Southern Africa Prep Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Southern Africa Prep Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 2012 Evelyn C. Leeper.


If you have been reading my column for a couple of years, you know that before I go on a trip, I read a lot of books as research. Before going to Italy, I read two dozen books in preparation. That may have been over-kill. So for our trip to South Africa (or more accurately, southern Africa), I did not read quite so many. (This may be due in part to not being presented with a really long recommended list this time.)

A note on terminology: In South Africa, "Coloured" is not a derogatory name for blacks (as it is in the United States), but a specific legal classification (or, according to one book I read, a group of seven sub-classifications). Indeed, it is specifically not black, but primarily "mixed race". (Indians had a separate classification as well.) To emphasize this meaning I will use the South African spelling and capitalization rather than the American version (i.e., "Coloured" versus "colored"). And in case it is not obvious, the term "African-American" is completely inappropriate, and as "African" is prone to misinterpretation (born in South Africa, Charlize Theron is at least in some sense African), I will use "black" to describe that segment of the population that is descended from those groups living in southern Africa before the arrival of the Europeans.


THE MIND OF SOUTH AFRICA by Alister Sparks:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/03/2012]

The first book I read (simply because it was available in my local library, rather than through Inter-Library Loan) was THE MIND OF SOUTH AFRICA by Alister Sparks (ISBN 0-394-58108-3), written in 1989 and published in 1990, apparently right about the time that F. W. De Klerk announced massive changes in South Africa's political system. These led to the dismantling of apartheid and the enfranchisement of the black and Coloured populations, but these were not seen as inevitable, and as with many books dealing with politics, THE MIND OF SOUTH AFRICA's hindsight is better than its predictive ability. For example, Sparks looks at how the history of Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) went, and says it is "conspicuously relaxed in its race relations today. ... In part ... it is because of the exemplary gestures of reconciliation made by Zimbabwe's black leader, Robert Mugabe." As the intervening years have shown, race relations have not continued in a "relaxed" fashion, and Mugabe's reputation is not nearly so good as it used to be.

Later, Sparks writes about racism in various societies and notes, "Jesse Jackson is regarded as unelectable to the presidency of the United States..." Well, that was true in 1989--and it is still true, but that does not mean that Obama is unelectable, nor even that a candidate like Obama would have been unelectable then.

One of Sparks's premises seems to be that the conflict between the two European powers in South Africa (the Dutch Afrikaners and the British) was a struggle between Dutch Calvinism (and predestination) and English Methodism. He also sees the Afrikaners' attempt to hold back the tide of majority rule and anti-colonialism as due to their unique position in the world of colonialists. Everywhere else the white colonialists had a mother country to maintain their culture and see that it survived, and indeed to which they could return if they wanted to. The British in Kenya knew that British culture, language, and traditions would survive in Britain, and that they could return to Britain if Kenya no longer suited them. The Dutch in Surinam knew that Dutch culture, language, and traditions would survive in Holland, and that they could return to Holland if Surinam no longer suited them. But the Afrikaners were no longer Dutch. Their culture and language existed only in South Africa, and if it did not survive there, it would vanish entirely. So the Afrikaners were in a much more desperate position (from the standpoint of cultural survival) than any other colonial powers. Sparks does not give this as justification for apartheid, but as explanation for the historical forces that produced it.

Speaking of apartheid, Sparks writes, "Two minds, two worlds, one country: the kind of country H. G. Wells might have invented, or that Jonathan Swift might have sent Gulliver to, where people occupy the same space but live in different time frames so that they do not see each other and perceive different realities." Or perhaps more accurately now, the kind of world that China Mieville might have written about in THE CITY & THE CITY.

What would be your reaction if you read, "The early [pioneers] developed, in their way, perhaps the most boundless individualism that has existed anywhere. They build few villages and felt cramped if they lived within sight of a neighbour's chimney smoke. They had almost no institutions. Each man was absolute master of his own affairs, self-reliant, unencumbered, free. ... So he became inward-looking, concerned only with himself and his immediate family, unaccustomed to relating to others or to considering the views and feelings of outsiders. It made him proud and self-assertive, but it also made him stubborn and intolerant. So the [pioneers] became a disputatious and schismatic people, with groups constantly splitting and moving away from perceived interference toward greater autonomy."? It sounds like the sort of values being promoted these days by certain political parties. But Sparks did not say "pioneers"--he said "Afrikaners", and he was talking about South Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries. This should give someone pause before unconditionally embracing the values expressed.

To order The Mind of South Africa from amazon.com, click here.


LONG WALK TO FREEDOM by Nelson Mandela:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/03/2012]

The one book everyone agrees must be read is Nelson Mandela's LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (ISBN 978-0-316-54585-3). This does a good job not only of laying out Mandela's philosophy and his role in the anti-apartheid struggle, but also of the history of the movement, the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, the Inkatha Freedom Party, and all the other players in the South African drama. In fact, my main complaint is that there is too much detail; at times it seems as if Mandela feels obliged to mention everyone he ever met.

One incident struck me not for its part in Mandela's story, but for its familiarity. Mandela writes of his 1957 trial:

"To support the state's extraordinary allegation that we intended to replace the existing government with a Soviet-style state, the Crown relied on the evidence of Professor Andrew Murray, head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Cape Town. Murray labeled many of the documents seized from us, including the Freedom Charter itself, as communistic.

Professor Murray, seemed, at the outset, relatively knowledgeable, but that was until [Vernon] Berrange began his cross-examination. Berrange said that he wanted to read Murray a number of passages from various documents and then have Murray label them communistic or not. Berrange read him the first passage, which concerned the need for ordinary workers to cooperate with each other and not exploit one another. Communistic, Murray said. Berrange then noted that the statement had been made by the former premier of South Africa, Dr. Malan. Berrange proceeded to read him two other statements, both of which Professor Murray described as communistic. These passages had in fact been uttered by the American presidents Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson. The highlight came when Berrange read Murray a passage that the professor unhesitatingly described as 'communism straight from the shoulder.' Berrange then revealed that it was a statement that Professor Murray himself had written in the 1930s."

(The reference to the Crown is because South Africa did not leave the British Commonwealth until 1961.)

This was almost exactly duplicated in A CASE OF LIBEL, which was a dramatization of the real Quentin Reynolds-Westbrook Pegler case (which pre-dated the Mandela trial). As described by Henry Denker:

"The clash reaches its boiling point when Sloane waves sheets of paper and quotes passages from articles by Corcoran. Bendix characterizes the quotes as Red propaganda, Communist inspired, not realizing that midway Sloane has begun to quote statements from his [Bendix's] own writings. Sloane coaxes Bendix to declare that the writer of the articles is without a doubt a Communist. Sloane brandishes the papers and submits in evidence 'certain writings from the columns of Boyd Bendix!'"

Whether Reynolds's lawyer actually did this (and if so, whether Berrange knew of it), or whether the author of A CASE OF LIBEL borrowed it from Mandela's trial as being a good dramatic touch is not clear.

Mandela's popularity has suffered among those who think he favors the Palestinians too much, so here's my take on that. The situation in the Middle East has some elements of what Sparks talked about in THE MIND OF SOUTH AFRICA. Sparks said that the Afrikaners are not a colonial group with allegiance to a home culture somewhere else; time has made them inextricably connected to South Africa. Similarly, both sides in the Middle East conflict, while to various extents originating elsewhere, no longer have those ties and for better or worse must come to an arrangement in the lands they are disputing.

To order Long Walk to Freedom from amazon.com, click here.


SOUTH AFRICA BELONGS TO US: A HISTORY OF THE ANC by Francis Meli:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/03/2012]

SOUTH AFRICA BELONGS TO US: A HISTORY OF THE ANC by Francis Meli (ISBN 0-85225-332-3) was written in 1988, so it also is now quite out of date. Given that Meli held high positions in the ANC, it is not surprising that the book is very much slanted toward the ANC's point of view. For example, Meli writes, "It is true that Marx defined religion as 'the opiate' of the people, but the religion of blacks in South Africa, especially those associated with the ANC, has been unusual. African converts, since Nehemiah Tales in the 1880s, had rejected white Christianity and therefore one cannot equate black religion in South Africa with religion in general." Well, Jews had also rejected white Christianity, but that did not mean that Marx did not include Judaism in his condemnation of religion. (By the way, the ANC just celebrated its centenary this past January 8.)

A bigger problem is that the book is encyclopedic rather than narrative. That is, it is fine for looking up who were the organizers of the May 1950 strikes, but not the sort of book one can sit down and read cover to cover.

To order South Africa Belongs to Us from amazon.com, click here.


MY TRAITOR'S HEART by Rian Malan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/03/2012]

MY TRAITOR'S HEART by Rian Malan (ISBN 0-87113-229-X) was published in 1990, but seems to have been written before apartheid started to disappear. And so it suffers even more than THE MIND OF SOUTH AFRICA from being (at least up until now, almost twenty years after South Africa's transition to a fully-enfranchised democracy) almost completely wrong about the country's trajectory. The result is that the follow-up is as fascinating as the book.

Rian Malan is an Afrikaaner, a descendent of some of the most famous of early settlers, and a relative of some of the most notorious politicians of the apartheid era. He says in the book that he saw himself as a white liberal, but ultimately decided that it was impossible for whites to understand the situation of blacks in South Africa, or to effectively ally with them, and in any case black rage against whites would extend to all whites, regardless of their individual beliefs. He chose a series of murders as a way to show how everything in South Africa led to violence and would eventually lead to race war.

So far, this has not happened.

At first, after the elections of 1994, Malan kept telling people, "Wait and see; you'll see I was right." He pointed to every violent incident as proof. But eventually, in 2004, he wrote, "The laws of poetic symmetry dictate that we should have been wiped out or at least dispossessed in the great war of 1994. Instead, we are citizens of a stable democracy with an independent judiciary and a constitution that is a beacon unto nations.... To be sure, there are problems on the horizon, but it is not the ending I imagined. All I can say as the 10th anniversary nears is that the Bible was right about a thing or two. It is infinitely worse to receive than to give, especially if one is arrogant and the gift is forgiveness or mercy. The gift of 1994 was so huge that I choked on it and couldn't say thank you. But I am not too proud to say it now."

And (completely off-topic) in MY TRAITOR'S HEART I found yet another connection to DEATH OF A SALESMAN:

"Andries Petrus Hendricks was born in 1910, the younger son of an Orange Free State farmer who expected him to make his own way in life. In the early thirties, young Andries set off to seek his fortune in the Sperrgebiet--the forbidden zone, the nightmarish desert coast of South-West Africa where the beaches were said to be littered with diamonds. Andries and his brother disappeared into the wilderness in a donkey cart. They almost perished out there, but when they came back four months later they were rich men...."

Was Malan unconsciously echoing Ben in DEATH OF A SALESMAN:

"William, when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And, by God, I was rich."

To order My Traitor's Heart from amazon.com, click here.


CROSSING THE LINE: A YEAR IN THE LAND OF APARTHEID by William Finnegan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/10/2012]

Another personal memoir was CROSSING THE LINE: A YEAR IN THE LAND OF APARTHEID by William Finnegan (ISBN 978-0-520-08872-6). Finnegan was an American who had been backpacking around the world and ended up spending the year of 1980 in South Africa teaching in a "Coloured" high school in Cape Town. As such, he saw the two school boycotts of that year from a unique perspective, and his outsider (American) status gave him some opportunities for interaction that white South Africans would not have had. For Americans, Finnegan may be more accessible than Rian Malan (MY TRAITOR'S HEART, discussed last week), because Finnegan is writing from an American perspective.

However, what is striking is that both Malan (writing in 1990) and Finnegan (writing in 1986) saw little hope for a peaceful transition to a democratic government (with "one-person-one-vote") in South Africa; both basically predicted civil war. But while there was certainly violence throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the election of 1994 was held in relative peace, and the results--a sweeping victory for the African National Party--were eventually accepted by all. No one denies it has been a bumpy road, both before and after the transition, but one need only look at other African countries' attempts to transition power to see what a miracle South Africa has been.

To order Crossing the Line from amazon.com, click here.


THE WASHING OF THE SPEARS by Donald Morris:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/10/2012]

THE WASHING OF THE SPEARS by Donald Morris (ISBN 0-671-20233-2) was not recommended, but since it was in the house, I figured I might as well read it. Morris is highly regarded, but seems in many ways to reflect the beliefs and prejudices of the time in which it was written (it was published in 1965). For example, he states that the Zulu (or Bantu, as he calls them) "probably entered Africa with their cattle from the Fertile Crescent something over 10,000 years ago." Now, of course, it is recognized that the ancestors of the Zulu were in Africa all along.

He also seems fairly dismissive of the "Bushmen" (also called the "San") and the "Hottentots". These days, of course, the terms "Bushmen" and "San" are each considered derogatory by some groups of people, and "Hottentots" are now called the Khoikhoi. Morris does recognize that the previously-used term "Kaffir" had become a derogatory one, which is why he replaces it with "Bantu", but the use of the term "Bantu" by the apartheid government in South Africa makes its current use problematic.

Morris says that Shaka Zulu "was unquestionably a latent homosexual, and despite the fact that his genitals had more than made up for their previous dilatoriness, so that he always took great pride in bathing in full public view, he was probably impotent." Morris was only with great difficulty able to determine what battles Shaka fought in and what military innovations he introduced; the notion that he could determine that someone who lived and died two hundred years ago in a preliterate society was a latent homosexual can these days only be described as hubristic.

However, when Morris moves into the details of the Anglo-Zulu War it becomes much more fact-based. I can understand why this is the definitive work, and my only complaint is that there is so much detail that it is impossible for the "casual" reader to keep track of it all. A glossary of Bantu terms would definitely have helped, as Morris uses a lot of Zulu terms which he defines once and then assumes the reader will remember. There are also an incredible number of people to try to keep straight, and my unfamiliarity with the geography did not help. (I mean, if I am reading about Revolutionary War battles in New Jersey, and the author talks about the terrain near Princeton, or marching from Freehold to Hightstown, I can picture it. But I cannot do the same for South Africa, even with maps.)

To order The Washing of the Spears from amazon.com, click here.


SHAKA KING OF THE ZULUS by Daniel Cohen:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/10/2012]

I also read SHAKA KING OF THE ZULUS by Daniel Cohen (ISBN 978-0- 385-02509-6), again because it was in the house. This seems to be aimed at "young adults" (i.e., teenagers), although the amount of discussion about sex seems uncharacteristic of books promoted to teenagers when I was one. Cohen covers the main points without inundating the reader with details, and provides a glossary as well, so was much easier to follow than the chapters of Morris covering the same period. (Morris covers the entire period from the rise of Dingiswayo to the end of the Anglo-Zulu War.) Cohen also provides some guidance in his "Suggestions for Further Reading", with notes such as "The author tends to the view that Shaka was simply a monster" or "This is a unique treatment of Shaka as a political figure rather than as an anthropological curiosity."

To order Shaka King of the Zulus from amazon.com, click here.


SOUTH AFRICA by Anthony Trollope:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/17/2012]

For the last two weeks I have been talked about non-fiction books that I read in preparation for our southern Africa trip. This week I will wrap up with comments on some fiction and some films. But first, one more non-fiction book, by an author better known for his fiction. I read Anthony Trollope's SOUTH AFRICA (ISBNs 978-0-86299-319-1 and 978-0-86299-357-3), written in 1877. While perhaps the most literary of the books, it is also the most racially biased (for all that Trollope appears to think himself a "progressive" Englishman).

Of the Dutch settler's attitude toward slavery, Trollope writes, "Taking him altogether we shall own that we was not a cruel slave owner, but he was one to whom slavery of itself was in no way repugnant." These days, even if this is not a self-contradictory statement, historical records indicate that the treatment of slaves was indeed cruel.

Equally incorrect is Trollope's perspective on the Zulu War (which he calls the "fifth Kafir war"--he doesn't even give it the dignity of capital letters). He says, "It began in 1850, and seems to have been instigated by a Kafir prophet." This is the only mention of Shaka Zulu, and is the equivalent of saying (with no sense of irony) that the European war in the early 19th century "seems to have been instigated by a Corsican soldier." Then of the period after the war he writes, "In this time there came up a prophecy among the Kafirs that they were to be restored to all their pristine glories and possessions not by living aid but by the dead. Their old warriors would return to the world from the distant world, and they themselves would all become young, beautiful, and invincible. But great faith was needed. They would find fat cattle in caves numerous as their hearts might desire; and rich fields of flowing corn would spring up for them as food was required. Only they must kill all their own cattle, and must refrain from sowing seed." Everything I have read indicates that these drastic measures were not to satisfy some prophecy of victory, but were mandated by Shaka Zulu as mourning ceremonies for his mother.

Regarding self-government by, or even the franchise for, the non- white population, Trollope makes a comparison: "It is a matter of course that Ceylon [now Sri Lanka] should be governed as a Crown Colony,--with edicts and laws from Downing Street, administered by the hand of a Governor. A Cingalee Parliament would be an absurdity in our eyes." The franchise should be granted to all regardless of color, according to Trollope, but it should "admit only those who are fit." (He makes several references to the post- Civil War South, and one need only look at its use of voting tests to see where this would lead.)

Later, Trollope says (apparently with a straight face), "It was not intended that the country should be taken away from the Kafirs;-- but only the rule over the country, and the privilege of living in accordance with their own customs." I'm sure were it another country--say, Germany--who wanted not to take Britain away from the Britons, but merely rule over it and take away the privilege of the Britons to live in accordance with their own customs, Trollope wouldn't mind at all.

Of the labor situation, Trollope tells of black workers who would trod out the wool for 4s.6d. a day. Not a day's journey away, white men were earning 1s.7d. plus board, or the equivalent of 2s.6d. a day to build a dam. "They explained to us that they had found it very hard to get any job, and had taken this almost in despair. But they wouldn't have trod the wool along with the black men, even for 4s.6d." Does this sound familiar? If not, check out the web site TakeOurJobs.org, a site trying to match up people who are unemployed and complaining about illegal immigrants taking all the jobs, with the jobs that illegal immigrants take. What it has revealed is that many of the people who say they want illegal immigration ended because of the jobs would not take a job as a migrant farm worker.

Speaking of the transition from Dutch (or what we now call Afrikaans) to English, he says, "Now [English] is general everywhere in the colony, though of course Dutch is still spoken by the descendants of the Dutch among themselves: and church services in the Lutheran churches are performed in Dutch. It will probably take another century to expel the language." Well, okay, that is clearly a prediction that has not come to pass.

To order South Africa (Vol. I) from amazon.com, click here.

To order South Africa (Vol. II) from amazon.com, click here.


THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY by Alexander McCall Smith:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/17/2012]

While most of my reading for this trip was about South Africa, Botswana did not get completely ignored: I re-read (or rather, re-listened to the audiobook of) THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY by Alexander McCall Smith (ISBN 978-1-4000-3477-9). McCall Smith may be Botswana's best good-will ambassador; though there are villains in his books, on the whole he makes Botswana seem wonderful and its citizens honest, friendly people. When there is corruption revealed, it is punished, which is not the way of most of the rest of Africa. If Mma Ramotswe bemoans the loss of many of the traditional values, she is also proud of how much her country has achieved.

But McCall Smith has now written twelve books in the series, and he is starting to forget (or ignore) things he said earlier, resulting in inconsistencies. For example, in the first book he says, "Mma Makutsi was the widow of a teacher and had just passed their general typing and secretarial examinations with an average grade of 97 percent." Her widowhood seems to have disappeared and by book four (THE KALAHARI TYPING SCHOOL FOR MEN) Grace Makutsi has apparently never been married, or even had much to do with men at all.

Also, McCall Smith initially wrote of Mma Ramotswe's inheritance (that let her start the agency), "She went to the lawyer at Pilane, who had arranged for her to get her father's money. He had organized the sale of the cattle, and had got a good price for them. 'I have got a lot of money for you,' he said. 'Your father's herd had grown and grown." But in book seven (THE MIRACLE AT SPEEDY MOTORS), Mma Ramotswe says, "I have a large herd. My daddy was very good with cattle. He left me some very fine beasts, and they multiplied. There are many of them now." That in book one the herd was spoken of in the past tense indicates that they had all been sold, yet in book seven she still seems to own most of them.

Of course, these are the same sorts of contradictions one finds in Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. They are interesting to note, but do not detract from the stories themselves. See also my reviews at:

To order The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency from amazon.com, click here.


BEETHOVEN WAS ONE-SIXTEENTH BLACK AND OTHER STORIES by Nadine Gordimer:

LOOT AND OTHER STORIES by Nadine Gordimer:

DISGRACE by J. M. Coetzee:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/17/2012]

BEETHOVEN WAS ONE-SIXTEENTH BLACK AND OTHER STORIES (ISBN 978-0- 374-10982-0) and LOOT AND OTHER STORIES (ISBN 978-0-374-19090-3) by Nadine Gordimer are two collections of stories by one of South Africa's leading writers. I suppose some of them have some sense of the place in them, but I think maybe you need to be South African to appreciate it. (Somehow I get a stronger sense of place of Botswana from McCall Smith's "Number One Ladies Detective Agency" stories.) The same is less true for me of J. M. Coetzee's DISGRACE (ISBN 978-0-670-88731-5), which gives at least some feel of the rural areas of South Africa, albeit an unfavorable one.

Gordimer does seem to be a member of the "longer sentences are better" club: "This sort of pleasant exchange struck up only after the tape on a glass signalled that the host, Minister or Chairman, was about to make a welcoming speech, and discussion of the latest announcement or 'pending' announcements (development topics had their own evasive lingua franca) on trade tariffs, bills coming before parliament for land reform, proceedings of Mercasur, SADEC, the EU, had been respectfully listened to or contested over the skill of eating and drinking without appearing to be aware of this lowly function." 84 words, 8 commas--and it's not even a sentence, but a sentence fragment. Between Gordimer and Jose Saramago, I begin to wonder if the Nobel committee doesn't have some sentence- length requirement for laureates.

I have no idea if Beethoven was one-sixteenth black.

To order Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories from amazon.com, click here.

To order Loot and Other Stories from amazon.com, click here.

To order Disgrace from amazon.com, click here.


South African Movies:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/17/2012]

I re-watched a few movies: INVICTUS, THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY (set in Botswana), GOLD, THE WILBY CONSPIRACY, ZULU DAWN, ZULU, and DISTRICT 9. Of the latter, the highest (indirect) praise came from a (white) friend who came from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and lived for a while in South Africa during apartheid. He said that he started to watch DISTRICT 9, but found it too painful because of its accuracy in paralleling how white South Africans treated blacks.


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