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 na├»ve. 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.