Tagged: History

Daniel Daronda and the Truth Commission

Let thy chief terror be of thine own soul:
There, ‘mid the throng of hurrying desires
That trample on the dead to seize their spoil,
Lurks vengeance, footless, irresistible
As exhalations laden with slow death,
And o’er the fairest troop of captured joys
Breathes pallid pestilence.

GEORGE ELIOT’S final novel, Daniel Deronda, was also her most controversial. Few had a problem, upon its publication in 1876, but the Jewish element satisfied nobody, wrote Paul Owen in the Guardian.

Deronda says Owen, “was the first of Eliot’s novels to be set in her own period, the late 19th century, and in it she took on what was a highly unusual contemporary theme: the position of Jews in British and European society and their likely prospects. The eponymous hero is an idealistic young aristocrat who comes to the rescue of a young Jewish woman and in his attempts to help her find her family is drawn steadily deeper into the Jewish community and the ferment of early Zionist politics.”

“Their appearance in the book was as unwelcome to some of her readers as it is to some of the characters. While the novel’s Lady Mallinger bemoans Daniel’s “going mad in this way about the Jews”, Eliot’s friend John Blackwood noted upon publication: “The Jews should be the most interesting people in the world, but even her magic pen cannot at once make them a popular element in a Novel.” Many years later, FR Leavis called for the Jewish sections of the novel to be cut out completely, leaving a country-house romance to be called Gwendolen Harleth, after the fatally self-absorbed gentile who falls for Deronda.”

Owen goes on to raise the problem of the BBC version of Danial Daronda, broadcast in 2002 which “apart from a brief shot of the Jewish singer Mirah by the Thames” is exclusively about the “supposed romance between Daniel and Gwendolen – a romance that barely takes place in the sense hinted at here.” It would seem that when it comes to George Eliot, her last novel was indeed Gwendolen Harleth and not Daniel Daronda.

South Africa’s faith hearings into apartheid atrocities held under the auspice of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) demonstrate even less romantic attention to details, for instance submissions from both the Christian and Islamic faith include minutia such as names and surnames. However in the section of the report in volume 4 detailing the experience of Jews including Jewish opposition to apartheid, no such respect to detail is accorded. Jews are relegated to trivia, their organisations and personal names, including facts like the over-abundance of Jewish activists held during the Treason Trial, bizarrely sequestered away. While the report undoubtedly relies on the testimony of one Rabbi Cyril Harris, and exclusively so, his name only appears in the footnotes along with references to submissions by the Gesher movement and Jews for Justice, whose views are excluded from the report, perhaps because of the problem of the Islamic faith’s non-recognition of Israel.

Not only is the history of English literature and the South African struggle continually being revised in order to edit out those parts which reference Jews, (at least those bits which show them as human beings, or as real characters other than one-dimensional stereotypes like Shakespeare’s Shylock) but the historical record is steadily being changed to accommodate the latest round of replacement theology by the Church.

If it were not bad enough that Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu believes the new testament supersedes the old testament and thus “Anglicans are the Chosen People” in an Anglican Covenant — what we have is an all-out battle to control the meaning and character of Jewish identity and Jewishness. In effect the project to make Jews responsible for the creation of apartheid in 1948, in a massive intellectual fraud in which the salient facts surrounding the rise to power of D F Malan’s brownshirts and the introduction of a series of laws known as apartheid legislation are instead transposed onto the Jewish State of Israel which came into being in the exact same year.

In the aftermath of the most recent incident of anti-Semitism involving the use of the Nazi Sieg Heil salute at South African universities, one has got to question the historical record, including the missing narrative of German Jewish immigrants to South Africa, many of whom were turned back by the authorities because of opposition from D F Malan and H F Verwoerd. The sad story of the SS Stuttgart which almost suffered the fate of the MS St Louis whose doomed voyage around the globe was depicted in a popular novel and Hollywood picture called Voyage of the Dammned, is not wished away by those who would want a Jew-free society in which only the history of the gentiles and the gentlemen are ever recorded.

Again the history of the Jews of District 6, a mixed race neighbourhood in Cape Town which suffered under apartheid legislation requiring race segregation and anti-miscegenation according to the Immorality and Group Areas Acts, is not something that one can simply air-brush away in the search for an instant solution to the problems in the Middle East.

Speaking at the launch of the book “Cutting Through the Mountain – Interviews with South African Jewish Activists” in May 1997, Professor Asmal Kadar, Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, saluted the Jewish heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. “The Jewish community of South Africa has produced proportionately more heroes in the struggle against apartheid than any other so-called white group.” Asmal also said the leading Jewish activists had suffered considerably by going against the tide of white opinion during the apartheid era. “Some were imprisoned for long periods; some went into exile; some were martyred such as Ruth First, and some were almost martyred such as Albie Sachs. Many lost their livelihoods and the special branch gave them undivided, almost extra, attention. It is in recognising people such as Ray Simons, Nadine Gordimer, Barney Simon, Anton Harber, the Colemans, Laurie Nathan, the Slovos, Gill Marcus, Ronnie Kasrils, Issie Maisels, Arthur Chaskelson, Albie Sachs, Helen Suzman, Dennis Goldberg, Raymond suttner and others equally worthy that a public good has been done.”

Despite this illustrious anti-apartheid history, the world has simply turned a blind eye, focusing on the exclusive problem of Israel while scapegoating Jews. Whether one is Zionist or non-Zionist makes no difference in the manner in which one is treated. The role played by Jews in the struggle and the ongoing human rights activism by Jews has turned out to be no guarantee that we will not become targets of anti-Semitism in the future. Targeting of Jews by local politicians has thus seen a disturbing increase over the past years. “We are not so far from a time when Jews were treated as undesirables, when right-thinking people preferred to ignore what was happening to them. We must not ignore the plight of those – the illegitimate, the rootless, the “illegal” – who fall on the wrong” writes Daniel Trilling in New Statesmen.

South Africa, like the United Kingdom, will continue to produce its Daniel Daronda’s and Joe Slovos. For every communist Jew, there is a liberal and conservative Jew, — expecting us all to act and behave the same way is like expecting each and every Jew to conform to a particular obnoxious stereotype, one which would be as unappetizing in a novel as it would be in real life. We therefore need to be vigilant like any minority group, to avoid the problem of having to take our Jewishness underground, or to write, like Mary Anne Evans  as George Eliot under an assumed name, merely so that our history and the history of a people, are remembered by those who think the world is comprised solely of white, Christian, men.

Wikipedia – home to white supremacists and the Christian rightwing

Wikipedia anonymity breeding racism?

Wikipedia anonymity breeding racism?

WIKIPEDIA, the online encyclopaedia has become a haven of neo-conservative tinkering and revision of history under apartheid. A recent internet debate (archived here), shows the mindset of a generation which has grown up without direct knowledge of the apartheid system yet hankering after a period in which a minority white government ruled over a black majority denied the franchise.

A controversial article about an incident of unrest, equivalent in scope and political fallout to the 1960s Kent State shootings, at the prestigious University of Cape Town, during the 1987 State of Emergency was narrowly voted out, after right-wingers gained the upper hand, deleting the piece as being “not significant enough to warrant an article.” Despite criticism of systemic bias by two contributors, one of whom confirmed “accusations of censorship at the time”, the view that the incident was “just another storm in a students’ teacup to protest a military cross-border raid” has prevailed.

During the state of emergency South Africa’s press were under orders restraining their ability to cover an incident in which 500 students, black and white, staged a protest and were shot at by police on campus. 6 students were injured by buckshot. It was the first time since 1972 that police had used gunfire to quell a student disturbance on a predominantly white campus. Dozens of police with tear gas, guns, whips and attack dogs stormed a protest march against forced conscription, the war in Angola, cross-border raids by the SADF into neighbouring states, the continued detention without trial of student leaders, the banning of the African National Congress and continued incarceration of Nelson Mandela, to name a few of the grievances of the time.

As one of the persons caught up in the resulting 14 day melee, I went from being a law student to a political activist overnight. The entire campus was involved, classes were shut down. There were sit-ins, and teach-ins. Helicopters circled overhead. Teargas covered the plaza and Jameson steps. A South African breweries truck was torched. Traffic snarled up De Waal drive for miles. A pregnant woman was whipped by a sjambok wielding policeman in the library. Rubber bullets were also used.

The event signalled a turning point in the history of the otherwise liberal establishment. Students were radicalized. I went from being an idealist, to an ideologue, caught up with the political discourse of an era which had more resonance with similar student uprisings in the Paris Sorbonne of 1968 than Cape Town of today, needless to say, much of what happened was undocumented, underground and under siege.

Wikipedia editors (protected by anonymity of the internet) chose instead to perpetuate the suppression of the event, merging one citation, taken from the article, with the UCT campus main page, thus deleting the piece in full, and prolonging a reign of censorship. Nothing was done by the academic institution to mark the twentieth anniversary of the student uprising last year, and even the SRC has forgotten that it had once been the site of barricades. As the originator of the piece dismissed as a “poorly-referenced rant, written mostly in first-person or as a memoir, of student unrest” one has to admit criticism that there is currently little or no access to online references that can affirm the existence of government-sponsored censorship during the state of emergency.

For example, a news clipping taken from the Cape Times (and available from the South African library) begins: “Large parts of the University of Cape Town campus were at times uninhabitable yesterday afternoon and some lectures were disrupted as a result of actions by certain people which may not be reported in terms of state-of-emergency press censorship,” is not available online.

While the foreign press referred to cross-border raids by the SADF as the cause, local newspapers told another story: “An hour confrontation between the people who may not be identified and about 150 – 200 students followed a lunch time meeting attended by about 700 students, called to protest at the deaths and firing of SA Railway’s and Harbour’s Workers Union (SARHWU) on Wednesday.”

Most news references from the period have yet to be digitized and made available to the public.

The existence of secondary source material apparently taken from the foreign press such as the Boston Globe is problematic since access to what one could call primary sources are restricted by a subscription fee. The mainly republican-lead US press, following the lead of the Cape Times and other liberal newspapers played down the event which lead to the announcement of the unbanning of political parties and the release of Nelson Mandela. A period which ushered in the transition to democracy.

Just how out of kilter with popular opinion the press were can be seen by a report in the The Los Angeles Times which refers to the University as a “white school“. College is also frequently used to describe the ivy-league institution, reducing the world class university in stature somewhat. Attempts to diminish the impact of the event have largely been successful. Personal testimonials have yet to be collected. Those who can say they were there, are now approaching middle age or in their mid-forties. Most have have either immigrated, died from neglect, or been quietly forgotten.

The initial head-count of 500 students engaged in revolt which quicky expanded to at least 1500 over the ensuing weeks has been reduced by the logic of redneck journalists such as John Battersby (the New York Times’ correspondent who in a masterful manipulation of the facts, reported about the event second-hand) to “about 350”, and this figure is now officially estimated at no more than 15 persons engaged in illegal activities.

Hopefully history will prove Wikipedia wrong. As more black students gain access to the internet, questions will be asked. What happened to the 5000-plus students who were affected by the 1987 UCT uprising? How did this impact on their academic careers? Were the instigators ever re-integrated into society or simply marginalized? Were the victims of the resulting unrest compensated by civil society for the wrongs perpetrated by callous policemen who chose to see every student as a communist, a “kaffir-lover” or a MK sympathizer?

Were the government spies and apartheid agents ever brought to book? Were the detainees released? How many people actually died defending an unjust system, and how many causalities were there in the conflict? Did anybody bother to mention those still locked up in psychiatric wards for refusing the draft, or the innocent bystanders still without limbs, simply because politicians sent an entire country to war?

* google list of sources

* New York Times downplays Kent-State-like story, reducing conflict to historical footnote.

NOTE: This is not the first time my work has been the subject of rightwing revisionism. A year ago an entire posting on this blog was deleted without permission by my hosts at the time, Amagama/ Blogmark, an online site associated with the Mail and Guardian but operated by Media24. It concerned a review of a book on the Border War. I have yet to receive compensation for the material, licenced under the creative commons which has not been returned, despite promises by senior management.