Category: Books

Does blackness have a heart?

JOE SLOVO, David Webster, Neil Aggett, Harold Wolpe, Michael Lapsley, Ruth First, Helen Joseph, Lionel Bernstein, Beyers Naude, Bram Fischer, Trevor Huddleston, Peter Hain, just some of the many activists classified as white by the apartheid government, and yet also instrumental in its downfall.

In today’s revisionist climate, the contributions of such persons, many of whom lost their lives, were imprisoned or tortured by the racist regime, have been brushed aside, conveniently forgotten, all but removed from history, or relegated to marginalia by a new wave of critics. If they are remembered at all, then their contributions are cast as meaningless and trivial to a new black agenda.

Bongani Madonda’s jaundiced communiqué written following the intervention of author Lauren Beukes in a spat at the Franschhoek literary festival over recently released apartheid war criminal (and erstwhile autobiographer), Eugene De Kock   is but one example. “Whiteness,” he opines “with its reasonable blacks, will remain whiteness to the majority of black folks who cannot even afford a book, let alone be invited to a book event teeming with whiteness,”he says.

Madonda’s communiqué  upon further investigation, appears as much a critique directed at the festival, as to its participants, than the particularities of the episode in question, but in grappling with all three themes, the result is something a lot less desirable.

“Chasing De Kock from the event, and by implication the festival, is a dishonest act aimed at expunging whiteness of its guilt. If De Kock is a beast, he is a white beast, a product of beastly whiteness that protected and maintained the racial, economic and cultural privilege of all white folks including liberals and white cosmopolites who would rather we swallow the Kool-Aid lie that they were all down with the black folks during the now sexed up “Struggle”.”

The same nauseating theme is repeated by Kwanele Sosibo writing in the Mail and Guardian, but in a more solicitous vein, who instead poses the question of building and creating alternative narratives: “White people civilising each other are irrelevant to a black agenda” he argues. “Paying this act any attention is to service it. It stops short of the necessary work of rolling up sleeves and getting dirty in the name of building something new.”

“A failure to do this means, with each successive festival in the mould of Franschhoek, the post-mortems lead to blacker-than-thou posturing, which does not advance a progressive cause.The fact that some black writers and lovers of literature have moved on to creating their own alternatives (such as the recently held Rutanang Book Fair and initiatives such as Long Story Short) and grapple with how to make their work more available to black audiences means there is no time like now for black readers and writers to take a stand.”

What is worrying about these often badly articulated counter-narratives and the supposed critique of Beukes’ intervention, and notwithstanding the problems posed by the Franschhoek festival itself, (a location that leaves much to the imagination), is that such criticism tends to negate the formation legend of our own nation. The Mandelarist great history of an epic struggle between good and bad, a tale of competing isms, of racism and non-racism, which turn under the hand of these latter day critics, into a mere competition between trends — a simplistic binary opposition of blackness and whiteness.

In, “The rise of a new black racism in South Africa“, Ebrahim Harvey criticises this reductionism as ahistorical and also bound up with structuralism. In his elegantly argued piece, he notes:

“We are all very familiar with the reality of white racism for so long – centuries in fact – that [a number of] false beliefs appeared to have taken root. One was that all white people are racists. The argument for this was that they all benefitted to a greater or lesser extent from apartheid policies. But there were many whites under apartheid who were totally opposed to that racist system and were in fact imprisoned for their beliefs. Others refused to be conscripted into a white racist army in defense of apartheid and as a result either went to jail or into exile for their beliefs. Surely they could not have been regarded as racists.”

“In the final analysis” he says, “not all racism is structurally related, for example, about the economy. It also exists at the level of ideas, attitudes, conduct and behavior, even if there were no structural causes for racism or it was outlawed. For example, if a black man said that he dislikes or hates all whites – despite the eradication of racism from the statute books and the political, legal and constitutional changes since 1994 – it would be correct to call him a racist. On the other hand many whites who fought against apartheid consistently would not deserve to be called racist.”

The views articulated by Madonda and Sosibo are dangerous, the least of which is the underlying racism involved in defining everyone according to apartheid-era race classification and the quasi-science of blood quantum. The latest trend of issuing forth on a tired theme also punted by the apartheid government, by adding the suffix “ness”, apparently to give the project academic credibility, is nothing but a shop-soiled retread. Not even mag wheels will get the taxi to the station.

Published in Cape Times and Natal Mercury 4 May 2016

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Book Review: The Long Road to Liberation (Hans Beukes)

bookA WELCOME departure from the boring back-and-forth, in public discourse concerning Namibia’s road to independence, between triumphalist nationalism and begrudging paternalism/racism (“we heroically defeated apartheid/imperialism” vs. “we had to stop communist terrorism/defend civilisation”).

Hans Beukes has little patience with either camp. He grew up in the fascinating Rehoboth Baster community, and has not only genetic links but family ties with “white”, Nama (Khoi) and “black” (Bantu-speaking) Namibia. He was an early opponent of apartheid, was already in exile in Norway when SWAPO was launched, and opposed its eventual decision to adopt armed struggle. Although at times he took part in its lobbying activities on the world stage, he consistently challenged its lack of internal democracy and considers its present government riddled with tribalism. His conclusion is that there is still some way to go before liberation can be claimed.

Both Namibians and those South Africans interested in the former South-West Africa Mandate territory can find much of interest in Beukes’s detailed memoir. His grandfathers took part in skirmishes against the German army, ahead of the soon-victorious South African invasion force early in WW1. However, the Basters soon came into conflict with the new rulers who continued the Germans’ project of colonisation, and Grandfather Beukes narrowly escaped summary execution along with many others, when a telegram arrived from the League of Nations in Switzerland. Earlier, one of Beukes’s companions had shrewdly invested the grand sum of seven pounds (borrowed from a German married to a Baster) in a reply-paid telegraphic petition to Geneva; the Union Defence Force officers were restrained by the glare of world attention.

Inspired in part by this family legend, young Hans, while studying law at UCT, made a difficult decision. His passport having been confiscated to prevent him from taking up a bursary to study in Norway, he decided to leave S.A. illegally, knowing that he could never return under apartheid rule, but intent on challenging its S.W.A. mandate at the United Nations. He remained in exile (both in Africa and overseas) until independence, marrying a Norwegian.

As already mentioned, Beukes opposed the adoption of armed struggle in S.W.A.; he had considerable contact with Albert Luthuli, who did likewise in S.A. (and when awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was president of the ANC), The matter of who decided on armed resistance, when, why and how in each case, was to be of great consequence to the two countries – and still is.

To deviate briefly from Beukes’s story, it should be noted that there will never be clarity on this decision in South Africa’s case, which of course was bound closely to Namibia’s. Joe Slovo and Nelson Mandela are dead, and have left us mutually contradictory accounts of the decision. At least one of them lied or was mistaken. Mandela says (in his memoir) ANC president Luthuli agreed after some resistance, and then later changed his mind or forgot that he had agreed, being aged. Slovo, in his memoir, says that after the Sharpeville massacre the ANC involuntarily found itself on a war footing and had no chance to consult president Luthuli in the rural home to which he was confined by a banning order.

Beukes ascribes dire responsibility for what he sees as SWAPO’s descent into despotism, to the United Nations and in particular its Commissioner for Namibia, Sean McBride – the son of John McBride, who fought with the Boers against Britain and went on to be executed for his part in the 1916 uprising in Ireland. As Beukes sees it, the anointing of a particular faction (the most militaristic one, led by Sam Nujoma) of SWAPO with the status of “sole legitimate representative of the people of Namibia” on the world stage, doomed the other factions (both “dissidents” in exile and grassroots members within the country) at best to marginalisation, at worst to detention, torture and execution. Not to mention adherents of all other Namibian political parties.

Other accessories to the Nujoma cabal’s crimes, Beukes asserts, were frontline state presidents Kaunda and Nyerere who obligingly detained “dissident” SWAPO members (many of whom had done nothing more than support a call for a party congress to establish accountability of leadership). Zambian troops, in keeping a large group captive, killed a few violently and others by malnutrition.

Even the apartheid authorities assisted the rise of Nujoma – in that they simply sent him back to Zambia when for reasons known to himself, he flew into Windhoek in 1967. Beukes presents evidence that this decision was based on military intelligence’s opinion that he was of more use to the apartheid cause while commanding SWAPO than he would have been as a captive.

In summary, Beukes’s analysis is that both sides of the Cold War confrontation promoted escalation of the proxy war in Namibia and Angola – with total disregard for the welfare of Namibians, Angolans and South Africans. Concerning actual combat operations, Beukes seems content to use SADF-aligned sources of information, such as Magnus Malan’s autobiography. He seems unaware of the school of thought which holds that due to the international arms embargo against apartheid S.A., and Angola’s eventual acquisition of MiG23 fighters and advanced radar-guided anti-aircraft missiles (both among the few types of arms Pretoria could neither make at home nor buy on the global black market), the balance of military power shifted in the late 1980s such that apartheid politicians were obliged to settle. Instead, he takes the view that internal resistance in S.A. in the late 80s made foreign adventures unsustainable. Of course these explanations are not mutually exclusive.

After independence, Beukes returned to Namibia several times but remains based in Norway, citing tribalism and corruption as the remaining obstacles to liberation.

Porcupine Press

  • ISBN-10: 1505359023
  • ISBN-13: 978-1505359022

Available via Amazon

Reviewer: Michael Graaf

Book Review: “Our Land, Our Rent, Our Jobs”

THIS BOOK is rather academic for the general reader but as the title suggests, it’s distinctly activist in tone; this review addresses it not academically, but from an activist viewpoint. Written by middle-class South Africans, it is animated by frustration if not anxiety at the increasing “sea of poverty” which is swamping the post-apartheid “Rainbow Nation” project. Insofar as it addresses the big question of social inequality, it is a valuable contribution to debate.

The authors cut to the chase: the land issue. However, instead of joining the sterile left/right ping-pong which pits extension of individual property ownership against wholesale nationalisation, it heads off in a different direction, picking up on the “single land tax” movement pioneered in the 19th century by Henry George, and blends it with certain elements of the thought of 18th-century economist Adam Smith (as the authors point out, Smith being a founder of the discipline, is selectively interpreted by all manner of successors and often blamed for their shortcomings). The authors’ semantic preference for “land rent” instead of “land tax” is too subtle to go into here, other than saying that it is part of the general category of “natural resource rental”, which interestingly, has already been partially applied in South Africa’s mining industry, in which one of the authors has worked.

On one hand, making land into the main revenue source for the state implies a form of nationalisation; on the other, the proponents of land tax envisage no removal of private title in owning, selling or leasing land; on the contrary, the tax to be extracted would be determined by market forces, such as positional advantage of property, assessed during the conduct of private enterprise. This decisively departs from the statist centrally-managed economic model. Hence, this paradigm shift has the potential to break the deadlock in current S.A. politics, where left and right each hold hostage elements of the social order, each desperately wielding discredited dogma.

In essence, the book’s argument is that whatever you tax, you tend to discourage – except that which is inevitable, like positional advantage. Hence under a land-tax regime, marginal areas, for example rural and peri-urban ones, may still host viable enterprise due to low or zero tax/rent – as opposed to the present situation where economic activity itself is taxed, sometimes to extinction. In short, the book treats the status quo as a market failure; recognising that the rationale for having a state at all is to regulate the market, it proposes a different paradigm for doing so (at one point referring to George Soros’s assertion that financial markets tend to create bubbles, and that central banks’ role includes restraining this).

The authors thus support a taxation system which restrains social inequality, since it falls mostly on the owning classes. Our current system promotes inequality, since consumption tax such as VAT falls disproportionately on the poor, and income tax, while theoretically targeting the rich, is notoriously easily evaded by them. Unproductive, speculative property-owning is currently a major driver of inequality, and this would also be discouraged by a land tax. It should be noted that the authors, following Smith, have no problem with taxing luxuries as a secondary source of revenue.

In order to concretise their proposal, the authors present a draft annual budget for South Africa, which includes transitional measures such as continuation of income tax for the rich. The relative size and efficiency of the state is insufficiently focussed on. Every taxation model implies a corresponding model of collection, enforcement and protection. There is a contradiction between the “libertarian” discourse of most plutocrats, and their ever-increasing need for a police state to safeguard their predatory activities. Whipping up panics over terrorism, drugs, computer hackers etc. can be seen as a way of papering over this credibility gap. The authors, being “respectable” citizens, lack traction here, beyond implying that the middle and working classes need to ally against the super-rich and the “rentier” class (the authors tip their hats to Moeletsi Mbeki, author of “Architects of Poverty”, in this regard).

Another problem insufficiently addressed is that of digitalisation. Much economic activity now takes place in cyberspace (although still linked to physical computers, it can effortlessly be transferred to different ones, thanks to the internet). Thus, transformation of taxation systems must be global to succeed fully. This must be taken into consideration by proponents of a new model.

The grapevine has it that discussion groups are forming around the book’s ideas. They may take to social media and this review may assist them.

Book Review: “Our Land, Our Rent, Our Jobs”
by Stephen Meintjes & Michael Jacques

Publisher: