South Africa - Politics, Society, Culture

Monday, November 14, 2011

Taal debate at Stellenbosch a step backwards

The new South Africa?

I have been tracking developments among Afrikaners since 2001. With apartheid gone, I wondered where had the strong and powerful ethnic nationalism gone? After all, Afrikaners, as settlers in Africa, not only had brought us apartheid and devastating border wars in Angola and Mozambique, fought the mighty British Empire with its 400’000 troops on South African soil, but they also had created an imagined community and a cohesive nation within a short 20th. century. Where had all this concentrated ethno-nationalist might gone after it was clear that their Europe-in-Africa project was a pipedream that had brought much senseless pain and suffering to the African continent and its indigenous peoples? Nationalist and ethnic fervour - vanished into thin air? Yet, I also felt that Afrikaners, particularly young white Afrikaans speakers, got a bad rap in the media, in South Africa and abroad: they were usually described as somewhat remorseless, somewhat racist and still hankering after the bad old days of racial privilege.

Over the past years, I interviewed young Afrikaners and we talked about their lives, the past, what a possible future could look like, and how they related to black people. The diversity of opinions and life stories was huge; hence, it is difficult to write of ‘the Afrikaners’, as if it was one coherent group. Some were optimistic, some pessimistic, some racist, some anti-racist, some arch conservative, some left-wing progressive, and so on - you get the gist. Overall, there was a sense that things would be better, that a dismal past, with too many conflicts and confrontations could be overcome, and that they and the country would change for the better. Even the rather conservative Afrikaans newspapers carried a sense of possibilities. That was in 2005.

Now, in 2011, it is more than ever time to sober up. A new language war is taking place at Stellenbosch University and the self-anointed defenders of the Afrikaans language mobilise and insult with little compunction, occupying the Afrikaans media. They bemoan that hard earned tax money is not even used for education in their language (as if apartheid injustice did not help accumulate that money in the first place), their opponents are insulted and besmirched, even beaten up; yet, that seems all very normal – so much self-absorbed suffering by the volk seems to justify continued intolerance and self-righteous arrogance. The proven racist Dan Roodt, who claims that black men are somehow genetically prone to violence, now a member of the Freedom Front Plus party, is not censured: his musings get yet again published in the English and Afrikaans media. And the white and Afrikaans public does not see a problem with that. It is as if the political turmoil on the national stage is a licence to bring out the old discourse of the racial insult, a tradition we could do without.

Julius Malema is now the black man that any white person is allowed to hate – no false pretences required. It is as if the abdication of white political power serves as a justification for continued racism and exclusion. White minority status allows for apartheid melancholia and victim status. The spectre of black nationalism legitimizes white racism. Continued racial exclusion as cultural protection is justified by demagogic race baiting. It was and remains tit for tat. Whites who were happy to forgive with Mandela are now eager to fight back against Malema, by all means necessary.

Culture and language have replaced race. The language fighters at Stellenbosch are always fond of claiming that most Afrikaans speakers are black and that they support the defence of Afrikaans. If this is the case, why then are so few of these black Afrikaans speakers at Stellenbosch, enjoying their tertiary education in Afrikaans and why do they prefer to be taught in English?

In place of the necessary soul searching and how the need to understand how apartheid exclusion continues today, Afrikaners as a minority and as the implied victims of the black majority, are legitimized to defend ‘their’ culture (and their race). And so the past continues.

How could any true democrat be against language diversity? But trying to focus on language alone and ignoring how it is related to race is naïve. Believing that you can fight for your language and contribute to racial inclusiveness is plain wrong. Even among Afrikaans speakers, the question remains how inclusive is your white Afrikaans? Unless white Afrikaners start to listen to, to talk to, and to take black people seriously, to see them as people with whom they can empathise, they will continue in their self-absorbed nostalgia that inhibits the creation of a future, the country’s and foremost, their own.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Riding the train to Stellenbosch

I have been driving up and down the country around Cape Town since I moved here from Egoli in February. And indeed, a divided country it was and still is. It understand now why all the political analysts from the Cape region state that little has changed since democracy. More than ever, the view from Jozi is different. And the lieu commun, that black people in Cape Town need to go back to Jozi from time to time to remind themselves that they are black, also seems to make more sense now.

Usually I drive about three times a week from Cape Town via the University of the Western Cape in Bellville to Stellenbosch - the 60km ride is about a lifetime in social distance, to use the metaphor David Coplan uses to describe how communities are segregated.

The city centre of Cape Town must be about the most surveilled place in the Western Cape. Cameras and special guards are everywhere for 24hrs. And they frisk any black person who does not appear to work in the city. So usually young and black unemployed are their target for harassment and detention. True, beggars on Long Stree can be quite aggressive but turning a city centre into basically a no-go area for young black people who are not hell bent on indulging and spending their money smacks of racism, not to mention that it negates the achievement of a common democracy and any serious effort towards non-racialism. To add insult to injury, the Long Stree area is full of agencies who cater to young and hip Europeans, Northerners, or others, as long as they have the money, to come to South Africa for fun and work. Development work that is and they even pay for having the opportunity to volunteer and improve the lot of South Africans. Instead of giving opportunities to young black South Africans to get educated and earn a living, the city caters to foreigners to come here and work and help the "poor". One of the contradictions of global capitalism and in whose flow of money and people, Cape Town seems to have found its niche.

Cape Town has wonderful suburbs but they remain largely segregated. I wonder how a mixed family would want to live in this city. It seems impossible.

And Stellenbosch is about an island as it can be. The first few days I stayed there I always thought I was in my home country, Switzerland, so cleaned up, tidied up, so middle-class and so overflowing with young, rich white kids it was that I had to get used to it and understand that this is also a part of South Africa, and not another country.

So I was glad to take the opportunity last Friday morning to take a train to Stellenbosch, as I did for the last time about ten years ago when I stayed in Wynberg for 6 months. The train departed Cape Town station only 10 mins late and it took me 2 hrs from my home to my office. Not bad. The car ride usually takes 45 mins. Of course, there was also a sense of danger, as always when you are in public space in South Africa. And public transport also has a reputation of attracting dubious characters. So that was also the perverse thrill of taking the train, the excitement that comes with a feel, albeit limited and controlled, of danger. But what I enjoyed the most was that I could share the space, even for only a train ride, with a diverse crowd of people. An experience that is too seldom these days. On the way back, the train was delayed by about 90 mins. That was really a bummer. And I think it will take quite a while until I tak the train again.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Karl Polanyi and the 'too perfect paraphrase' plagiarism charge

Prompted by a seminar I attended at the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department at Stellenbosch University, I read Karl Polanyi's historical-anthropological account of the economy of the kingdom of Dahomey, an African state on the Gold Coast in the 17th. and 18th. centuries that was involved in the slave trade.

Polanyi's fame does not rest on this analysis of the "archaic" economy of an African state, but on his book 'The Great Transformation' which tells the story of the profound changes that made the economies of our modern world society. And foremost, it shows clearly that capitalist economies triumphed not against state intervention but because the modern state promoted it, by all means necessary. Totalitarianism emerged out of the failure of (too) free market capitalism.

In his account of Dahomey, Polanyi relies on earlier work by Melville J. Herskovits, a founding father of American Anthropology. Entire chapters appear to be based on the latter's research. Polanyi merely stated at the beginning of the chapter that the ensuing section was based on Herskovits, and that was it. Hardly any further references to Herskovits were made in the text though we can assume that it was all based on his work. The same referencing procedure appeared in 'The Great Transformation'.

His referencing style could have cost him his job a Wits University. Or so it seems after Prof. Abebe Zegeye had been found guilty of plagiarism at an internal disciplinary hearing and dismissed. Now, I do not intend to pronounce on the Wits affair. Rather, I am interested in the charge of 'too perfect a paraphrase' which seems to suggest, according to the Mail and Guardian article, that even though you indicate the source of your text at the beginning of a paragraph or section, yet you fail to indicate at every instance that you are paraphrasing, you commit plagiarism.

This kind of plagiarism may be accidental, based on sloppy and/or insufficient referencing rather than constituting an intentional act to deceive and present someone else's work as your own. Comparing it to how Germany's former Minister of Defense, Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, cut and pasted entire articles, reports, and other texts fully into his PhD thesis, without acknowledging the source, makes clear that they constitute qualitatively quite different acts of plagiarism.

Yet, based on the Wits disciplinary hearing, Polanyi would be guilty of plagiarism, and would be dismissed.

When I was an undergraduate student at Simon Fraser University, near Vancouver, every humanities and social sciences student had to take the course 'University Writing'. It was one of the toughest courses I ever took, and we were taught that every instance of using someone else's work, be it an idea or a direct quote, had to be marked clearly and we had to make reference to its "owner" at every instance.

Polanyi would not have passed this course, it seems to me.

Far from condoning plagiarism, I am asking the question what is today different from the 1930s to the 1950s, when Polanyi's work was published?

Is it that more writers resort to plagiarism? Are the lines between intentional plagiarism and accidents more blurred because of ever faster writing and reading technologies, and the sheer amount of material that is out there?

Or is it that because of the commercialization of ideas, because of intellectual and property rights, the encroachment of ownership issues and commercialization on any human activity, including thought, writing, and its dissemination, that a much more stringent regime of proper intellectual reading and writing is in effect today?

Friday, April 8, 2011

The new SAFM - on the mend

Great! I have been listening much to SAFM these days. And indeed, the station has improved. They found the right people to conduct interviews and grill the high and mighty in a sensible way.

However, they still have to improve their cultural programs. Most presenters there just do not match up with what they are talking about. Some have been there for too long; others failed to grow, and their book discussions are so limited as the fashionable poets that are more useful as corporate imbongis. If you want to give credit to artists, you need to have presenters who have the gravitas to talk about art in an illuminating way. However, they seem to be stuck between coffee-table-book-level idle talk or glorifying without qualification a new nation or emerging continent and its genius. Boring.

But then, the ANC does not appear to have any great ideas about arts and culture. Either it serves as propaganda or economic development. A hang-over from ill-digested Marxist theory according to which the arts is only superstructure in the service of capital?

There is already enough idle chit-chat on the airwaves and it would be nice if we had a station that aims to show our lives, with all its facets, joys and contradictions,and with new angles and does not just indulge in banalities.

Impressive with the new SAFM is how they give much airtime to fighting corruption. I hope though that this will continue, before a displeased master intervenes.

The worrisome aspect to this turn around however is the realisation how our public institutions are subjects to the whims of short sighted politicians and their struggles for power. Or, why had things to deteriorate to such a degree that the station had come back from the brink of meaninglessness? On the one hand, it is still not clear if the SABC is now governed properly. Also, what is the outcome of the judicial persecution of those managers who looted the SABC shamelessly? To let them off the hook, is that the price we pay for having a better station now and less overbearing political influence?

Some things you hear on the station is really astonishing. At some point in time, the station's motto was "for the well informed". One critique said that this smacked of racism and showed a pandering to white audiences. Now, for quite a while, the motto is "South Africa's information leader". Is that really an improvement? Is the focus on leadership less racially biased? I would like to know how the station's listenership has changed or not.

Maybe the word 'leader' shows the ambition to be more socially relevant, in tune with a developing state that marshalls all resources for development. But that should not allow for abusing language as they do. While the call for collecting money to help flood victims is sensible, the advert is just stomach turning. "Charity is the noblest of our human sentiments because it cuts across differences", or so goes the jingle. The glib reference to multiracial nation-building is at least as bad as beer commercials showing off black and white labourers and their muscles, or the gruesome steretoypes about happy black families, and the 'nice' white couple that is not afraid to visit 'the locals'....

Charity is a human sentiment that just does that...make us human. But those on the receiving end of charity would be better served by human institutions that reduce the need for charity. A functioning state, officials who do their job and organise emergency relief if needed, an economic system that serves all people equally, now that sounds to me much better than charity.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

the poverty of the airwaves

There is much talk about 5FM deejay Gareth Cliff these days and his rantings about failings of government, a black government that is. Now, judging from my listening to South African radio, deejays are being paid for ranting. Lets face it. Commercialisation was very bad for the airwaves in this country. The intelligence of deejays and what they say is simply appaling. It does not matter which radio station you tune in, the stupidity of them all hits you right in they eye. At least that is what I hear on English language radio, I only hope is that it is better on African language and Afrikaans radio; please let me know about it.

Cliff makes stupid jokes at the expense of others. This is what his listeners like. Just rant on about this ugly man or that stupid woman or whatever - this is what his listeners like, black and white. Another DJ on the same station whose name eludes me talked about girlie men having the same interest as women in a music band. Another jabb at some people, here gays and lesbians, just for fun. Ha, ha, very funny,

So in my view, it is not so much about Cliff being racist by ranting on about the government. If all ranting white South Africans were doing it because they were racist, then there would indeed be no hope for the country: all whites would then appear to be racist.

I do think however that many racists will find confirmation of their views about black incompetence and black and African failure in his rantings. But what about the black people who like his stuff - his rantings about the government and his gutter humour? Self-hating blacks?

No, the rampant commercialisation of public life seems to me the better explanation for the poverty of the airwaves. Or perhaps political interference and expediency. When I first came to South Africa, I listened a few hours daily to SAFM - it had high calibre hosts, and broadcast intelligent, challenging and smart shows. Now, there is not one station I am listening to. Radio is no longer a medium for news and information. I tried to switch to 702, but please, if Redi Direko and John Robbie are considered the intellectuls of the airwaves, then you know that radio has ceased to exist as a medium for intelligent conversation.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The end of non-racialism?

At the ANC’s General National Council in Durban, Secretary General Gwede Mantashe called for a renewed effort to gain the support of minorities for the ruling party. He said that support for the ANC among white communities had been on the increase since 2004, and that an outreach programme “was used to engage communities that have worked against or were not close to the ANC historically.” He particularly mentioned Indian and Coloured communities that required a differentiated approach. Mantashe had made this call for inclusiveness several times over the past year. However, the more he does so, the less credible his claim that the party is still the political home for all South Africans. Listening to older generation anti-apartheid activists talking about non-racialism, one is struck by the sense of nostalgia that it evokes – the once celebrated ideal that aspired to overcome race and that heldped garnering support around the world for the struggle against apartheid seems to have fallen by the wayside.

The dominant tendency within the governing party is away from non-racialism - free reign is given to African nationalism, celebrating and extolling the triumph of the advancement of the black African. The ANC youth, with plenty of nationalist fervour, is leading the way. For the young and dynamic, black, well educated or well connected, the future is promising. Without any direct experience of the perniciousness and divisiveness of racial and ethnic mobilisation, the African nationalist youth seizes the opportunities for personal advancement. In their thirst for power and enrichment, they have no qualms about playing the race or ethnic card. Theirs is a congregation of the ambitious, with little insight in, and even less desire to examine, the promises of a non-racial society. With their political experience confined to post-apartheid student politics, leaders such as Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu see non-racialism as a mere slogan, perhaps as a tactical tool that uses minorities to gain power.

The ANC is turning into an ordinary political party, devoid of the moral imperative of a liberation movement that wanted to create a better and more just society. As a nationalist party, the ANC is now the party that serves the enrichment of a self-styled patriotic bourgeoisie. Looking northwards, across our borders and back in time, it is déjà-vu all over again. After the wave of anti-colonial liberation that had swept across Africa in the 1960s, kleptocratic elites, under the guise of national mobilisation, ruined their societies. Nationalist rhetoric celebrated the suffering, struggle and triumph of the oppressed, while state and society were being looted for personal enrichment. Then and now, race and ethnicity is mobilized to divide and rule.

The current practices of Black Economic Empowerment and Employment Equity maintain race awareness without contributing enough to empower black people. For instances, to overcome the mental and material legacy that apartheid’s white supremacists had left behind, non-racial employment equity policies, based on class, would have suited South Africa well. It would have allowed for black empowerment without praising the virtues of race, as race and class did, and to a large extent still do, overlap so dramatically. Employment equity policies that support the poor would uplift primarily black people without excluding poor white people, an important symbolic act in a non-racial and caring society that aims to comfort all those left behind. However, employment equity as we encounter it today is arbitrary, legitimizes race thinking and serves as a rallying cry for black nationalists. It is surprising how quickly non-racialism turned into an empty promise. In a diverse and divided society as South Africa is, non-racialism is a symbol for a civic nationalism which establishes the South African nation as a home for all, no matter their race or ethnicity. In contrast, ethnic nationalism privileges one race or ethnicity over others. Last year’s outcry by black nationalists at the appointment of Gill Marcus, a white woman and stalwart of the anti-apartheid struggle, as Governor of the Reserve Bank, is just another indicator how ordinary the bankrupt rhetoric of nationalist mobilisation and race talk has become.
A few years ago, one could remain optimistic that the ruling party was finding a compromise between African nationalism and liberal constitutionalism. After all, such was required if the majority of South Africans was to have a better life. This is no longer the case. Self-enrichment is what defines the ANC today. Just look at the party’s youth, the future of the country?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Afrikaner Afrikaan, a documentary film by Rina Jooste, 2009

I attended the screening of Afrikaner Afrikaan, a documentary film that dealt with Afrikaner identity at the Encounters Film Festival in Johannesburg. The audience at the Bioscope Theater in the centre of the city, a hip place with an ‘indie’ feel and which will hopefully one day develop into a real Cinémathèque, was dominantly white and Afrikaner which made me wonder whether black South Africans had already given up on their white compatriots and did not expect much from the film and the discussion with the author and two of its protagonists.

In the documentary, two opposing perspectives on Afrikaner identity square off against each other. There are those who want to turn away from Afrikaner exclusive ethnicity and nationalism, and try to find new ways ‘of being’ in a diverse country. They are quarreling with those who believe Afrikaners should be proud of themselves, their culture and history, and did not need anyone’s approval and sympathy. While the former see themselves as opening up to the ‘Other’, embracing Africa and black people, the latter call for the defense of Afrikaners, their language and culture.

The former are represented by Deon Maas, a media personality, and Johrné van Huyssteen, from the pop-rock band Ddisselblom. Both were in attendance. The ‘ethnicists’ or ‘culturalists’ are represented by Sean Else who rose to prominence as the producer behind singer Bork Van Blerk and his hit song De La Rey, a celebration of a South African War General, and the Blut und Boden musical Ons vir jou, a nostalgic tour the force of Afrikaner history and culture; in short, the stuff of which nationalism is made of.

In the film, Else denied that he wanted to indulgence in right-wing nostalgia but argued that Afrikaners should be proud of themselves - in the same way that Zulus were. He said that he was looking a black man in the eye with pride; in contrast, Johrné would try to avoid the black man’s eyes, and turn away in shame and guilt. So ja, it is then all about how Afrikaners are today relating to black people and this sought-after audience was absent.

Another question that came up was whether musicians who celebrated the Afrikaner past and Afrikaner heroes were doing it for the money or if they were truly indulging in historical revisionism and rightwing politics. I suspect that both go together – celebrating the Afrikaner past puts bums on seats and sells CDs. After all, over decades of Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid, Afrikaners indulged this kind of ‘cultural’ national chauvinism, and it surely meets a consumer demand.

For Maas, Van Huyssteen, and author Jooste, the ‘De La Rey’ song was an example of the resurgence of nationalist exclusion and even racism among Afrikaners. That was made clear in the ensuing discussion. The general mood in the audience seemed that Else’s productions were an expression of a rising ethnic mobilization, even racism among Afrikaners. Only one young member of the audience argued that a liking for nostalgic music was not necessarily an endorsement of a right-wing and racist agenda.

In my own research, I came across the same ambivalence: attempts to appreciate, even salvage the past, no matter how tainted it is, go together with feelings of shame, awkwardness over racism and abuse in the name of Afrikaners. So a celebration of Afrikaner culture and ethnicity is not necessarily a yearning for white supremacy and racist apartheid. Nostalgia is an attempt to relate the past to the present. Yet, the question remains. Will nostalgia help Afrikaners to find a new pride in their history to become part of the new South Africa, as Else would have it? Or is the danger real that nostalgia for an honorable, Afrikaner past, one that ignores the abyss of white supremacy and apartheid domination, leads to racism in the present?

The irony of the South African post-colony is that the position of the progressive ones, Maas and Van Huyssteen, had been strongly criticized by black South African intellectuals. In one of his songs, Van Huyssteen sings of the white colonial immigrant who falls in love with a black woman. By doing so, he is claiming black African ancestry for himself and Afrikaners. Such claim of black ancestry, and its socio-political usage in contemporary South Africa has been rejected as an attempt to bury history and unproblematically claim adherence and belonging to an Africa and Africans that until recently were denigrated.

The same irony was at play when Maas was responding to a question that addressed the work of artist Anton Kannemeyer and his recent publication Pappa in Afrika. Maas supported the work and said it was the best contemporary satire in South Africa, even better than what renowned cartoonist Zapiro, had done. In a recent feature article in the Mail and Guardian weekly newspaper, Khwezi Gule, curator at the Hector Peterson Museum in Soweto, had criticized Kannemeyer for perpetuating racism under the guise of art that was supposed to shock and challenge stereotypes and racism. While the celebration of folkloric pride and ethnic identity, if not chauvinism, amongst Afrikaners and Zulus appears to have been endorsed by President Jacob Zuma, debates among progressives how Afrikaners can belong to an African South Africa, are far from achieving a similar consensus.

Despite all the risks associated with it, more discussions on identity, the past, and inclusiveness are desirable - across the colourline.,,752-801_2214403,00.html