.
  7. Click on the PDA button and browse to the ICS ROM .tar or .tar.md5 (the large extracted file, something over 500Mb) file that you extracted earlier
  8. Do not select any other options in Odin. And make sure you’ve used the PDA block, not one of the others.
  9. Click start to flash
  10. Don’t disconnect the cable or turn off the phone – it will reboot when it finishes.

You’re done, and running ICS. What you’ll have now is stock firmware. But your phone is not rooted yet. If you want to root, repeat steps 4-10 above, but this time using the kernel file instead of the ICS file (also in the PDA section of Odin).

Note: If you do root, you’ll now see a scary-looking yellow triangle on boot (similar to the picture above), which is Samsung’s way of saying you’ve been naughty. To get rid of that, install an app called TriangleAway, which is free for XDA forum members, or R15 in the Play Store. Or use a jig that you’ve bought from e-Bay.

If you do root, it’s now easy to go into Recovery mode (volume up+home+power) and make a full system backup. Once you’ve done that, you can install any ROM you like, and be able to flash your backup back in 5 minutes if you don’t like the result. Rooted users should certainly check out CyanogenMod, which is what I’ve been running for the past few months. Once you go ‘pure’ Android and dump Touchwiz, your life will be immeasurably improved…

Culture External World General

Start saving for Norway

Not necessarily because you want to come here. It’s just that, if you do, you’d need to have started saving for it quite a while in advance. The pint of Heineken sitting alongside me, for example, cost around R80. The cheapest food at this pub is a margarita pizza for R170, and even your most basic Burger King combo meal will set you back around R110. Anyway – I’m here, and thus my complaints would most likely sound hollow. So just FYI, start saving.


  • The mad rush for duty-free as the sardines exited customs at the airport was a certain clue that you don’t want to buy booze or cigarettes in the city, unless you can help it. The queue there involved a far longer wait than customs itself, and the rationality of spending time in this queue was confirmed while browsing a wine shop. Not just a wine shop, mind you, but a “Wine Monopoly”. That is in fact its name. All wine and spirits are sold exclusively by the state, with prices partly determined by alcohol content, in a clear attempt to legislate morality. Which is of course fine if you’re a rich banker or lawyer, but not so good for the average geezer sunning himself in the park at 8pm. (These long summer nights are rather pleasant.)
  • Chatting to a local on the night I arrived, I was told something odd about schooling here. Basically, children are not evaluated in any substantive way before the age of 14 (or maybe 16 – he was plying me with drink). This is of course in service of their manic egalitarianism, which dictates that kids shouldn’t be made to feel special, or inferior, before adults believe they can deal with it. So instead of exams, tests and report cards, teachers can only offer nebulous advice such as “maybe you should take a look at that maths textbook sometime? I hear it has lots of cool pictures.” Or something – I haven’t spoken to a teacher to see how this plays out.
  • You need to be an active member of a church to become a gravedigger.
  • The most commonly-found food is the polser, which is a hot dog, and raisin buns (whose Scandiwegian name I cannot recall). The polser will set you back around R35, as will the buns, with 3 of them in a portion. But if it’s polser you’re after, rather go to Denmark, where they serve them with crispy fried onions and rémoulade. These Norwegian ones (at least the ones I’ve found), have neither, and are thus crap. Denmark wins, and I have no biases to disclose.

  • They are into peace, especially in the vicinity of the Nobel Center. I’m here for a humanist conference, and – recent events in Norway notwithstanding – it’s quite striking how the content and tone of dialogue with locals converges on trying to reconcile misunderstandings and resolve tensions. There is far less ego, or at least a different sort of ego. This congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union is being hosted at a reception by the Crown Prince tomorrow night, and the Mayor is also making an appearance at the conference dinner on Saturday. There are flags advertising our conference in the streets. Basically, they take this stuff seriously.

And then, outside of observations on Norway, there’s an embarrassing and (hopefully) humorous anecdote, which involved the Irish. But before I get to that: South African readers, if you think you have a drinking problem, you probably don’t. Because you’re not Irish. The one Irish delegate (implicated in the story I’m getting to) told me about how she and her friends drank vodka all day at school at the age of 16, from their ‘water’ bottles. And this was a head girl, from a middle-upper class background.

Anyway, I was chatting to Annie and her partner Aaron about God, Roy Keane (is that tautologous?) and assorted matters. Aaron wandered off to scrounge for coins to buy another beer. And then, while talking to Annie, I’m pretty darn sure I saw her raise her hand to the side of her face, wiggle her fingers and say “I’m up here”. That sequence of gestures is difficult to interpret as something else, one would think, and also difficult to misinterpret – it usually means “stop objectifying me by staring at my cleavage, you sexist boor”. Except I wasn’t, and hadn’t been.

This freaked me out. If you’ve watched Curb your Enthusiasm (the new series is great, by the way), you might have a sense of how utterly strange, and socially awkward, the next half-hour or so was. Because Aaron had returned, and it was another half-hour before he left, and I finally had the opportunity to resolve whether I was going to live with this misunderstanding, or “put it out there”.

I chose the latter path, and asked her whether she had wiggled her fingers, saying “I’m up here”. She looked at me as if I was alien, insane or both. I repeated the question, mimicking the gesture. Now she seemed convinced I was insane, which I might have exacerbated by saying “look, I realise I probably sound creepy now, but this is quite awkward and needs clarifying”. But she had no idea what I was talking about. And now there was this enormous elephant in the room, and I felt compelled to explain, again, what I thought I had seen – and of course what I perceived it to mean (the thing I may or may not have seen).

But bless the Irish – her quite straightforward response was “Ah, no. If you’d been doing that, I would just have slapped you or stormed off.” So then we got on with talking about Roy Keane, potatoes and so forth, with the discomfort slowly dissipating.

And now it’s Thursday, and the first phase of the visit (leadership training for secular humanist groups, at the IHEU) is over, with the conference proper starting tomorrow. I’ll be sending occasional updates on proceedings through the FSI Twitter account, and the usual motley collection of links and provocations via my account. Be careful out there.

Daily Maverick General Morality Politics

Racial nationalism and white guilt

Originally published in the Daily Maverick.

Samantha Vice argues (pdf) that whites should feel guilt over apartheid, and also that “blacks must be left to remake the country in their own way”, while whites should live as “quietly and decently as possible”, refraining from offering our views on the racial fractures in the South African experience. Her arguments merit a fuller discussion than I’ll offer here, but those readers who are sympathetic to my views on racism and identity politics will most likely agree that some intuitive opposition to these conclusions can be expected.

First, because framing a complicated situation in terms of clumsy (and in my view, uninformative nearly to the point of meaninglessness) categories such as “white” and “black” encourages an association between people who have nothing in common besides the arbitrary concentration of melanin in their skin. And second, because even if Vice is right that white people should feel guilt, how will anyone know that we feel this guilt, and how can we move past this guilt, unless we express it – thereby violating her preference for us to be silent?

Guilt, shame and regret are certainly part of a spectrum of appropriate responses to having done wrong, and it’s undeniable that a political and economic ruling class – exclusively white – treated black South Africans as a resource to be exploited, rather than as fellow human beings. But even during the worst days of apartheid, some people who were white in appearance were not white in beliefs or behaviour, and I can see little reason to insist that a person like Joe Slovo, for example, should be (or have been) required to feel guilty about his whiteness.

He could feel regret at being associated with other whites, of course. And more to the point, he could feel regret at the ease with which we fall into these binary oppositions of white shame and black anger, whereby the reality of individuals living in a system of economic asymmetry – with class divisions defined by race – is obscured via treating the proxy for class (here, race) as being the route to resolving inequality.

People are angry because they are poor and marginalised. They are not angry because they are black. And those who should feel shame are those who contribute to that inequality and oppression. Many of those people – most of those people – were white, but that’s no longer obviously the case, in that people like Julius Malema are currently doing a fine job of opportunistically exploiting the poor for personal gain.

This is not to say that an awareness of privilege is unimportant. But an awareness of the benefits one might have had (and perhaps in some sectors, continues to have) as a white person, or a male, does not have to invoke shame. What it can do is to inform your outlook and judgements, in that you can be more or less aware of how your assumptions are coloured by that privilege. Someone who is unaware of these biases could, for example, think that it’s (somehow) blackness that causes crime or lower pass-rates at school, rather than poverty or a legacy of unequal education.

Racial nationalism is not a route to eliminating racism. It perpetuates the notion that we are defined by arbitrary characteristics, and imprisons us in worldviews that prop up that notion. And of course, a rise in black nationalism will correlate with a rise in white nationalism, as evidenced by the lionisation of General de la Rey, the prominence of Afriforum, and last week, the assault on Professor Anton van Niekerk in his office at Stellenbosch University.

Prof. van Niekerk wrote an op-ed (in Afrikaans) discussing the musical “Tree Aan!”, which revolves around the lives of soldiers in the South African Border War of 1966 to 1989. His concern related to the Afrikaner nationalism expressed by the musical, and in particular, the way in which the Border War itself is being re-cast as a heroic battle against a communist onslaught rather than a battle to perpetuate white supremacy.

Abel Malan, a member of the Volksraad Selection Committee (VVK), an organisation that hopes to establish an Afrikaner homeland, arranged a meeting with van Niekerk on Tuesday morning. The meeting was ostensibly to discuss the article, but what ensued seems to have been less of a discussion, and more a violent reminder to van Niekerk of the consequences of betraying “his people”. Van Niekerk ended up with several bruises to his face, broken spectacles, and a fair amount of unsolicited interior decorating in his office.

The VVK and other sympathetic groups interpret the events differently. A spokesperson for the Verkenner (Pathfinder) movement claims that Malan was provoked by van Niekerk’s “patronising and insulting words about the Afrikaner”, and the VVK’s Ben Geldenhuys also suspects that van Niekerk “started yelling” at Malan, described as a “reasonable man”. But seeing as Malan apparently told SAPS officers that he “did the job” and an unnamed VVK member apparently said that “Stellenbosch doesn’t have enough security to protect Anton van Niekerk”, it doesn’t seem implausible that Malan was somewhat eager to consider himself provoked.

In one of the more peculiar responses, the website Praag tells us that the “fistfight … can be directly attributed to the division and intolerance which the Naspers monopoly has sown among Afrikaners”. It seems more likely that the assault is the result of Malan and his sympathisers being unwilling to live in a world in which – at least by their lights – their interests and culture are under threat. But this assault exposes the problem with racial nationalism and the politics of identity in general, in that it inclines toward intolerance and extremism.

As any of us who were around during all or some of the decades when the Border War was fought can attest, there was certainly no shortage of hysterical rhetoric regarding the “rooi gevaar”, and the possibility of their being a Communist behind every bush. However, this can’t be allowed to obscure the fact that legislated apartheid began two decades before the war in question, and that the war was precipitated by South Africa’s refusal to withdraw from South-West Africa (Namibia) as well as their implementation of apartheid legislation in that country.

So regardless of the good intentions of some soldiers in this conflict, it cannot easily – or perhaps even plausibly – be characterised as a noble battle to defend democracy and constitutionality from a Communist threat. This is because South Africa was no democracy at the time, and because it was fighting to keep imposing something equally undemocratic on South-West Africa. The fact that Cuba and the Soviets were involved in opposition to South Africa’s goals doesn’t transform those goals into noble ones. This is the message that van Niekerk was trying to convey, and the message that resulted in his attack.

Reading some of the responses to this incident leaves one quite despondent regarding the willingness of some South Africans to even attempt admission of past wrongdoings, or to participate in building a non-racial democratic country. Van Niekerk is a “Lippy Liberal” who has “met his match”, and “hopefully many more will follow”. The Pathfinder movement is “proud of the valour shown by its leaders”. The implausibly named Jéan-Paul Jéan-Jacques Louis-Pierre (which does turn out to be a pseudonym for Mattheus Lötter) asks whether any steps are going to be taken against van Niekerk, seeing as his letter is an “attack on the history of white students”.

Well, sure, it’s is an attack on your history, but that’s only because it’s “your” history rather than simply “history”. And while the actual history can be told in various ways, any honest retelling will expose shameful details regarding the actions of all the nations and political bodies involved. These honest retellings and the conversations that might ensue cannot be silenced, for doing so leaves us unable to move beyond racial nationalism. If anything, it moves us closer to dividing the country into various categories of “us” and “them”, each of those categories no more principled than the last.

So I think white people like Malan certainly should feel shame. Not because of anything to do with their being white, but because they feel compelled to shut their ears to civilised disagreement, and because they are willing to do harm to others upon hearing competing narratives regarding South Africa’s history. It is of course unlikely that he or his sympathisers are capable of shame in this regard, at least for the moment, and there’s little that I – a lippy liberal, no doubt, with Afrikaans heritage to boot – can say to make this point to them.

Except perhaps to say that I understand their fear of black nationalism, but only because I fear racial nationalism in all its forms. We are in the end only – and all – mere people, afraid that our futures might not meet our expectations. But any attempt to secure a prosperous and healthy future that begins with forcing others into silence is likely to fail, and to make us see enemies where they might not exist. There’s no shortage of real enemies, after all – and we find out who they are by talking to each other.