Friday, 27 October 2017

The Enablers of Bloody Mayhem

I am angry that this has only become a big issue now. I am angry that all the violence against women we have seen in South Africa for so long was not enough. Our political leaders, mayors, sportsmen, all the rich and powerful men assaulting and raping women and girls for all these years was not enough. We needed some pampered Hollywood women who hung around with a corpulent, disgusting dog and got fleas to ignite a global campaign. They don't deserve to think they have given women of the world anything, that they have set anything off. They don't deserve it because of their and all their compatriots' complicit silence for all these years.

Their silence right from the start, in 1953 when Mossadegh was overthrown by the CIA in Iran and a bloody dictator installed, their silence when their army dropped a million tons more bombs on Cambodia in a month than they had on Japan in the entire War, killing hundreds of thousands of women and children. Their silence when their soldiers gang raped women and girls in Vietnam and blew up villages, and shot small children on dusty backroads for fun as they drove past them, and their silence when the 100 marines who spoke of this in 1972 got labeled lousy commie hippies, or were simply ignored. Their silence throughout all the death and destruction their policies in the Middle East, and their constant overthrowing of democratically elected governments in South America and Africa have caused. Their silence on September 11, the first one, in Chile, where the henchmen of the CIA-installed Pinochet rounded up 2500 supporters of the democratically elected Allende, many of them women, and after smashing Victor Jara's fingers to pulp with a sledgehammer so he couldn't play his guitar to keep their spirits up, shot the lot of them.

And so on and on, throughout a million and one murderous deeds in a thousand and one other unknown, out of the way places populated by people with brown skins that experienced the brutal merciless hubris of American power that that has left 20 to 30 million people dead, many if not most being civilians, since WWII.

Yes, there have been a few brave American women and men who have spoken out (many more in the Sixties than now, I must point out to self-righteous Millennials, who are more concerned with micro-aggressions against themselves than with mass-slaughter by their elected officials beyond their borders), but all too often they are simply dismissed and sidelined, like Abby Martin, as Russian stooges, or eeeuw, so angry, so confrontational, like Chris Hedges, or as senile old farts, like Chomsky, or as polemical propagandists, like Oliver Stone. While war criminals like Madelaine Albright and warmongers like Hillary Clinton are held up by the media stooges of the US military economy as great feminist role-models. The hypocrisy is sickening.

Maybe after its all over, those who survive the carnage will look back on the silent men and women of America as we look back on the silent men and women of Nazi Germany. Or as we look back on the footage of the French women who collaborated with the Nazis: sad to see them like that, their heads shaved, paraded before the crowds, who jeer and spit on them, but, we point out, we must remember what the Nazis did in France, in places like Oradour Sur Glane, and that everything they did was enabled by people in Germany saying nothing, as were the things that were done to black South Africans enabled by our own shameful silence, and as has been the case in the USA.

So you see, my sympathy has dried up for the American women of Hollywood who have been silent on the actions of their murderous regime, and all the death and rape that women all over the world have had to endure at the coalface of America's bellicose, imperialist brutality. Quite the contrary: many if not most of the Hollywood contingent of this 'creative class' that people go so weak at the knees over, have willingly worked on and acted in movies glorifying this murderous hubris, and fawned at the feet of Hillary the warmonger, Albright the war criminal. To hell with them.

I wrote this a few weeks ago. I was reluctant to share it. I wouldn't want anyone thinking that I'm condoning the actions of scumbags like Weinstein. But it's a tiny bit, just a tiny bit, like those who have felt disempowered to speak out until the #metoo appeared. Once one has spoken out, it makes it easier for others, so here is the article that persuaded me to publish my polemic. Here you can read a much more detailed account of Hollywood complicity in war crimes, and why my sympathies will always lie in the brutalized third world backwaters of American Exceptionalism, rather than in the casting rooms of the Pentagon's shameless mouthpiece that has been spewing out the same message day after day, uninterrupted, year after year since the late 70s: that violence and bloody mayhem are the solutions to all our problems.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Everyone has an opinion, everyone has an arsehole.

  Who among us can say that the events in South Africa of the last year or so have not been on our minds much? I think of them when I walk my dog. They distract me while I flog my LPs on the vinyl Facebook pages. I’m alarmed by the hatred and the bile and the poefie flying around. I’ve thrown my own on the odd occasion, out of sheer frustration. What seems also quite striking, however, is the  silence of the middle-ground. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” wrote W.B. Yeats on the eve of the 1916 Easter Uprisings in Ireland. That country saw another 80 years of bloody mayhem before it began calming down. What lies in store for us?

  I have hinted on Facebook now and again what I think about recent events, but I will attempt to lay it out here in a more detailed way, starting with the debate over Zille’s tweets.

  First, I have to address the accusations of whitesplaining that some will throw at me. This notion holds that white people cannot participate in any debates on issues of colonization, racism and the rest. We must maintain a respectful silence, because of our inherited privilege.

  In the case of debates in person, I generally try follow this rule, and also but to a lesser extent, on social media. I want to know what non-white South Africans feel about these things. I want to listen. Nobody likes a fool who blathers off at parties about every topic under the sun. But I do have information (not opinions, mind you: I try to keep those to a minimum) to add sometimes. In the last 15 years I have read as extensively as I can on the history of this region, this little corner of South Africa that was known as the Eastern Frontier for several centuries. I have things to add, for I believe the seeds of our current predicament and strife were laid here in the Eastern Cape, during those 9 Frontier Wars between the British and the Xhosa. Not during Apartheid, and certainly not during ANC rule, however shitty, incompetent, corrupt and arrogant it has been of late.  To sum up: you can tell me to keep quiet, but I’m not going to. In fact it’s probably the worst thing you can say to a renegade atheist lapsed Catholic who emerged from the intellectual gulag of Christian National Education under Apartheid.

  My go-to book, as all my friends know, with regards South African history, has been Noel Mostert’s monumental documentation of the frontier wars, Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People. I’m not going to even attempt to distill his 1300 page magnum opus and 17 years of research into this piece. Suffice to say that to me (and all the people I have come across who have read it) it was a life-changing book. A brutal, sustained and erudite assault on everything I as a white South African had been taught. In short it was the most profound, shattering paradigm shift I had ever experienced.

  Maybe it’s because I am a songwriter that I feel the need to at least attempt to put myself in the shoes of others. I was brought up with the realization that I was privileged. I attended a small Catholic primary school, where only a few pupils came from wealthy backgrounds. The vast majority came from lower-middle-class families and more than a few were poor whites, and Chinese kids who were essentially non-citizens. I was always conscious of this. Perhaps because of this I have never been able to see privilege as a preserve solely of whites. Largely of whites, definitely, but primarily an economic stratification that in the finer details and nuances, and the harsh, brutal, uncaring nature of late 20th century global capitalism, knows no colour bounds.

  In a nutshell, I find it hard to see privilege as only a white thing. Largely, yes, but solely, no. I don’t buy that. But me myself? Yes, I was enormously privileged.

  But the privilege most of us whites do have has come on the backs of much more than just the immense suffering of the indigenous populations. In America and Australia it involved the almost complete annihilation of those populations. Here in South Africa it came from the total destruction of a way of life they had known for centuries (replaced with a brutal life of servitude, as we needed them for labour, which led to us whites being one of the most pampered tribes on earth), and a complete destruction of their entire worldview. That the earth was a giant sphere revolving around the sun was something that they would have all had to accept anyway, because it’s the truth (funnily enough I have not come across a single black person who believes the earth is flat, but personally know more than a few whites who believe this), whether this truth was to ultimately come to them from Europe or China or wherever (or whether some of them had not already innately sensed it, for who is to know, their history having been so completely obliterated). However, that a fairly logical belief in the presence of their dead ancestors in some nether world, and the vague acknowledgement of some greater power who is far too busy to be approached directly, and never directly intercedes in our affairs, was to be replaced by a belief in talking snakes, virgin births and a bizarre story of shame in our own natural human desires and concomitant inherent evil deep within us that necessitated a bizarre blood sacrifice of this greater power himself, by himself, after he had sired himself, propagated by those very same people who claimed to be bringing science, logic and empiricism, is one of the truly astonishing anomalies of the supreme arrogance of the colonizers. One really has to ask who were the civilized and who were the barbarians.

  The Xhosa had no doubt in their minds who the barbarians were. The British system of retributive justice by way of execution and flogging was completely barbaric and counter-intuitive to them. If someone has killed someone else in a dispute, why then kill him too? You have now weakened the tribe. And there can now be no restorative justice for the family of the deceased. So too was the British ‘code’ of conduct in warfare seen. In this regard, the Xhosa were far advanced, ethically. In all those nine Frontier Wars, not one woman or child was killed by the Xhosa. War is a man’s business. The British felt no such qualms of conscience, not with the Xhosa and not with Boers many years later.

  I do not have this fuzzy notion of Africans all living in peace and harmony before the white man arrived. Humans have been killing each other in squabbles over resources since we crawled out of the swamp. But this I do know: many black African tribes had a complex societal structure, with systems of law in place that were, from our standpoint today, far advanced and far more humane from the systems of the colonizers, if the ‘system’ the Belgians had in place in the Congo could even be described using the term “law”: it was nothing short of rapacious plunder and genocide of humans and those beautiful sentient beings: elephants.

  But none of this matters to many whites, because we had the wheel. I’m so sick and tired of hearing about the fucking wheel! That the notion that a culture’s ‘civilization’ can be measured by technological progress still lives on 70 years after Auschwitz and Treblinka, should make us all ashamed to ever use the word “progress” in respect of human civilization.  

  As I said the other day on social media, the colonists did not invent electricity any more than the Australians invented cricket. There are too many people running around feeling proud for being European, as if they themselves or their direct ancestors had invented electricity or the telephone. While the Wright brothers were inventing aeroplanes, most of our ancestors were either squabbling in dirty bars and whore-houses on The Reef or sitting in the shade watching Bantus do the hard work. Take pride in your own personal accomplishments. Everything outside of that has got fuckall to do with you.

  At the end of colonialism there was much infrastructure. That's good. My dad and granddad as engineers designed some of it. But they did, not me. If I designed a bridge it would collapse under the weight of a couple of cyclists, if it ever supported even its own weight. And it's important to remember that pretty much everything in terms of infrastructure was built by black sweat. Extremely poorly-paid sweat at that.

  The thing about me is, I just don’t buy into the Protestant work-ethic. Why should you build a wheel when you don’t really need one? It’s not like you have to transport large amounts of grain and stuff to a barn in preparation for a long winter. You and a few of your neighbours can just walk back to the village with a coupla yams and butternuts in a basket every day and you’re sorted. Don’t get me wrong: when I have to work hard I work hard, for months. But in between I like to chill, read books, play my guitar, listen to my vinyls and ballasbak with my mates talking kak. In short, I don’t think anyone has ever lain on his or her deathbed thinking, “Christ I wish I’d worked longer hours.”

  Personally, I think many people are looking at all this in completely the wrong light. There is a tendency to measure the worth of a civilization by its technological prowess. The most technologically advanced societies have almost always been the most violent and barbaric. War drives technology. Just look at America. By claiming that all these inventions were built on ideas stolen from Africa is not only largely untrue (there was an incredible, complex cross-fertilization of ideas for the last 2 000 years between China, Europe, India, North Africa, the Middle East and Japan) but also plays into the notion that there is some kind of hierarchy of civilizations, and this hierarchy is linked to technology, technology which will, I think, end up being the undoing of the entire human race and most other life forms. We should be talking about the ethical codes (or lack of them) that underpin a culture or society. By doing this we would then see, for example, that the Xhosa were far superior to the British, for the reasons mentioned earlier, and many other reasons that Mostert documents in Frontiers. I can't speak of other African tribes, I don't know enough. But this focus on technology is a red herring, and everyone is buying into it.

  If Helen Zille thinks life is so great in Singapore, she must mos go and live there, and see what censorship of speech is all about. Here, we can still tune whatever we want to tune. Hell, some black people have tuned that all whites should be killed, and they’ve not been silenced, and Steve Hofmeyr and scores of whites tune all kinds of kak, insulting black South Africans every day, and they’re still running around free.

  You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that our current regime likes the fact that we’re all squabbling and tuning each other kak. Imagine if all whites were just to say “Yes, the colonial period was a living nightmare for all of you. The Khoisan died like flies from the smallpox our ancestors brought. Your way of life was destroyed. We constantly put you to the sword. We replaced your beliefs with our own much more bizarre hocus pocus. The British killed the Boers for the gold, then sent generations of your ancestors to dig it up. They all died young and ours got rich. No amount of roads and infrastructure can make up for this, and to talk of silver linings is an insult.”

  But instead we say “It wasn’t so bad, you were living in skins when we got here with our wheels, get over it, stop flogging a dead horse, let’s all join hands and vote for the DA.”

  And the bloated ANC sits and rubs their hands in delight. They don’t have to divide us to rule us. We’ve done it all on our own.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Recollections of the Voelvry Tour.

What follows is the text from my book of photographs of the Voelvry Tour, that incredible time in 1989 when young Afrikaners rose up in their thousands and said "We've had enough of this shit" to their leaders.

 I am back in the darkroom again, after an absence of 6 years. I never went digital. Instead I became a songwriter, after being a photographer for 20-odd years. But now I have started shooting again. And I was persuaded by a young Afrikaans friend to dig out and exhibit my images of the Voëlvry Tour for the KKNK.
 So here I am in the only darkroom east of the Sundays River, at Rhodes University, where I had studied from 1989.  This time I am staying with friends on a farm just outside Riebeek East, and driving into Grahamstown each day. Each day I churn out my lith prints. They require long developing times, 6 or 7 minutes, and as the developer becomes exhausted, much longer. Longer than standard black and white prints. For the first 5 minutes one sees only a faint, ghostly image. Then the blacks start to come, and quickly they spread over the whole print, like a fire out of control. It’s then that you have to pluck the print and throw it in the acid stop-bath.
  Watching the ghostly figures of James Phillips and Johannes Kerkorrel appear is unsettling. The darkroom is a good place for being unsettled, for thinking. Each night I drive the little dirt road back to Riebeek East. The same road James was on when he had the car smash that led to his death. More than any of the others these last few weeks, I find it is Phillips who I think about the most. He was the only one I never met. I met Kerkorrel several times. I gave him prints, and designed a poster for his show in PE. I shared a commune with Koos for 6 months, and he and Valiant Swart stayed in our house during a Grahamstown Festival. But even though by many accounts it was Phillips who started it all, he is an enigma to me. And he was a soutie, like me.
  My father is English/Irish. My mother is English-speaking but is a direct descendant of Jacob Cloete, who came here in 1652. Some Cloetes moved to the Eastern Frontier in the 18th century. In the early 1800s when all those boats arrived full of Scottish and English girls, many of the Boers in the Eastern Province learned to speak English pretty smartly and married Settler girls. So I have Afrikaans blood, but I’m a soutie.
  I never knew Afrikaaners when I was growing up. I made my first Afrikaans friends when I was 18. I thought my father would dislike them. He hated the government vehemently and would hurl abuse at the TV screen every night. I guess I heard my dad shout “Turn that bloody tit off!” often enough and for long enough before I heard “Sit Dit Af.” He was referring to PW, of course.
  But he seemed to like my Afrikaans friends.
  In many respects I was a typical English South African, culturally. I listened to all the music my older brothers listened to, music from overseas. I first heard Dark Side of the Moon when I was seven and was completely captivated by it. When I was alone in the house I would play it very loud.
  My first experience of a local band was going to watch Juluka in PE when I was 17. It was a life-changing experience. From then I attended the Four Winds Folk Club every Sunday night, in a dingy downtown hall. But there wasn’t much in the way of protest music, and certainly nothing in-your-face. But it was live, and that was all that mattered.

 In 1989, I went to study photography under Obie Oberholzer at Rhodes University. My best friend was a guy called Roger Christian from Cape Town. He had all these subversive Shifty Records tapes: The Kerels, Corporal Punishment, Illegal Gathering and Kalahari Surfers. But I never liked them much. I was outta reach by then.
  You see, I had come to loath all the eighties music. Maybe because it spoke of nothing. What did a band like AHA have to say to me, living in a country at war with itself? I hated all those bands. Modern Talking, OMD, Howard Jones, all those horrible keyboards. People who say the eighties had the best music have rocks in their heads. When I hear white South Africans reminisce about the eighties and say it was all about bad hairdos and great music I wonder what planet they were on. The eighties were about riots in the townships, civil war, PW, brutal repression and the Total Onslaught. They still play Modern Talking on Radio Algoa in PE, can you believe it. Never heard them play Koos or Kerkorrel. And James Phillips? Forget it.
  At high school I had begun listening to some of the eighties junk coming from overseas. But when I left school and spent 3 years at the PE Tech Art School, I joined the Bluesway Record Library. And that was the end of the eighties for me. I went back in time, back to all my brothers’ music: Neil Young, Dylan, Van Morrison, Rodriguez, The Doors, Pink Floyd. And I discovered some of my own: John Martyn and Nick Drake. So I guess, musically, the stuff Roger played was too anarchic for me.
  Then in 1985, I heard the Waterboys' This is the Sea, and U2’s Joshua Tree, and watched with delight as all that keyboard rubbish died, and heartfelt guitars were back. I found out years later that This is the Sea had been a favourite of Koos Kombuis and his friends. There was something in that album that was incredibly transcendental and redemptive, and very real and sincere, too. And I guess that’s what we all wanted: redemption. We carried so much guilt and so much anger. It was a crazy time, especially in a conservative city like PE. You could easily pretend it was all OK, and not think about it. But if you did think about it, the truth would, like Riaan Malan said, "bury its poisonous claws in your head and drive you insane."
  So by the time Voëlvry passed through Grahamstown I had, to a large extent, drifted off, musically speaking. But I went with Roger to the gig that night, in the town hall.
  We were a bit late and had missed Koos’s set. Not that I would have known. Few of us in Grahamstown had heard of him. We walked in on Bernoldus Niemand en die Swart Gevaar.
  It was a brutal assault on my senses. From never having seen a rock band in my life I suddenly found myself being blasted into orbit by what was probably the tightest, loudest outfit in the country. What struck me like a sledgehammer was the sound of Hanepoot van Tonder’s trombone. It was so fucking loud, in that small space! As if having just walked into a war zone, I hauled my camera out and immediately began shooting. By the end of their set I had shot off almost all my film. I think I had only brought two or three rolls anyway. I know I must have shot at least a few of Kerkorrel that night, because three months later I weasled my way into his Grahamstown festival show for free by giving him a print of himself. And it was there, that night, that the strangest most bizarre coincidence happened.

  Once again I had only taken two rolls of film with me. We shot carefully in those days, no banging away like a monkey that people do in the digital era. Two rolls was enough. And Obie was teaching us how to see well, and expose well, and think before you shoot.
  I came to the second roll and shoved it in. What I didn’t realise till the next day was that it was a roll that had already been exposed. I had shot a few rolls a few weeks prior as part of a little photo essay I did on a guy called Louis, who was the church organ player at the Anglican cathedral. I photographed the rituals he went through before he practised, how he ascended the narrow little flight of stairs to the organ bare-footed, and took shots of him putting on the shoes he would leave there, tying the laces, then some of him at the organ. So that’s what I saw when I took the film out to hang in the dryer: Kerkorrel super-imposed over a kerkorrel.

  I was devastated. It was a mistake, and Obie told me I was a fuck-up for being slapgat with my film. That was the way we all worked. Chance played no role in photography. That all changed with me over the years, but at that time, that’s the way I was. I liked the fact that it was Kerkorrel over a kerkorrel, but it hadn’t been intentional. It wasn’t precise. I printed only one or two shots from those gigs, and carried on my photographic journey, which was at the time not a documentary one. I only looked at those shots again many years later. After the Voëlvry book came out.
  The year after Voëlvry, my digs-mates and I got a call responding to an add we placed in the Mail and Guardian, offering accommodation during the festival. It was from some guy in Stellenbosch called Louis and he was bringing some bands to Grahamstownt. The bands were Koos and Valiant Swart’s bands.
  So I am one of the clever God-despising liberal students Koos writes about in Short Drive to Freedom. I am the one who went pale when I saw the pile of dagga Acid Alex was contemplating, and disappeared for the remainder of the festival. It makes for a good story, but the truth is more mundane. I did indeed go pale, because our house often got raided by the cops, as there were NUSAS people living there. But I had my first exhibition at the festival, so I had to sit at the venue every day. And I also had a job as assistant to the exhibitions manager for the festival. Besides, in those days I didn’t despise God at all. I was too shy to say boo or bah to anyone, let alone God. That was Jimmy Roth and Mark Stein, who would go on about how they’d like to fuck God up the bum, but Koos only got to know them the following year, and I only got to know Koos the following year too, when he returned to live on the property for about 6 months. I think he liked Grahamstown 'cos none of us treated him like a big star. I think what Koos has done is blend me, Jimmy and a few others into one persona. But it made for a good story, and a good story it is.
  Those 12 days with the Swart Kombuis living in our house were completely insane. Especially to our landlord, who nearly had a baby when he saw the wreck they left. He threw his toys. Breach of contract, this that and the next thing. Fortunately Jimmy got most of the blame, because he was an economics student and "should have known better."
  On the last day the plumbing collapsed, flooding the bathroom and passage. They never used the dustbin. Acid Alex did most of the cooking. Potato peels, chicken carcasses, leftover rice and all the rest were simply thrown in the corner of the kitchen in a pile that got very large. Their manager, this Broodryk fellow, seemed to operate at an extremely high frequency. You never saw him at the house. But you’d see him all over town in his kombi putting up posters, handing out flyers, constantly on a mission. I began to wonder where he found the time to even take a shit.
  My question was answered by Irene, the lover of my friend Vos Van der Merwe. They had come to stay for a few days and one day she was taking a bath. Suddenly the door burst open and the volcanic eruption of energy that was Louis marched past her to the toilet, stating, more than asking: “Mind if I have a shit?” and simply pulled down his pants and took a dump with Irene still sitting in the bath.
  Another friend from PE called Gary came to stay for a few days, but only lasted one night. He was straight out of school and the Swart Kombuis was all just too much for him. When he came across one of the groupies taking a piss standing over the toilet, with the door wide open, he fled.
  Various people made the lounge their home, and if I or one of my friends woke up in the night, it was easier to go take a piss in the garden than to negotiate one’s way through the lounge past all the bodies, some sleeping, some passed out in post-coital slumber and some still copulating.

 Both the lounge door and my bedroom door opened onto the veranda, and one night, on hearing a knocking, I opened the door on a small very dishevelled man. He looked like he had been in a fight and he had scabs on him. He reminds me a bit, now that I think back, of Conrad Botes the time I met him in Cape Town, when he had just, a few days before, fallen off his motorbike. Come to think of it maybe it was Conrad Botes. He was often in Grahamstown those years, selling Bitterkomix.

 “Excuse me I’m looking for the Black Kitchen.” Rubbing sleep from my eyes, it took me a second or two to register. “Oh, right… Swart Kombuis. Go through this door alongside here.”

  One night I walked into my room tired, and probably a bit drunk, to find a thin figure, probably a girl, asleep on the floor, with a blanket thrown over her. I went to Koos and asked “Who’s that girl asleep in my room?” to which he replied “No, that’s your friend Ric." Ric was a sculptor from PE who I never ever saw eat anything. He just drank lots of whisky and took loads of drugs. He’d spent his first night at the festival sleeping in the autobank room on campus.
  And so it was that the only documentation of that time I have access to is Ric’s sketchbook, where he wrote down snippets of conversation and did little drawings. He hung out with them every day, and from him I gathered they had a routine. They would wake up around midday, long after I'd gone off to work, or to my exhibition. Then they would drink and smoke. They rarely left the house. A multitude of people would drift in and out. They never saw any shows or exhibitions or anything. Then at about 10 pm Louis would arrive in the kombi and load them all up to take them to their show in a basement at PJ Olivier Hoërskool. I went to one of their shows with Ric and Vos but all I recall is that it was very loud, and extremely hot and smoky.
  It is my greatest photographic regret that I did not photograph what went down in that house. My approach then was to construct images, not photograph life as it unfolded. Dumb, but it's where I was at the time. And anyway, I was too shy. I think Koos took that shyness as some kind of aloofness, or even rudeness, because after a few days he came to me and said, “Hey listen we been living in your house since, like, last week, and we don’t know you. Come have a drink with us.”
  So I sat with them in the room with the fireplace, and drank. Then I smoked a joint, which made me much, much more shy. It was a no-win situation. I do recall though that Acid Alex was the joint-roller. He had a huge pile of zol in front of him and for the two or three hours I sat there with them all he did was roll joints. Enormous joints. As soon as he had finished one, he would fire it up and pass it on. Then he would immediately begin work on the next one. I’d never seen anything quite like it.  
  Apart and aside from all this mayhem (although in no way aloof or anything) seemed Valiant. He lived in one of the outside rooms, and it was him that I gelled with the easiest. We spent a great deal of time discussing the music of Van Morrison. We thought the same albums to be his best ones. My friends from that time will laugh when they read this, and say, “Well that’s pretty much all you could talk about back then.” They wouldn’t be far wrong.
  The following year Koos returned to stay on the property, and I got to know him better. I photographed him and his companion, a drama student whom I knew called Laurien Myles. I took them into the studio and set up lights and all that. I thought that was the way we were supposed to do portraits. I kinda regret not doing snaps of all the lazy days sitting in our lounge talking kak and laughing, but I guess I sensed that neither Koos nor I would have been comfortable doing that. He liked the anonymousness Grahamstown gave him.
  After that first sojourn, he had left a small book of his poems at the house, handwritten. It was in one those cheap little Oom Dik books. I had no idea how to contact him, this being pre-cellphone era and Koos being somewhat… nomadic. So I hung onto it, knowing I would run into him again, which I did.
  But in the interim I returned to my parent’s house in PE for the December vacation. One day I left it on the coffee table in the lounge after I had been reading the poems again. My dad found it and called me to the lounge.
  “Who does this belong to?” he asked.
  I went sort of cold and began trying to remember how many if any of the poems had made reference to illegal substances, or goening, or anything like that.

  “Oh, uh, it belongs to this guy called Koos who stayed in our house… Why?”
  “These are the most beautiful poems I have ever read in Afrikaans,” he said.

  Years later, when listening to Koos (which I did a lot: Niemandsland became one of the seminal albums of my life, and for some reason we always played it loudly in our digs when we cleaned the house on Sundays. It seemed the right album to play while sweeping out the shit) I often reflected on that. And on the incredible genius of Koos, who, with a few poems, could break through all those barriers of age (my father is old, he fought in WWII) and tribe (he loathed the Nats with a passion). But I guess I kind of lost sight of the fact that my old man had never loathed Afrikaners in general. How could he? He married a kind-of-Afrikaner.  
  Did Voëlvry change my life? Absolutely. I sought out, from then, only musicians who sang about us here now. I became very close friends with the first two white songwriters in PE to start doing this: Anton Calitz and Dave Goldblum. Their music helped me make sense of my identity as a white boy in PE at the end of Apartheid. I designed all their posters for them. Later I discovered the music of Chris Letcher and Mathew van der Want and became a huge fan of theirs.
  And, more importantly to me, six months after Koos and Valiant stayed in the house, I picked up a guitar myself. And the first two songs I ever performed publicly (at a really dodgy biker bar in PE in 2004, with Merrisa Du Plooy), the songs that helped me find my voice, were Onder in my Whiskey Glas and Famous Blue Raincoat. Because Koos Kombuis and Leonard Cohen are in the same league to me.

  It also made me see my own tribe quite differently, and realise that I’m not really part of that tribe. My tribe now is not English-speaking white South Africans, but musicians and artists and writers and photographers of various colours and language groups. And outside of this little tribe I feel quite foreign.
  Voëlvry never did for us souties in general what it did for many Afrikaners. If it did I wouldn’t find myself thinking about James Phillips and crying while I drive that little road to Riebeek East. Few of us gave a fuck about him.
  And when people come up to me and say, after I write a funny slang song in the vein of David Kramer, “Hey Tim, you should write more songs like that. Stop all that depressing stuff about how we’ve lost our way,” I think, yeah. And be like James Phillips: bleeding in a ditch with the knowledge that people only saw him as a joke. Fuck that shit. I'd rather make a living building decks and kitchen cupboards. Which is what I do in PE.
  I know there are some younger people who dis the Voëlvry guys. And academics who downplay what that whole thing did. But I’ve seen on the Voëlvry documentary what those gigs on the Afrikaans campuses did. I was there when the show passed through Grahamstown. The effect was not the same. On campuses like Stellenbosch it was "a helluva thing," to quote Willem Moller.
  To me, the most poigniant moment of that Voëlvry documentary is when Koos tells the story of Ryk Hattingh, who comes right up to the front of the stage while Koos is playing, and crying like a baby, begs him:

  “Vat dit weg! Vat dit weg!”
 (“Take it away! Take it away!”)
  “Hy’t nie bedoel, “Vat ons weg” nie," said Koos. "Hy’t bedoel Vat dit weg. Vat hierdie ding weg. Julle kan dit doen. ”
    (“He didn’t mean take us away,” said Koos. “He meant take it away. Take this thing away. You can do it.”)

  And although us souties on the whole never experienced that, for me, the Voëlvry movement helped me to begin to embrace my inner Afrikaner, and leave some of the musical baggage of my tribe behind in the process.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

My response to Roland Williams' letter to the Herald this week, wherein he takes the DA to task for hijacking Mandela's legacy. Williams is spin doctor for Nelson Mandela Bay's city council.

  Regardless of the validity of his argument, Roland Williams' letter attacking the DA for hijacking the legacy and name of Nelson Mandela has got to be the the most classic case of the pot calling the kettle black I've seen in years.

   Just about everything in this town has been renamed after Mr Mandela. Last time I checked, the Art Museum, the University and the entire town itself had adopted the name of a man who has never spent more than a few hours, or days at most, of his time here. In fact I don't think he ever set foot in PE until after he was released from prison. East London, being closer to Qunu and Fort Hare, has more of a right to start naming things after him.

   "Man United can never go around claiming to be the best team in the world by making reference to Messi...who at some point in his illustrious career paid a compliment to Van Persie," says Williams.

   Similarly PE can never go around claiming to be the best city in Africa by making reference to Mandela who at some point in his illustrious career paid a fleeting visit to PE.
 Tell me that isn't what you tried to do by branding PE as Nelson Mandela Bay, and as "Africa's Capital of Freedom and Excellence," as all the billboards proclaimed a while ago. Preposterous hyperbole if I ever heard it. Shall we ask the 2500 swimmers, coaches and parents who've just left here thinking we couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery? Or the people who came here for this year's Splish Festival?
From the second biggest settlement in the colony just over 100 years ago, with a number of firsts to its name (first cricket test match ever played in South Africa, first art school ever built), PE slowly sank into obscurity, and by the 80's was practically invisible in the national media, appearing only as the butt of unkind jokes about cultural graveyards. In fact, the only thing we've ever done that has gone stratospherically global and really "put us on the map" is kill Steve Biko. Not true? Name me one other time PE has made headlines all over the world.

   There's a classic Simpsons episode where Springfield is voted Worst Town in America. At a town meeting to address the problem, Marge's sisters Patti and Selma put forward their plan:

   "The easiest way to become popular is to leach off the popularity of others. So we propose changing the name Springfield to... Seinfeld!"
  Come on, Mr Williams. Tell me with a straight face that wasn't what you all tried to do. PE's national image was in the mud ten years ago. Some would say it still is, others would say the water's still just a bit green. Renaming the city had nothing to do with honouring legacies. If it was about that you would be honouring Biko's legacy, or at least doing something about the sad state of Biko House, but none of you in city council ever make reference to him. Why? Because he wasn't an ANC man. It's all become so shamelessly and transparently about The Party's narrow self-interest.

   Sorry Mr Williams. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. You lot started with this hijacking of Mandela's name. I thought the Art Museum was a good idea because in all honesty who gives a toss about King George the 5th or whatever he was. But then the university, and then the entire town? Get real. It's very transparent to people in other cities.

   My two cents worth: We should just be. We are not Africa's or even South Africa's Capital of Freedom, a vague, unquantifiable term anyway. We are most certainly not Africa's capital of excellence either.  We're just a small city on the arse end of Africa. In some respects it's a bleak place, in other respects its pretty damned awesome. But we are not the centre of the universe, despite what some megalomaniacs think, and all this renaming of everything after Mandela reeks of a small-town inferiority complex similar to what you accuse the DA of.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Do we need religion to create a moral, just and fair society?

One of the most common arguments I hear for religion is that it assists in creating a moral framework to guide us in the creation of a just, safe and fair society. There is a simple way to ascertain whether or not this is the case: we simply look at the statistics. What countries in the world are the most just and fair? Where are women and children the safest? What countries have the lowest murder and rape rates? Which have the least inequality and disparity of wealth? Where are civil liberties most protected? In other words, where on the planet is life the best for the average citizen?

Conversely, where is it the worst in these regards? And now what proportion of these populations are religious?

These figures are easy to find, and after all, the bible says, “By your fruits you shall be known.”

It soon becomes clear that a number of countries feature regularly on the best and worst lists. Honduras, El Salvadore, Ivory Coast, Jamaica and Venezuela have the five worst per capita murder rates. Where I live, South Africa, comes in at number 8, with 31,8 homicides per 100 000. It also features at number 1 for rape statistics, but rape statistics are the most unreliable of all, for a huge variety of reasons.

These murder statistics, it must be pointed out, are not accurate across the board, as the governments of most African countries do not keep accurate track of births and deaths. You get born, you die, they put you in the ground. In fact it would be stretching things a bit to say that countries like the DRC and Somalia have governments at all. Added to this are the incessant civil wars and conflicts that rage at any given time across the continent. When the Nigerian police kill Niger Delta activists, are they recorded as murders? Unlikely.

The countries where you are least likely to be murdered are Palau and Monaco, where your chances are nil. But to be honest, Monaco is the size of a postage stamp, so there’s probably nowhere to hide, and Palau… well, I haven’t a clue where that is. Larger countries on the top ten list include Iceland, Japan, Norway and Austria. All northern European countries are high on the list of safe countries.

Another list of interest is the Human Development Index, which looks at life expectancy, mean years of schooling and per capita income. Here, Norway is number one, followed by Australia, Holland, Denmark, USA, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Germany and Sweden. In fact, the USA and Ireland are the only two countries in the top twenty on this list that can be described as predominantly religious countries.

Civil liberties are measured by Reporters Without Borders. This basically measures how free people are to gather together and protest, and to speak their minds without fear of persecution or death.

Norway comes in at number two here, Finland being number one. Also in the top ten are Estonia, Holland, Austria, Iceland, Switzerland, and Canada. Ireland is the only predominantly religious country in the top 20. China is 6th last on the list. Nigeria is number 126, the USA number 47.

In terms of good governance, the corruption index is a useful list. The ten least corrupt nations on earth are Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden, Singapore, Switzerland, Australia, Norway, Canada, Holland and Iceland. There are no predominantly religious countries in the top 20. Nigeria comes in at number 139, nestled next to Pakistan. Close on 400 billion US dollars in oil money has ‘gone missing’ there since the drilling began, according to the IMF, enough to build half a million very large schools with computers, desks, books and all. Or about 1,2 million churches, if they’re into that, because all you need there is just a single book, a pulpit and some benches.  If it’s a mosque you don’t even need the benches, and the book’s a bit thinner too.

I guess we don’t really need lists or research to tell us that quality of life for women and children (girls in particular) is not very good in say, Afghanistan, but very good in Norway, and so once again all the northern European countries occupy the highest positions on this list while Islamic nations are near the bottom, along with countries in Africa where they cut little girls’ clitorises out or make child soldiers of the boys. Muti murders being very high will also tend to affect where the country is on the safety-of-children list, and argue as you may, it is impossible to not ultimately admit that these killings fulfill a religious function. It might not be your religion but it is a religion, however fucked-up.

And now it’s time to see which countries are the most religious: what percentage of the population attends a religious service weekly.

Lo and behold, Nigeria is a very religious place, the most religious. 89% of its population attend church. Unfortunately, it has not succeeded in exporting its faith quite as successfully around the world as it has its money-laundering scams, criminal networks, and generally corrupt business practices. It did assist though, if I recall correctly, one of those American Evangelists with his blood-diamond and gun-running exploits, so maybe he can be of assistance to them in spreading The Word, or their peculiar version of it.

Second on the list is Ireland, with 84% attending church, and somewhat of an anomaly on all the lists. A spanner in the works if you wish to prove that a safe, just, humane society is hampered by the presence of religion. But you could be forgiven for assuming that it is usually hampered by its presence.

The top twenty on this list does not make for comforting reading if you are of the opinion that the presence of religion creates such a society. 56% of South Africans (number four on the list) take a break from the national past-time of rape to attend church weekly, although I have read other statistics that put the figure closer to 70%. More than 70% of Americans describe themselves as Christian, with 44% attending church weekly, no doubt to agonise over the fact that in terms of disparity of wealth they are at the bottom of developed nations, and are actually breathing down Ruanda and Cambodia’s necks. And us very religious South Africans will soon be giving Haiti a run for it’s money in that department if we don’t do something besides pray to the Invisible Man in the Sky.

On the other hand, the godless Japanese attend religious services the least, and somehow manage to get through each year with less than a few hundred of them feeling the need to take a human life for whatever reason, and when the weather gets nasty and the sea gets rough, all queue up diligently to help one another, unlike in say, New Orleans. I suppose their move to a secular society was helped by the fact that The Emperor was God’s representative on Earth until that incident with The Enola Gay sowed some doubt in people’s minds.

Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland are all in the top ten least-religious countries, with each having less than 6 % trotting off to church on Sundays.

China is also very low, however (9%), and with 80% falling under the category atheist. Not the kind of place you want to get too vocal about anything other than ping-pong, but at the same not the kind of place where you live in fear of ever being shot for your cell-phone or hi-jacked in your car.

So to conclude:

On the basis of countries like Portugal and Ireland, we cannot say that countries are hampered by the presence of religion in terms of providing a safe, just, humane climate for their citizens. But at the same time, we can most certainly conclude that the specific presence of religion is not in the least bit necessary in this regard. It’s hard to argue with the maths.

An afterthought:
One of the most common arguments put forward by Christians regarding these statistics is that the Northern European countries were all built on a Christian foundation. But they don’t follow this argument through. If they did they would conclude that the best thing to do would be to then abandon Christianity, as these countries have done. Nor do they acknowledge that the introduction of Christianity to Africa and South America did not do much for the inhabitants of these continents.  To the contrary in many if not most cases. All evidence points to the fact that the Xhosa here in the Eastern Cape, for example, had a far more just and humane society before the arrival of armies and missionaries from Europe, when they simply communed with The Ancestors and employed the logic which so impressed the early European explorers and men of the Enlightenment. All Christianity did in the case of these tribal societies was introduce much more absurd hocus pocus than what they already had, along with a good dollop of guilt regarding stuff that was all perfectly natural and human.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

10 years after 9/11

It’s the ten year anniversary of 9/11. We all remember exactly where we were when it happened, don’t we? It’s like John Lennon or JFK or the Berlin Wall was. 

I was in PE. It was 2 days before a musical event that me and some mates were putting on, in an old church. We’d spent three months working on it: making film projections (with actual old 16mm film, clips from 1950s Austrian newsreels my mate Graham had found on an Ostrich farm in Malmesbury), organising bands, building a stage-set on the alter using bits of the old Swartkops Power Station as props. Man… you had to be there: PE’s best-ever band, Strange Little Man, fronted by Kendall Beadon, brother of Fletcher from African Dope in Cape Town, and a host of other musicians. Pete Badenhorst flew in from Cape Town for it. Hagen Engler was there. Yeah… it was a hell of a thing. And for one night only! Haha! What the fuck were we thinking?

And then 9/11 happened. Man, it threw us for a wobbly. Grant Bain (the lead act, a genius guitarist but unstable at the best of times) in particular went totally mental. And Anthony Panniotti… mad Greek drummer, burned the US flag on stage. Hell of a thing…

But I’ll never forget me and Grant Bain driving that night the towers fell, to Donald Woodhead’s house to fetch something, I forget what. A sheet to use as a screen or something. Man, there was NOBODY! The streets were dead. Never before or since in all the years I’ve lived in PE have I seen anything like it. Not a soul on the streets. Everyone at home in front of the TV: Armageddon. Finally it was here.

But we couldn’t stop. The show must go on… It was a Helluva thing. I’ll never forget.

But now it’s ten years down the line. I’m older now. More clinical, more rational. Head no longer up my own arse. No more belief in magic and fairytales. Just cold hard facts. And if you can’t deal with them and want to make up fairy tales then don’t be surprised when they get shot down.

Facebook is already overflowing with comments, and links to sites peddling dubious conspiracy theories. What seems to be lacking in all this is a sense of understanding of the real working world of journalism. If I as a journalist uncover evidence that Americans themselves engineered the attack, why are my findings only viewable on dodgy websites and videos that are passed from person to person on the net, self-published books and the like? There are more than enough newspapers in countries outside America that are not controlled by American multinationals and that would pay me very handsomely if I presented them with irrefutable proof that there was nobody on those planes, that the whole thing was engineered so as to have an excuse to invade Arab countries with oil. (That it was later used as one is beside the point.)

The truth is, there is no such proof. The cold hard facts are as follows: There were real live people on that plane that went down in Pennnsylvania. Just ask the director of United 92. He spoke to their loved ones. They told him exactly what their wives and husbands had said in phone calls minutes before they died. There were funerals. Photographs. Cold hard facts. Yes, history is a construct. But certain things are irrefutable: The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and not Porto’Spain. Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not Nairobi and Hellsinki. Simple, documented fact. It was a plane that hit the Pentagon, not a rocket. Those people on that plane all died. Their families know that. Unless… what? The US government rounded these people up, took them off into the desert in Nevada and disposed of them, and then sent the planes off to their fiery doom? Without anyone spilling the beans? Despite any informer knowing that spilling the beans would make them a multi-millionaire?

When I learn that a third of Americans are running around believing this nonsense, I am not that surprised. Creeping into Hollywood films of various genres in the last 20 years has been a deep mistrust of the state, especially the FBI and the CIA. A deep paranoia seems to have gripped many in America that the state is undermining their freedoms and wants to take their guns away. Government is increasingly viewed as a meddling Big Brother, ready to pounce and close down churches, strip people of their freedom of speech and remodel the country into some kind of politically correct, multicultural gulag.

  The conspiracy theories in response towards 9/11 that this mindset has encouraged would all be laughable were they not so deeply narcissistic.  There has been absolutely no credible evidence whatsoever to suggest that the Pentagon was hit by a missile and then bits of a plane placed on the scene. Thousands of people, from rescue workers to witnesses, would have to have been involved in a cover-up so vast it boggles the mind. Not to mention the logistics of taking those bits of dead passengers still strapped to their airplane seats and placing them strategically amongst the rubble (after first killing and mutilating them in Nevada, remember?). All without anyone seeing or spilling the beans. Not one person involved in this had the slightest inkling of guilt in slaughtering his fellow-Americans? Right…

What makes this narcissistic (and deeply offensive to many of us non-Americans) is the fact that the US government (and specifically the CIA) has been involved in a litany of dirty deeds across the globe - specifically in little South American states conducting harmless little experiments in socialism - since the start of the Cold War. These have all been documented extensively, and hundreds of thousands if not millions have been left dead their wake. Everybody here in South Africa knows the CIA assisted the SANDF in our little escapades in Angola.

But none of this matters really, because we in the Third World are expendable. No real live Americans were harmed or injured in any way in the making of those little films.

It would be nice if those Americans who so mistrust their government started looking seriously at the discord and dirty deeds that government has been sowing and perpetrating outside of its own borders for the last 50 years before they start cooking up laughable narcissistic theories about 9/11. But to do that they have to first take their heads out of their own arses, and realise that we’re just like them: when our loved ones die we also grieve, and we also want answers. Some even want retribution.