Saturday, May 22, 2004

More shocking photos from Iraq of US abuse of prisoners. At first I thought, rather naively, that this was probably a few people who got out of hand. But there're just so many photos. And these are only the incidents that were photographed. What about all the stuff that they didn't bother to take photos of? (I assume that taking photos of torture was an occasional "extra" rather than being routine, which leads me to suspect that actual incidents of torture must outnumber the photos quite significantly.) No, it seems pretty obvious that this was, or is, a systemic problem. Sooner or later there will, I suspect, have to be some high-profile resignations.

Interesting -- Amnesty International is opposing the extradition of the alleged mercenaries to Equatorial Guinea, on the basis that they are likely to be subjected to torture, not have fair trials and will probably face the death penalty. This is developing into an interesting test of the ANC's commitment to human rights. After all, rights should be accorded to everyone, even those whom we don't like (or, perhaps, especially those whom we don't like). So, will the ANC take a principled approach and oppose the extradition? Or are they likely to stay silent, with the result that this will probably end in an messy court confrontation?

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Sometime ago I posted a link to an article by Rian Malan in which he appraised ten years of democracy in South Africa. It was an intensely personal piece, and it ended by declaring his bewilderment at the fact that things hadn't ended worse in South Africa. He concluded the article by saying -- controversially -- "thank you", and was quoted by Mbeki in his state of the nation address.

Evidently someone at the Washington Post was intrigued by this because they've published a lengthy article on Malan. It seems that he's not in a good way, and appears to be suffering from depression. I'm not going to go into details; read it and make up your own mind. If you're interested you can find the article here. (Thanks to Meredith for pointing this out.)

I don't have much to add to this except BRILLIANT! Well done South Africa on winning the 2010 soccer world cup.

Cherryflava supplies cool pictures.

Friday, May 14, 2004

JM Coetzee
Is anyone out there interested in JM Coetzee?

Sometime ago I came across this article by Gertrude Makhaya in the Oxonian Review of Books, a kind of in-house journal, called "The Trouble with JM Coetzee."

The trouble, she says, is Coetzee's novel Disgrace, for which he won the Booker. In essence, she argues, Disgrace fails to acknowledge the miracle of South Africa's negotiated transition. Instead, the novel depicts South Africa through the eyes of David Lurie, a racist white man, who is quite possibly Coetzee himself. Furthermore, by depicting a violent attack on Lurie and his daughter by three black men, during which Lucy is raped, Coetzee is possibly deliberately fuelling white racist views about black savagery. All of this means that appreciation of Coetzee's work is complicated in South Africa. Unlike other South African Nobel prize-winners, he appears sympathetic to racism and does not share a love for and belief in the country.

I tend to think that a lot of this is off the mark, most notably the suspicion that Coetzee is a racist. So I've sent the following letter to the journal for publication. Unfortunately, I had a word limit so I wasn't able to say everything I wanted to.

In "The Trouble with JM Coetzee" Gertrude Makhaya raises a number of important points about Disgrace, of which I would like to comment on two in particular.

The first is the possibility that David Lurie, the character through whose eyes Disgrace is narrated, is Coetzee, or that Coetzee is hiding behind Lurie to propagate distasteful views about South Africa. If one wants to find Coetzee in his own fiction, then the obvious place to look is, however, not Disgrace, but Elizabeth Costello. Furthermore, Disgrace invites us to view Lurie critically. Throughout much of the novel he is presented as a selfish individual, who does not appreciate the harm that he does. Only gradually does he gain an imaginative insight into the suffering of others. Disgrace does not, in other words, invite us to endorse all of Lurie's views.

Secondly, Makhaya raises the concern that, in Disgrace, Coetzee is purposefully fuelling racist white fears about black savagery, most notably through his depiction of an attack upon Lurie and his daughter, Lucy, by three black men, during which Lucy is raped. We should recall, however, that, in the first part of the novel, Lurie rapes one his students, a young women of mixed-race. The black rapists might care little about the consequences of their actions, but neither does Lurie. Once again, this makes it difficult to argue that Coetzee is promoting the view that blacks are intrinsically savage, whereas whites are not.

That is not to say, however, that Disgrace is uncontroversial. Elizabeth Lowry has argued that Lurie's paternalistic relationships with women of mixed-race can be identified with British colonialism. By the end of the novel, however, a new patriarch has emerged in the form of Petrus, Lucy's black business partner, who appears to have facilitated her rape. In this way, Disgrace is pessimistic, for it suggests that, once patterns of violent disregard for individual life are established, they are unlikely to be broken by political transition. Makhaya is right to point us in the direction of this important discussion. But it should not be conducted on terms that elide Disgrace's complexity, or which accuse Coetzee of simple racism.

Any comments?

On a personal note I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Disgrace and think that, like most of Coetzee's work, it's superb.

The review of Disgrace by Elizabeth Lowry is, by the way, also excellent. But, unfortunately, there seems to be a problem with the web-site I got it from at the moment. I will post a link when it becomes available again.

UPDATE: The Elizabeth Lowry review of Disgrace is available here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Oh, and before I forget, after the much ballyhooed revamp of Blogger we've taken the leap and changed the template.

So, whaddya think?

Farrel Lifson notes that the ANC is to take control of SCOPA (Standing Committee on Public Accounts). Should we worry about this? He thinks not, arguing that a number of NGO's monitor parliament and should help provide accountability.

I agree with him up to a point but am vaguely dismayed at the notion that we must now rely on NGO's to provide a service which really ought to come from within parliament itself. We know that the ANC wants to get its hands on 'all the levers of power' and now it seems that they also want to make sure that we can't see what they're doing with that power.

So this is why I'm having difficulty completing my dissertation.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Does the South African government have an obligation to protect nationals abroad? If, for example, the alleged mercenaries currently held in Zimbabwe will face an unfair trial if extradited to Equatorial Guinea, should the government intervene to protect them?

So far the South African government has argued that it has no such obligation. This, they have argued, is a matter falling solely with the sovereign rights of Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea. Therefore it will not intervene.

Interestingly, however, the issue of whether the South African Constitution obliges the government to offer diplomatic protection to nationals abroad is currently before the High Court. And if the High Court finds that there is such a duty, then it might well mean -- as this article points out -- that the government should intervene if the alleged mercenaries cannot be guaranteed a free and fair trial abroad (which might well be the case in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea).

It goes without saying that, if a duty of diplomatic protection is established -- and I've got a sneaking suspicion that it will be -- then the authority of the South African courts will be severely tested. Imagine the Constitutional Court ordering that the South African government should request the extradition of these men back to South Africa, against the will of Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea and, quite possibly, the South African government itself.

Why would this be a problem? Because, on the one hand, Mbeki's African renaissance is, as Andrew has pointed out, all about demonstrating that African nations can do things for themselves (hence, the reluctance of the South African government to intervene); but, on the other, the rule of law is supposedly central to Nepad. Interesting days indeed...

Monday, May 10, 2004

Have the DA been spinning the election results? ZA Blogger thinks so. Laurence Caromba disagrees.

I'm afraid I'm inclined to agree with ZA Blogger on this, Laurence. More when I have a bit of free time.

Nelson Mandela has bid his farewell to Parliament. BBC has the story.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

My post last week about the South African literary canon caused a minor controversy in the comments section. This centred around my claim that Afrikaners have failed to produce a literature to match those of their counterparts who write in English.

I stand by the claim and would add that anybody who seriously doubts it would do well to remember that much of the Afrikaans intellectual establishment was intimately, and uncomfortably, associated with the ruling social and political elite. Indeed the interwar period is most notable for the push to get Afrikaans recognised and established as a language in its own right. One of the primary vehicles for the achievement of this goal was the secretive Broederbond organisation, a body who numbered most of the Afrikaans world's leading intellectuals and artists amongst its members. Even after the war it was rare for Afrikaans artists to openly criticise the establishment and those that did often chose to write in English instead or emerged comparatively recently. I should also point out that the Apartheid state was remarkably efficient at preventing the establishment of an open and non-political space in which serious art could develop. The banning of books, music and film and the funding of state sanctioned art all played a role in shaping and directing the development of Afrikaans art and writing. Is it any wonder, for instance, that the only discernable architectural vernacular to emerge was a sort of modernist apartheid brutalism. Think of all those imposing (and bland) N G Kerk buildings or the ultimate in apartheid art, the Voortrekker monument (and yes I know it was designed before 1948).

There is more to be said on this issue and for that point you to Abiola Lapite.

Andrew's Day Off
Yesterday a couple of friends and I took a few hours out of our academic schedules to indulge a shared interest in modern art and architecture. First stop was Modern Art Oxford, the former Museum of Modern Art (apparently 'museum' gives off all the wrong signals). The gallery is one of my favourite exhibition spaces in England. It's small enough not to be intimidating and it consistently manages to get the most interesting, and controversial, of Britain's current crop of artists. Amongst recent exhibitions have numbered Tracey Emin, the Chapman Brothers and South Africa's own David Goldblatt.

We were there yesterday to see a new sculptural installation by Turner Prize nominee, Mike Nelson. The piece consisted of a series of small interconnecting rooms, at once claustrophobic and very disturbing. My friend commented that it was like being in a David Lynch film, perhaps Isabella Rossellini's apartment in Blue Velvet. I was reminded of the unsettling feeling when reading a Borges short story, vertigo as the real and fictional worlds blur around you. This was my first experience of this sort of 'interactive' installation art and I was surprised by just how strong an impression it made on me. Nelson apparently specialises in finding the unusual or uncomfortable in the normally mundane. Previous works have been set in aircraft cabins and army tents, with his current moving between a theatre lobby, an artist's work room and a mine shaft in a desert. On the strength of yesterday's viewing he is somebody to be watched.

After seeing Nelson we climbed into the car for the 45 min drive up the M40 to Birmingham. Although it's officially Britain's second largest city, Birmingham sticks in mind because I've never met anybody who's been to it. Or come from it. Nor have any of my friends. This in itself was probably a good enough reason for the visit but in fact we were drawn there to see something quite specific, namely the new Selfridges store and the Bullring shopping centre of which it forms the most visually arresting part. Actually, 'visually arresting' is something of an understatement. The structure is one of the most unusual and memorable I've seen. Not so much building as a vast billowing cloud whose gentle curves and surface studded with aluminium plates make it seem almost organic. There are no windows set into the exterior and only a few entrances cut into the sides but the effect is not to withhold or barricade so much as to suggest that this is a natural part of the landscape. Something exuded or extruded. The interior is no less interesting than the exterior and appeared to derive from some uber chic fusion of 70s retro and 90s minimalism. The act of shopping seemed to have been elevated to a form of high art. Or religion. As if to confirm this last thought, the only other building of note in an otherwise uninteresting immediate environment was a gothic church.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Cherryflava has some great photo's chronicling his evening at a wine tasting. As a part-time wine-taster I can attest that they definitely capture the experience. Check them out.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

The enduring value of My Traitor's Heart
Does My Traitor's Heart, by Rian Malan, have enduring value? I ask this question because Andrew has suggested that it might not have, largely because it expresses the fears and hopes of a very particular period of South African history (just prior to the 1994 elections). Possibly, he says, it will quickly become dated, if it hasn't already.

I read My Traitor's Heart for the first time recently, partly with this question in mind. And I have to say that I think the book still does have value and will continue to have for some time yet.

Why? Well, a few reasons. Firstly, there's no doubt that it captures the mood of one of the most pivotal periods of our history extremely well. For that, it will be worth reading for some time. Secondly, I found the history fascinating. The story that Malan tells at the beginning, about how one of his relatives fled from the Cape with a coloured slave-girl, crossed the Kei River, and then resurfaced in the Slagtersnek rebellion is one of the most compelling that I've read for some time.

More fundamentally, though, I don't think that Malan's underlying themes -- inter-racial distrust and violence -- have dated at all. True, he might have feared being murdered in his bed post-94, but how many of us still don't fear violent crime when we're in South Africa? Sadly, violence -- black on white, white on black, black on black etc -- remains a settled feature of South African cultural life. The question for his generation might have been how to find the courage to end apartheid, but it seems to me that the question for many of my contemporaries is whether to make their lives in South Africa at all. And the sort of factors that made Malan fear the future in 1992 seem to me to be very similar to those that are prompting young South Africans to leave now.

Apart from this, he also brilliantly captures just how little most South Africans have in common, something that has not changed all that much. The episode that comes to mind in the book is the trial of Simon, aka the "hammerman", a serial killer in Eshowe. At a certain point in his trial Simon emits a world-weary groan that Malan, being the liberal journalist, interprets as an indictment of apartheid. But, after trapsing through the hills of Natal with an interpreter, he eventually realises that Simon was lamenting, not apartheid, but a feature of his past that is almost incomprehensible to an outsider to Zulu culture. Given that I grew up in KwaZulu-Natal, but speak only a few words of Zulu, I could relate to this quite well.

There's also the question of how to live as a white person in Africa. Do you look back to Europe and seek your values and inspiration from there? Or do you open yourself to the society around you? Or do you do a bit of both? These questions remain pertinent and it seems to me that they are brilliantly compressed in the final chapters of Malan's book, when he tells the story of a white couple that seek to live amongst rural Zulus. For those who haven't read the book, I won't disclose the details. But it is disturbing. The question Malan seems to ask himself is whether he has caught a glimpse of South Africa's future, one that does not full him with hope. And it seems to me that many white South Africans will, when reading this story now, ask themselves the same question about their futures.

So, no, I don't think that My Traitor's Heart has dated. Instead, I think it remains a brilliantly written and searingly honest account of the contradictions of being white in Africa. It definitely deserves its place in the South African canon.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

My 15 minutes of fame
Some time ago, I posted a few comments about a talk I attended by some of the Guantanamo Bay defence lawyers. The gist of their talk was that the tribunals would not amount to fair trials. Today, much to my surprise, I see that my post has been (briefly) quoted in a story in the New York Times. Fame at last! Well, at least for today...

Yup, Murray as I've mentioned in the past my solution is to boycott the whole of Europe until this ridiculousness changes.

The EU has its rules and I have mine. But I should tell you that these people are really starting to irritate me.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Visa rant
One of my goals while sojourning in the UK has been to see more of Europe. Alas, like so many goals that I have set myself, this one has gradually unravelled. The reason? Getting a schengen visa on a South African passport, from the UK, resembles some sort of perverse obstacle course. Those of you who have tried will know what I'm talking about. I won't bore you with all of the details, but I would like to mention a few that really get under my skin.

- You're meant to have proof of your travel arrangements (flights, accommodation etc). But you're also advised that you might not be issued with a visa and that you therefore shouldn't book anything.
- You're meant to have proof of accommodation. This means persuading a hotel or hostel to fax or e-mail you a confirmation. This necessitates lengthy international phone-calls, usually to budget hotels that are unenthusiastic about doing this sort of thing. In fact, often you end up picking a hotel because they're willing to confirm your booking. The situation is worse if you're staying with a friend. Then this person is meant to secure a document from a local government official.
- If you have less than three months left on a student visa you can't travel in Europe at all. Given that most students travel in the summer, often before going home, many are unwittingly prevented from doing so because they don't know about this qualification.
- You have to book an appointment at a consulate in London. Often there is a waiting list of over a month. This removes all the spontaneity from travel.

All of this means that hopping over the channel to France, for even a few days, begins to resemble a military operation that must be planned months in advance if disappointment is to be avoided. Canadians, Brits and Americans, in contrast, simply flash their passports and stroll through.

This brings me to the real question -- is all of this necessary? Switzerland allows South Africans to travel visa-free, without any apparent problems. And the US is willing to issue South Africans with ten-year multiple entry visas. One might cite South Africa's unemployment rate, and fears of economic migrancy, but I notice that the good people of Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala, to give just a few examples, don't require visas. While not knowing much about these places, I don't imagine that they all have booming economies. Interestingly, I notice that no African countries qualify for visa-free travel. As always, it seems, we've all been tarred with the same brush.

This will be worth watching. The MDC is to go to court in a bid to force Mbeki to hand over a report compiled by two South African judges -- Dikgang Moseneke and Sisi Khampepe -- in the run-up to the last Zimbabwean elections, detailing conditions in the country (presumably under the access to information provisions of the Bill of Rights). Of course, if the report says that conditions were adequate for a free and fair election, then it will be rather embarrassing for the MDC (especially since they seem to be talking up the report's independence and credibility). If, on the other hand, its critical, then questions will have to asked about Mbeki's commitment to democracy, given that the report was written for his benefit, and given that he's never publicly questioned the legitimacy of Mugabe's leadership. Either way, its likely to be messy...

The Economist has some good things to say about Joburg in its Cities Guide (an excellent way to waste time, I might add):

Efforts to renovate downtown Johannesburg continue. A combination of public and private spending is rejuvenating the area, and developers are transforming stately old buildings into luxury lofts. New shops, cafes and car parks continue to spring up. Game, a department store that fled the city during the downturn, is back. There are even plans for the country's first presidential library to open here, as well as a Hyatt Hotel to replace a former mortuary. In March, the Constitutional Court, South Africa's highest, relocated downtown, near some run-down apartment blocks.

Some still worry about serious crime. One of the country's best-known musicians, Gito Baloi, was shot dead on April 4th while driving at night through the city. Muggings and petty crime remain a problem, but violent crimes, such as rape, murder and carjackings, have declined by 90% in recent years, according to Tshepo Nkosi of the Johannesburg Development Agency, as reported in the Chicago Tribune. Visitors may be comforted by the sight of closed-circuit cameras throughout the city. But most professionals, when asked about the city's most pressing problem, cite not crime but parking.

Of course, not knowing much about Joburg, I can't verify any of this. Maybe the boys from Commentary can lend a hand?

Monday, May 03, 2004

The South African Canon
In response to this I had thought to compile my own list of canonical books. I've since thought better of it, not least because I doubt that my reading is sufficiently wide to have exposed me to enough of the great authors. Instead, I'm going to try and compile the definitive South African Canon. Before doing that though, I need to register a few qualifications.

Firstly, I haven't actually read everything on the list but I do feel that I have a passing familiarity with most of it by a process of immersion. Which is to say that I've read about them, watched them performed as plays, participated in discussions in which they were mentioned etc. Nevertheless, it's likely that I've missed people who should be there and included some who shouldn't.

Second, I've only included books which are available in English. This has the peculiar effect of allowing me to include black writers but having to exclude most Afrikaans writers. I'm fairly sanguine about this since, and I realise this is controversial, I don't think that Afrikaners have produced a literature that compares to their English speaking compatriots. Not terribly surprising this. Good literature often stands in opposition to the prevailing political and socio-economic order. The most fecund creative spaces exist on the margin of mainstream society and the writer as revolutionary, appropriating such spaces and using them to invert or interrogate the natural order of things, is a powerful figure in the collective mind. This seems to have been easier for English writers since they were less emotionally committed to apartheid.

Finally, its worth noting the most glaring omission on the list. Not the lack of Afrikaans writers but the scarcity of black writers. The reasons for this should be obvious. Literacy was confined initially to a mission educated elite and then expanded but dumbed down under Bantu Education. The task of surviving in the townships and homelands must also have taken its toll on the creative energy of aspiring black writers. It's also worth re-iterating a point that I once heard Martin Amis make with reference to women writers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Successful writing requires the self-confidence that stems from believing that you have the right to express yourself. I don't doubt that there were numerous cases in the past of aspiring black writers who did possess the necessary literary confidence but the point is that the occasions when the number of such people were sufficient to constitute a self-conscious literary community are few and far between. It's certainly not true that good writing only emerges when a certain critical mass of writers has been reached but it does seem to facilitate the process. Think of the Bloomsbury movement (whose effects we can still detect on today's writers), the incredible number of great novels that came out of inter war Paris etc etc. Black writing in SA has had a few such moments, think of the writers and writing associated with Drum magazine in the 50s (the so-called Drum decade) but the apartheid state hardly viewed these blossomings with equanimity and they were usually squeezed out of existence. What this all means of course is that SA is still awaiting its great black novel and, by extension, its great novel. South African literature will not have overcome the legacies of apartheid until it is able to claim a black writer to match or exceed the likes of Coetzee. I'm looking forward to watching a new generation of black writers strive for that title. So without any further delay, I present an arbitrary list of canonical South African writing.

Olive Schreiner - The Story of an African Farm (The first great novel to come out of South Africa and also one of the first overtly feminist novels.)
H Rider Hagard - King Solomon's Mines (Not usually classed as a South African novel, I include it because Rider Hagard lived for many years in South Africa - in Newcastle where I grew up).
Sarah Millin - God's Stepchildren
Alan Paton - Cry the Beloved Country
Roy Campbell - Various collected works of poetry (Possibly the first South African poet to achieve international recognition)
Herman Charles Bosman - Collected Works
Es'kia Mphahlele - Down Second Avenue, Voices in the Whirlwind (One of a number of writers who got started at Drum magazine)
Jack Cope - Short stories
Guy Butler - Karoo Morning, Selected Poems (I had the pleasure of meeting Prof Butler several years ago and was incredibly impressed by his sense of humour and humility whilst surrounded by a bunch of fawning young acolytes)
Bessie Head - Maru
Alex La Guma - Time of the Butcherbird
Laurens van der Post - A Story Like the Wind (van der Post is one of the most extraordinary figures to come out of South Africa. Chronicler of the Kalahari Bushmen, friend of Carl Jung, godfather to Prince Charles, farmer, soldier, prisoner of war etc etc)
Athol Fugard - Boesman and Lena, Master Harold and the Boys
Miriam Tlali - Between Two Worlds
Nadine Gordimer - The Conservationist, July's People
Andre Brink - A Dry White Season (Brink is a lecturer at UCT and I once had the good fortune of having him lecture my English class on Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians)
Breyten Breytenbach - The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist
Dalene Matthee - Kringe in die Bos (Translated as Circles in the Forest)
Richard Rive - Buckingham Palace District Six
J. M. Coetzee - Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K, Disgrace
Rian Malan - My Traitor's Heart (Malan is the finest chronicler of white anxiety in SA but I wonder whether we'll laugh at this book in 20 years time)
Zakes Mda - Ways of Dying
Zoe Wicomb - You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town

This is by no means comprehensive and I'll add authors as the mood takes me. Feel free to comment if you disagree or feel that I've made any egregious errors.

The Ora
For those wanting to know more about Orania's new currency, Cherryflava has been doing a bit of investigative work and has managed to uncover a picture of it.

Meanwhile for those curious about the future prospects of the 'Ora', Abiola Lapite devotes a lengthy post to the likely outcome. His conclusion: adopting the Ora will lead to the gradual impoverishment of the Oranians.

Finally, in order to try and judge just how important the Orania movement really is I decided to find out how many people have actually moved there. I was expecting it to be several thousand. Certainly, if the number of newspaper inches devoted to the movement is anything to go by it was not unreasonable to expect that it had fairly wide support. In fact, as this BBC story reports the total population of Orania is 600. This is fringe stuff and should not cause any concern for the rest of us.