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.