Although Zakes Mda’s ‘The Heart of Redness’ was published quite a few years ago, having just read it, I feel the urge to comment. The novel deals with two ideas that fall within my interests – that is to say development theory and cultural specificity. And although these ideas are both interesting and thought provoking in a South African context, in ‘The Heart of Redness’ they contain, for me at least, a certain amount of woolly thinking. This, however, is not the only problem with the novel. Its other major failing is that it lacks the artistry that makes for a good novel.
Mda’s style is prosaic and only seems to offer regimented didactic moralizing that is more suited to a history book than a novel. What also troubles me about the content is Mda’s incessant pedantic explanations concerning articles of clothing and cultural practices. There seems to be little for the readers imagination to feed on as he constantly enlightens as to how things look and what their function is in Xhosa society. This gives the narrative a grindingly slow and cumbersome weight that seems wholly at odds with the attractive ‘lightness’ of the community he is describing.
Of course it may be argued that there is nothing wrong with a certain amount of didacticism in novels. Many novelist before have had some ideology to explicate, some new explanation of an historical event to offer, or some axe to grind. Tolstoy is a perfect example of one such author. In fact if Plato and Aristotle were right about what art should do, then Tolstoy and Mda are the paragons of artistic endeavour. However, there is a major difference between Mda and Tolstoy, and that is what I have called artistry. Tolstoy was always disgusted that people would like his novels for his style and his insights into the way people acted in a social environment. He felt that the bourgeoisie would miss the message behind it all. If Mda had the same concerns then he has done well to strip his novel down to the message rather than the artistic façade. But this surely expunges what is at the heart of The Novel.
I am not saying that novels should be filled with ‘purple prose’ that awe the reader with their beauty. And I am certainly not condoning the use of flowery adjectival nonsenses. However, subtlety, ambiguity and objectivity all have something to do with novel writing and this is exactly where Mda fails. The novel is filled with passages like:
They sit at the pine table and talk about their strategies in opposing the casino holiday resort. Camagu learns that a project of this magnitude cannot be built without cutting down the forest of indigenous trees without, disturbing the bird life and without polluting the rivers, the sea and its great lagoon
Mda’s need to tell and not show, his desire to regimentally explain what should be left up to the reader to understand and the fact that he leaves no other reading to the novel other than the one he is dictating are huge failings in ‘The Heart of Redness’. It comes as no surprise that there have been accusations that sections of the book where plagiarized from a history book. Mda’s defense has been that he involved himself in postmodern appropriation or intertexuality rather than plagiarism. This, if true, is perfectly legitimate but if so, then he should also be aware of some of the other tenets of postmodernism. One of these is that he, as the author, is ‘dead’ and that to try and dictate meaning to the reader is not in fact what a writer/artist does. Mda is precisely what Barthes would refer to as an ‘ecrivant’ in that he intends what he has written to have only one meaning and that his writing has a direct relationship to the world. This is, as Barthes suggested, is not what an artist does.
But there are some more problems with the novel that rub up against what other thinkers have suggest at what lies at the heart of art. For Aristotle the plot in a narrative should be believable. That is to say that it is not an expression of what does happen but what could reasonably happen. ‘The Heart of Redness’ is filled with instances that quite simply beggar belief. One is when Camagu, who is a man educated in America to doctorate level, has to be told by the peasant girl Qukezwa that alien vegetation is damaging to the indigenous ones and should be chopped down. It is not that a young woman, growing up in a small cut off community with only a standard eight, might not understand this but that Camagu doesn’t, that it is a new idea to him, is a little strange if not totally unbelievable. Of course one realizes what Mda is getting at; that the ‘civilized’ rational world has something to learn from communities who are in touch with their cultural past and with their relationship to the land they grew up on. Sure, there is some truth to this, in fact probably a great deal of truth to it, but is this really the way of getting this idea across? It just smacks of a lack of imagination besides being totally unbelievable.
The other major flaw with the novel has to do with the ideas that drove Mda to write the book in the first place. One of its themes is that the capitalist hegemony not only destroys local communities, but does so while making claims that they are they progenitors of infrastructure and development. That capitalism has no interest in local culture and certainly will not help uplift local communities is nothing new and one feels it is rather too obvious a statement to make.
The novel is driven by the dycotomy that exists in the community living in Qolorhar – the division between the so-called Believers and the Unbelievers. The Believers stand for their traditions. They have a culturally specific understanding of their position, not only with regards to their past, but also how they fit in to the modern eclecticism of South Africa. The Unblievers seem to have lost that connection and have hybrid cultural practices. Mda implies that this is the reason why they attend the corrupt and false notion of progress and support the building of the casino by a set of outside capitalist developers.
Mda suggests that communities must develop for their own reasons. This is very much at the heart of the idea that paternalism of any kind is wrong. As Isaiah Berlin claimed: “Paternalism is despotic not because is more it is more oppressive than naked, brutal unenlightened tyranny but because it is an insult to my conception of myself as a human being, determined to make my own life in accordance with my own (not necessarily rational or benevolent) purposes, and, above all, entitled to be recognized as such by others.”
Mda is not as subtle as this and this is what possibly weakens the book’s impact. Nobody would deny that a casino and holiday resort (owned by outsider capitalists) in a rural area would do little for the local community. A cultural and environmental impact assessment would almost certainly find the project destructive and of little benefit to the local area. Not even the giving of gambling rights to indigene communities in America and Australia suggested that the casinos should be run and controlled by outside developers.
This asks the question why Mda would choose such an obvious idea to argue against? Sure, one of the ideas that rears its head throughout the novel is that BEE and capitalism are two of the major forces behind the vast inequality in contemporary South Africa. But I don’t think anybody would deny that. Even in ANC rhetoric this claim is made again and again. So one must question why Mda feels the need to make such an obvious statement. What Mda really seems to be arguing is that communities are capable of their own development and that they should find their own ways of joining the market. But even if this is the case then the Mda’s idea of how to do this is a rather peculiar one.
His answer is that the community should set up their own tourist industry, because he feels that they have a strong enough identity for it to become a tourist attraction of its own without gambling and luxury sun-beds. In doing this Camagu, the vehicle for Mda’s revelations, makes it very clear how this kind of tourism should work. Unlike John Dalton, who wants to start a themed tourist spot where the westernised come and see old cultural practices, Camagu understands that tourist should come and see how people live in the community now, rather than how they did in the past. However, Camagu demands that his co-operative, as he calls it, should still make beaded necklaces to sell to wide eyed westerners. The difference between the two seems very minor. Another problem with the idea is that when the development of the community takes root, and the community gets electricity and starts buying cars, there will be very little unique for the tourist to see.
There also seems to be another problem with Camagu and Mda’s idea, and this is that it suggests a total lack of agency on the part of the community and the individuals in it. Mda seems to be suggesting that the only way that the community can develop is to sell themselves. That they cannot interact with the market in any other way other than having a place of historical note, a few hexagon shaped huts, some beaded necklaces and a nice beach to swim at, seems to me to be morally problematic. This is certainly not the development route that countries such as Japan and South Korea took. Of course what Mda is worried about is retaining cultural identity but the above-mentioned countries seem to have retained theirs without merely attracting westerners to come over and see Sumo and rice growing and buy woman’s underwear from vending machines. Mda’s idea seems both logically and morally flawed.
The book, I feel, is an example of not only what is wrong with South African novel writing but what is wrong with South Africa as a whole – too much axe grinding and not enough imagination.
It has probably gone unnoticed but it has been quite a while since I last wrote anything on this blog. This is largely because I haven’t had anything to write about. In many ways I have been feeling that we are living in a kind of Fukuyamaesque end of history type of thing. Not because there aren’t disturbing things happening in the world, but because all of those disturbing things have hit some kind of equilibrium. In Iraq the bombing, both suicide and conventional, go on but the American troop reductions have made the whole issue less media visible. It’s now really down to Iraqis killing Iraqis – which is pretty much where it has been since Iraq’s independence. In Afghanistan the usual 1-3 troops get killed daily out in Helmand Province, which saddens but doesn’t disturb. Nobody really knows whether the situation in Zimbabwe is getting any better but at least there is a Government of National Unity and, recently, Mugabe hasn’t had his thugs beat Tsvangirai to a pulp. At home there is no AIDS denial, no crime denial and no bald-face lying about Zimbabwe. And hey we had the World Cup and the only people the police shot at were some of our own. That’s a positive. And all-in-all I do share the feeling that we did a pretty good job and the whole thing was fun.
Basically we are back – or near enough back – to where we were at the fall of the Berlin wall. Liberal capitalist discourse seems the only one around worth taking an interest in – sadly there is simply no other alternative to it. The Africanism of Mbeki (and Mugabe?) was an unmitigated disaster, causing more inequality and more Machiallevian state controls than could have ever been imagined in 1994. Religious fundamentalism, although still around, seems to be on the wane. If Camus was right about the idea that writers should address social and political injustices – and in this blog I always take him to be right – then for me, at least, on a macro-level there is very little to write about. On a micro-level there is almost too much to write about, but which side I really believe in when it comes to these quibbles has always lead me into the depths of moral perturbation. I like black and white – I have never had much affinity with shades and desaturation.
There is of course one issue that is at hand. And to a certain degree I am almost looking forward to its hand. This is of course the Media Appeals Tribunal. In my dreams I long to be thrown into jail over writing a newspaper article claiming to have had tea with JZ astride an oil-tanker on the moon – which will, I believe, get one into the necessary hot water. Of course we are getting ourselves into a stir over very little considering Mbeki probably had more control over the media than this tribunal will have – something intimated at by Blade Nzimande. But what JZ should worry about is that, although the last president did so much to deserve our disdain, it is always the relatively harmless politicians that get it in the neck. I mean look at Louis Sixteen and Tsar Nicholas. They were in no way the worst of a bad lot. In fact it is now often noted that they were relatively splendid chaps and vessels of liberal progress. But the mention of liberal progress should put us on our guard because whatever guise the politicians would like to justify the Media Tribunal with, liberal progress is not one of them. If Orwell’s Newspeak is what we are heading for, if it is not been here for many years already, then this may be the end of objective history at the very least.
OPENS / TUE 29 SEP
CLOSES / WED 28 OCT
A new gallery opening in the East City on 69 Roeland Street. Conceived two weeks ago by artist Ed Young and writer M. Blackman, it opens its door Sept 29. YOUNGBLACKMAN is based on the business model of gross capital loss and aims to exhibit artists. As the inaugural exhibition, the gallery will showcase artist Sue Williamson’s Better Lives.
In this series of six video portraits, migrants, exiles and refugees listen to a previously recorded version of their life story for the first time. The subjects portray, in their facial expressions and poses, the seriousness and pathos of their stories.
As an established artist who has had many major local and international exhibitions as well as having published notable books on South African art, Williamson will be launching her much-awaited book South African Art Now at The Book Lounge on the evening.
Kimberley Hotel afterward.
The last time I wrote here was quite some time ago. And I think T.S. Eliot was right in saying that the last of winter is the cruelest of times. I couldn’t really recall what has happened in the last few weeks and when I went to Ed Young’s diary, on Art Heat, to find out what might have happened to me, it just read: ‘sorry too sad to write’. That pretty much summed it up for me. Although it shouldn’t be a sad time, the first of the Young BlackMan Projects got off to a boyishly banal beginning at the Waiting Room last Friday (it reminded me of something, that DJing can be fun, that is to say as long as you only play the musical genre ‘boyband’). After that we ended up going for a dance with a girl called Thomas at a party at the Book Lounge held in honour of Faber and Faber. I’m not sure the t-shirts went down too well (or maybe it was Thomas’ dancing that irked them).
Perhaps I worry more than I should about the publishing/writing/reading world. But there does seem to be a certain patrician sententiousness to it that, I must say, does not seem to be in the art circles. Artist, unlike writers, seem to be allowed to take risks and put the odd boot in. Fine food and conversation, as Kenneth Clark said, are not what makes a civilisation. What does, however, seem to sometimes get the ball rolling is a swift kick in the backside. Ours is the backside of a young country. It is just about the right size for somebody to deliver it with the right impact. Countries like the UK and America have become obese dullards who would not notice the impact if it came with the force of a pneumatic anvil. In fairness they would have probably sat down mistakenly and crushed the kicker long before the striker had enough time for even the smallest beginnings of their back lift. I am awaiting the coming of our Rambo(1) and I trust it will be a young black man or woman. I lie here dreaming (although I am not asleep) that this writer will come and the publishing world and the readers will be ready, or do I just have a ‘head full of shattered dreams/got to leave it all behind me’(2)
1 The correct pronunciation but incorrect spelling of Rimbaud
2 Take That ‘Back for Good’
If the thumb is what distinguishes us from other animals, then I was recently dehumanised by my friend Dan Halter. It might sound slightly pathetic but it occurred when he decided to hug (or some such act) me outside the Kimberly. Unfortunately it was at the very moment that my hands were inopportunely positioned. The one popped out its socket while the other decided to hurt, maybe in an act of solidarity (it wouldn’t be the first time that the right and left have acted together to create a great deal of misery). My unusual amount of productivity on this blog is largely due to the fact that I can’t turn the Yale lock to get out of my house. Another result is that the book, Sleeper’s Wake, will never be as well thumbed as it deserves to be (although I am sure, knowing Alistair Morgan, he will, no doubt, be delighted to hear that his book has now been well fingered).
It is always difficult reading a friend’s published work, there are always issues of jealousy lurking in the background. And of course there is sometimes the realization that it isn’t really that good and that one is going to have to resort to lame jokes like:
Author/Friend: ‘How did you find my book?’
Me: ‘I didn’t, the shop assistant found it for me.’
However Morgan’s book is not one of these cases. For me it is certainly the best novel to come out of South Africa since the Good Doctor and Blood Kin. The style and theme – of what lies in the heart of men who find themselves alone, bereaved and alienated in contemporary society – do resemble his friend Damon Gulgut’s (much like perhaps Gulgut’s, in The Quarry, resembled JM Coetzee’s). However, I find Morgan’s honesty, to a degree, more penetrating than Galgut’s.
I generally find representations of the contemporary middle classes slightly over bearing, usually slightly untrue and almost always sanctimonious. It is one of the reasons why I find it so difficult to read so much of contemporary fiction (I had to throw Ian McEwen’s Saturday at the wall so many times that I ended up producing a little cement garden of my own). But Morgan, in his portrayal of John Wraith, certainly escapes many of these criticisms.
John Wraith is a man who has recently been in a car accident, which led to the death of both his wife and child (it also turns out in the autopsy that his wife was newly pregnant). His recovery (if he does in fact make a recovery) is made difficult by the fact that he can’t remember what lead to the accident. The only knowledge he has of it is from the people who were driving behind him, which is that the car veered off the road for no apparent reason. Feelings of guilt and remembrances of the imperfect relationship he had with his wife plague him for the rest of the novel. It is only after deciding to go down to his brother-in-law’s chalet in Nature’s Valley that he begins to get some kind of understanding of the horror’s and selfishness of his own personality; something which he intimates might have been the reason for the accident. What is particularly interesting about the novel is that for John Nature’s Valley is not a catharsis.
While there he meets a father and his two teenage children who have gone through one of those contemporary Southern African horrors of having had their house broken into during the night. The incident resulted in the murder of the mother while trying to stop her daughter from being raped. The book revolves around the idea that although John can empathise with them he cannot help them or himself to redress or understand the agonies of loss. Far from it, in fact he compounds the daughter’s problems by sleeping with her on repeated occasions.
Morgan skilfully portrays humans at the extremes of their emotions. To explain John’s rather shabby behaviour Morgan proffers what has been called ‘the sleeper theory’. That is to say that there is with in us a certain ‘survival mechanism which enables us’ to act in brutal ways in order to sustain ourselves. It is what Morgan refers to as a ‘clinical cruelty’. However, I find his portrayal of the events and their psychological results more interesting than his explanation. As for the explanation, from which the book gets its title, it seems to me to be slightly paradoxical. Because far from a survival instinct these acts of ‘clinical cruelty’ are what Hobbes would have referred to as the war of all against all in a state of nature. That is to say they are not survival mechanism but are quite the reverse; they are deeply destructive. It is precisely because of these actions that we require laws and moral precepts in order to stop one another from destroying each other and indeed ourselves. And surely it is this, rather than thumbs, that makes us human – that is to say our ability to rationalise and empathise.
However it is not this that I find awkward within the novel but rather the narrative voice (I find no fault in Morgan’s attempt to understand contemporary South Africa and offer an explanation). As in so many novels today, the voice of Morgan’s narrator is that of a rationalist; somebody who has inspected not only the world around him but delved into some of the most painful failings of his own character and sought explanations from them. However, the actions that John Wraith describes himself doing are not part of that rational world. They are that darker atavistic nature that lies deep within us that more often than not defies rational explanation. And this is what strikes me as so peculiar with not only Morgan’s work, but in so many other contemporary writers. That is to say how a rational (one might almost say Freudian) narrative voice can attempt to explain the irrational, the unknown and the subconscious.
However, in saying this Morgan does, I believe, get closer to successfully describing a man under emotional extremes than do many other novelists writing today. It is extremely well written and his earnest attempt to get to grips with what lies at the heart of contemporary South Africa is highly laudable. It is certainly an attempt which most novelists today tend to shy away from. If I had the use of my thumbs Sleeper’s Wake would have them placed upwards.
On the whole I prefer to be silent, particularly in the midst of bar fights. Whether my silence is motivated by the cowardice that Alex Smith mentioned in her comments, I have never fully resolved this issue with myself, and so I wish to remain silent on this. But Saturday night proved something to me, that silence, although useful when bar fights begin, is not a full proof solution to escaping them. As for my involvement in the fight I cannot plead my innocence enough. It happened quite suddenly as I was standing, in silence, next to Ed Young at the Kimberly. All of a sudden an English tourist, who was having an argument with a woman, suddenly grabbed me around the neck, pulled my chain off and started throttling me and then pushing me up against the bar. When I tried to break my silence I found myself unable to do so – having ones Adam’s Apple in one’s air passage, I discovered, seems to have a certain silencing effect. I had no option but to return the favour to our English cousin until Ed and Welly, the barman, came to my assistance and some kind of peace was restored.
When I expressed my surprise to the man that he had nominated me as the person to transfer his sexual rage upon, he could not offer me a reason for attacking me. But he did express a desire to gouge my eyes out. Whether seeing King Lear or Skulk Burger put the idea into his head, I suppose, only he would know. He kept shouting: ‘I’m not the kind of person to do something like that without provocation.’ Thankfully, Welly had seen the whole thing brewing and explained to the armed response, when they arrived, that I had not done anything to provoke the eye gouger from Elephant and Castle.
I have always found statements that start with the phrase ‘I’m/am not the kind of person who…’ tend to stray quite far from the truth. They, more often than not, seem to have no relation to the person uttering them. Personally, I am the kind of person who has always found it difficult to make statements about myself. They always, in someway or another, seem untrue. I prefer to remain silent when it comes to these kinds of judgements. Just like I prefer to remain silent on issues like Israel and Palestine. Camus once expressed that there is value in fighting evil but that it is sometimes impossible to know what is evil. And in the case of Israel and Palestine I simply don’t know who the evil sits with.
Silence, I believe, can be a justifiable response to instances of when human knowledge breaks down. I believe, to a degree, that art can fill this silence, but I shall leave that idea for my next blog.
The question for me is when is it the role of the artist to remain silent within their art. Artists must, so Keats agued, access a ‘negative capability’. That is to say their egotism and personal beliefs must fall silent in order to for them to express something true. So often in the past thirty years of artistic endeavour this has not been the case. Many of us have filled our work with our own self-righteous beliefs and sententious judgments, which have little to do with knowledge. Two works which spring to mind are Ian McEwan’s Saturday and JM Coetzee’s Age of Iron – and dare I say a great deal of ‘resistance art’. Often what has been at the heart of these artistic disasters is the belief that the artist can speak for and understand the oppressed and underprivileged. A noble (and sometimes, one feels, a self-serving) idea, yet one that is flawed.
I believe Camus was right when he said that, since the French Revolution, art has been a response to the realization of the oppressed in society. So, what is the difference between the art of Wordsworth, van Gogh, Tolstoy, Orwell and Camus and its contemporary equivalent? In a word the answer is, experience. The artists mentioned above, to a greater or lesser degree, had some experience of what was at the heart of their creations. Personally I do not believe the oppressed’s position can be understood through the imagination lone, or through a priori means, or thought experiments, or believing that their position is somehow equivalent to mine because I was beaten at school.
I believe that the only way of attaining this kind of knowledge is the old British Empiricist way; through experience. All of the above writers had experience to write from. The lack of experience that Tolstoy had, although he endeavoured to spent much of his time with peasants, haunted him to such an degree that his last words were in fact: ‘But the peasants, how do they die?’ And certainly I do not know a single contemporary writer of fiction or indeed an artist who would die with similar sentiments on their lips. More and more the artists of today have retreated into their ivory towers to make their judgements and pronouncements on what in actual fact they should be silent on, because they simply do not know or understand what it is to be oppressed or underprivileged. Towers can be good places for self-introspection, Montaigne showed us that, but they are not places where empirical knowledge is discovered. The majority of contemporary artists who wish to show the position of the oppressed simply do not understand it and, I for one believe, their art suffers as a result. The value of silence for an artist is that in our silences we can retain the truth of our other pronouncements.
Last week I signed a contract of silence with the artist Robert Sloon at his exhibition at the Whatiftheworld Gallery. It was a performance piece, which involved sitting on a chair, drinking an entire bottle of champagne, but with the stipulation that I could not communicate with anyone. The work was linked to James Bond and notions of self-alienation. I decided to do it for two reasons. One was that it was a way of getting a free bottle of champagne. The other was that it tied in with an idea that I have been interested in for a while, that is to say the value of silence.
I have always found it difficult keeping my mouth shut. I have enraged and bored many people with my incessant chatter over the years. And I did find the silence difficult. My position was made harder by the fact that the quick wit of Ed Young saw the paradoxical element to the contract and poured himself a glass of the champagne. It put me in a contractual predicament; I would break it both if I communicate with him and if I did not drink the entire bottle of champagne myself. But such is the nature of the Young.
My interests in silence are of a slightly different nature to Robert Sloon’s, and yet, in some regards, there is a connection. Mine are linked to Albert Camus’ belief in its moral value. Although it could be said that Camus’ beliefs may, to a degree, have been informed by a desire to alienate himself from certain elements of society and to some of the people close to him.
Camus stated that: ‘a man is more a man for the things he doesn’t say than for the things that he does’. These days silence is a value not much admired having been discredited over the last 200 odd years, which has seen the French Revolution, Marx, Freud and the reemergence of religious fundamentalism in politics. In a world that values such things as psychology (and its popular derivative), political commitment and freedom of speech, silence is seen as unhelpful, destructive and in many cases as morally abhorrent. Yet silence was in the past considered of moral and social worth. The ‘vow of silence’ and the British ‘stiff upper lip’ were considered both noble and of spiritual value.
Camus’ silence with regards to the war in Algeria was one of the reasons why he was pilloried by both the right and left wing. He proffered two statements to the zealots who wanted him to hand them the blade with which they could guillotine him. The first was that his mother’s life was prior to political commitment. In the second he state that silence is not necessarily a negative response. These two statements were largely dismissed, particularly by the left wing, as either expressions of self-serving political hypocrisy or nonsensical and rationally absurd.
The modern world seems to me to be divided into two camps; one of religious commitment while the other extols rationalism and sees it as the ultimate solution to all human problems. To both of these groups, silence is seen as an abdication of responsibility. And it seems true to me that one can only understand silence as valuable if one is neither a religious fundamentalist nor a fundamental rationalist.
Karl Popper intimated, in ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’, that rationalism has its limits. He argued that Heraclitus’ statement that ‘everything is flux’ means that all knowledge is something of the past and not of the present and future. Camus attacked the limits of rationalism by going one step further when he suggested that language does not necessarily relate to the world as we encounter it, nor to the feelings that well in our hearts.
Meursault is the quintessential conveyor of this dilemma. He cannot express the feelings he has towards mother’s death. In his trial he tries to explain to the court that the proceedings are not a true representation of what happened on the beach when he shot the Arab. He is struck silent by the remembrance of the inexplicable flux of those moments. The only thing he knows was that it had something to do with the intensity of the sun.
That is essentially the problem with utterances, that, far from conveying truth, they can often restrict and twist it. If Meursault had said it was an act of self-defence he would speak of something that all humans would be prepared to accept as the truth. But for him it was more than self-defence. There was something in the heat of the sun-scorched beach that was part of his act, something that was utterly inexplicable, yet somehow knowable. Meursault’s silence is one of the great artistic expressions of a man’s attempt to pursuit the truth. Of course it is a tragedy. All failures to express what lies in our hearts is a tragedy, but at the very least it is a moral tragedy that defies mendacity; the mendacity that many rationalist who, sometimes for the best of reasons, involve themselves in while attempting to search for the truth.
17/07/2008 London – A negotiated settlement and a government of national unity were discussed at the public lecture ‘Zimbabwe: Beyond the Endgame’ hosted by the London School of Economics last night. The majority of the panellists, drawn both from Zimbabwe and Britain, maintained the view that a pragmatic and negotiated settlement is needed to solve the crisis in Zimbabwe and that western intervention is both futile and unwanted.
Professor James Putzel, Director of the Crisis States Research Centre, stated that it was important that the ‘security forces need to remain intact’ and that impunity was needed for some military leaders. He went on to say that a slow transition was preferable to sudden change of power, particularly considering that the MDC does not have ‘too much of vision as far as economic development is concerned’. Guguletu Moyo of the International Bar Association, who acted as a spokesperson for Prof Arthur Mutambara (the head of the splinter group of the MDC), emphasised the need for a negotiated settlement. Ms. Moyo added the caveat that this could only be done by Zimbabweans. She explicitly stated that although the Kenyan and South African paradigms were helpful, only Zimbabweans could decide what their way forward was, saying that in the case of Zimbabwe ‘there were very different people involved.’
Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential, went on to argue that the ‘western cold war alliance piece of theatre’ held at the UN Security Council was entirely unhelpful as a way of resolving Zimbabwe’s crisis and that if a settlement was to be reached then the example South Africa should be looked at. Dr. Martin Rupiya, an ex-colonel of the Zimbabwean army, went further, claiming that the West was biased towards the MDC. The ex-soldier-turned-academic claimed that the Blair government, before withdrawing its financial support 1998 (that would have gone some way to resolving the land issue), it had offered the ZANU-PF £12 million for land reform while, at the same time, offering the MDC £32 million. He stated that this was a clear indication of the West’s partisan outlook. The MDC representative – having to speak from the floor although seemingly an invited guest – however, pointed out that considering the MDC was only formed in 1999 this claim had little veracity.
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On the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday, almost ten years ago to the day, Thabo Mbeki took pause to quote from King Lear. In the quotation Lear, the aged patriarch, finally accepts that he can no longer play a political role and resigns himself to a future of merely hearing, second hand, the fripperies and machinations of the court. Many have questioned why our current president chose to make this public utterance. It was, after all, the speech that Lear, the much-loved sage, pronounces when he is sent to prison by the bastard Edmund.
It has always been suggested that Mbeki did not intend the insult. However, another reading could very well be that Mbeki had every intention of insulting Mandela; that far from being an intellectual faux pas it seems highly plausible that Mbeki was ushering Mandela out of office and into a prison of political impotence, simultaneously cautioning him against using his influence in active politics. It is certainly true that Mbeki has paid little heed to Mandela’s advice and moral voice with regards to AIDS and Zimbabwe, and has gone some way to adding injury to insult.
There does seem to be some truth to the notion that Mbeki has since taken on the role of Edmund, the unloved son of Lear’s faithful courtier. Like Edmund, Mbeki has surrounded himself with politically influential woman whom he has been able to manipulate and has embraced and courted deeply nihilistic forces.
Now it seems that all that is left to us is the hope that Mbeki’s prophetic allusions will turn full circle. Certainly a political fratricide has taken place. But perhaps it would be going too far to hope that Mbeki has the awareness Edmund displays at his death and rescinds some of his wrongs.
I have 4 points to make.
1) I find it strange that the press find it necessary to refer to itself as an entity with a single homogenised outlook. Journalists always seem to suggest that the whole press is somehow guilty of the sins of its more disreputable elements. This crucifixion complex not only occurs in the UK but it also busy nailing itself up in South Africa. After the xenophophic massacres journalists constantly stated that one of the causes of the killings was that ‘the press’ had propagated the notion that immigrants were behind much of the crime in the country. I must say the papers I read in South Africa contain very little xenophobia (except maybe for an unfortunate article by one rather mediocre satirist). In fact it is quite the reverse, for if it wasn’t for the press and editors like Mondli Makhanya there would almost be no tolerant and democratic voice left in South Africa.
2) What the press does sometimes raise, which is often castigated, is the issue that Islamic normative judgments are very different to the secular normative judgments of Britain. But then again the normative judgments of the Anglican Church are also disparate to certain secular ones and there is no reason why the press should not point this out as well. If the normative judgement of any religious group demand that all woman must walk backwards in the presence of men then the press should report this because it is not only news worthy but goes against the overriding values of British society.
3) As you, who have read Hume, understand that there is no such thing as a rationally held belief. This is to say that induction can only suggest at what, in the future, can plausibly happen rather then what will in fact happen. The fact that westerners fear turban wearers and some South Africans fear people who do not know the Zulu word for elbow is often because they have been personally threatened and harmed by elements of Islam or the immigrants in South Africa. Of course these kinds of generalisations can lead to the vilest form of intolerance but, when placed in certain circumstances, generalisation of induction can save ones life. For example I often generalise about results of jumping off a 50-storey building and the side effects of drinking 28 pints in 30 minutes. There is sadly a reality, which admittedly certain elements of the press overstate, from which these generalisations arise. It is a fact that immigrants, who do not have the right to work in South Africa and have been brutalised by Mugabe, sometimes resort to crime and that suicide bombers who have killed in New York, Madrid and London were devotees to a vile sect of Islam. When faced with this reality and faced with the fear that we may be killed we don’t often have time discover that the probability of this spur of the moment induction is in fact very low. That is to say that the majority of Muslims do not want to kill me and that most Zimbabweans – excluding their government – are not criminals.
4) No matter whether the Islamic fundamentalists took their turbans off or not when they killed thousands of innocents does not mean that Islamic fundamentalist should not be feared. Hitler in a nice English tweed jacket and jewel encrusted tiara and without a swastika would still be Hitler no less. Of course I take your point that all those wearing the armbands, for example the Red Cross, should not be mistaken for Nazis nor should certain elements of the press say that they are Nazis. It goes without saying that if the press is guilty of this kind of mendacity then they must be exposed on each occasion and prosecuted if needs be.