|Professor Sampie Terreblanche’s Lecture on Inequality in South Africa: A Review by Claire Vermaak
AIDS: Crisis and Resistance A review by Mandisa Mbali
A South African architecture: what is it, where is it?
Passageways: Revisiting Self, The Society of the Spectacle and Moby-Dick by Darryl Accone
Land: Critical Choices for South Africa: A review by Peter Dwyer
Review of David Theo Godlberg’s lecture The Death of Race
Bram Fischer and the Question of Identity
The African Renaissance and the Neo-Liberal World Order: A review by Peter Dwyer
Education & Social Movements - From peoples Education to Neoliberalism
Another journalism is possible : Critical challenges for the media in South Africa
Review of Stephen Friedman’s “Why South African Democracy has not Reduced Inequality”
Professor Sampie Terreblanche’s Lecture on Inequality in South Africa: A Review by Claire Vermaak
The timing of the first lecture in the 2003 Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture Series couldn’t have been better, coming the day after the National Budget was delivered in Parliament.
Professor Terreblanche is a leading Afrikaner intellectual. Educated at the University of Stellenbosch and Harvard, he is currently Emeritus Professor at Stellenbosch. He has written eight books on issues relating to economic history and policy. Professor Terreblanche’s most recent book is “Inequality in South Africa: 1652 – 2002”, which has generated widespread media sensation and controversy, especially over its comments on poverty.
In his presentation, Terreblanche outlined six broad periods of South Africa’s economic history, each with a different power constellation. In each of these periods, political, economic and ideological power was concentrated in the hands of a small power elite and this elite used ideology to legitimise the use and misuse of its power.
During the first twenty minutes of the lecture, Terreblanche discussed each of the six periods in turn: Dutch colonialism (1652 – 1800), British colonialism (1800 – 1890), the two Boer republics, British hegemony (1890 – 1948), the Afrikaner establishment (1948 – 1994) and the democratic period (1994 – present). He outlined the way in which South Africa’s economic and political structure had arisen, leading to the development of racial capitalism. In particular, he emphasised how exploitative labour practices and discriminatory legislation had contributed to patterns of inequality. However, due to the time constraint and the enormous quantity of material Terreblanche was unable to develop his analysis of these periods in any real depth. This part of his lecture acted as an historical overview without adding anything substantively new to the common understanding of historical inequality.
The remainder of the lecture focussed on the period of political and economic transition since the mid-1980s. Between 1985 and 1994, South Africa experienced an “integrated organic crisis” made up of three parts: (1) a survival and legitimation crisis by the Afrikaner establishment, (2) an accumulation crisis by the corporate sector and (3) a social and poverty crisis by the poorest 50% of South Africans. Parallel to the formal political negotiations that took place at Kempton Park between the ANC and NP, a series of informal negotiations on the nature of the new economic system and economic policies also took place. During these negotiations, the corporate sector persuaded the ANC to follow a neo-liberal global economic approach, and no deals were forthcoming on policies to combat poverty. Thus the three parts of the organic crisis were not simultaneously addressed. As a result, in the post-apartheid period, the system of unequal power relations remains a dominant feature of the South African economy. Too much power, Terreblanche maintains, is concentrated in the hands of the white-dominated corporate sector and global corporatism, with the ANC convinced of the benefits of liberal capitalism and globalisation.
I found this to be the most interesting part of the lecture. While, along with most people, I had a fairly good understanding of the formal ANC-NP negotiations, I was much less conscious of the informal negotiations with the corporate sector. An awareness and understanding of this latter process is integral to an appreciation of how the ANC’s attitude to poverty and inequality and how its economic policies have been shaped away from socialism and towards liberal capitalism. Had Terreblanche’s lecture focussed more on the specifics of these informal negotiations, he could have offered a greater contribution and insight into the political dynamics of poverty.
Terreblanche characterised the current South African economic context as being that of a two-world nation. The first part is a multi-racial, powerful, rich first-world enclave consisting of 5 million whites and 10 million blacks. The second part is a socio-economically powerless group on the third-world periphery, consisting of 23 million people, most of them black. The remaining 4 million South Africans waver between these two groups, and could move either up or down.
Terreblanche then outlined his expectations for the future of this two-world nation. He believes the enclave will further detach from the labour market and will not be inclined to serve the poor. The government maintains that it is currently “winning the battle against poverty”, but given the weakness of the public sector, the gap between the bourgeoisie and the lumpen proletariat will continue to grow. Terreblanche therefore described South Africa’s transformation as being incomplete: the political transformation has taken place, but the socio-economic transformation has not. The top 30% of income earners have become richer, while the bottom 50% have become poorer, resulting in a “poverty snowball” that has developed since 1970. Although the government directs some spending towards poverty upliftment, this is not enough to meet the needs of the poor. Terreblanche offered an explanation of this by maintaining that government power and sovereignty have been restricted by the corporate sector, resulting in insufficient resources being used to address poverty.
Next, Terreblanche briefly outlined some recent political developments relating to inequality that have been widely publicised in the media. President Thabo Mbeki has claimed that the government is pushing back the frontiers of poverty, and that it is unpatriotic to allege that the poor are becoming poorer. When KwaZulu-Natal Premier Lionel Mtshali claimed that South Africa’s economic situation was deteriorating, in terms of worsening unemployment, inflation and recession, Mbeki countered that such criticism was not a proper exercise of leadership. In his State of the Nation address, Mbeki highlighted the sensitive issue of measuring changes in poverty levels by saying that “every statistic becomes a matter of ideological and political debate” and that despite published statistics indicating an increase in poverty, “none of us should go around scaring people”. The statistics referred to, as collected by Statistics SA, show that the poorest 50% of South Africans were poorer in 2002 than in 1995. Between 1996 and 2001, the proportion of people below the minimum living level rose from 44% to 50%, an increase of 5 million people. Terreblanche argued that the ANC government does not appreciate the comprehensiveness, depth and endogeneity of poverty. He said that he could not understand why he and others were being criticised and resented for trying to understand poverty, stating that he believes this is the responsibility of academics.
Terreblanche concluded by offering his thoughts on the Budget delivered in Parliament the previous day. He felt that the increase in government spending was inadequate, in that many social grants had not increased in real terms. He explained that this did not surprise him, using the metaphor that one cannot expect the doctor to prescribe new medicine if he does not believe that the illness is severe. Terreblanche labelled this a “rich man’s budget”, citing the tax cuts given to the enclave of those who are employed. He stated that the Budget is oriented towards growth, rather than distribution, which further propagates the myth that economic growth will pull the poor out of poverty. In fact, he believes, the chances of job creation and trickle-down effects from this Budget are slim, and that the rich will continue to get richer, while the poor get poorer. Finally, he asserted that the additional social spending announced in the Budget is inadequate, and that South Africa’s poor are still being systematically neglected.
The respondent to Professor Terreblanche’s presentation was Professor Julian May of the School of Development Studies, who offered a very measured response, highlighting a number of areas where Terreblanche could have added new insight to the existing understanding of poverty. He praised Terreblanche’s book for being “bluntly honest” and not letting whites off the hook in terms of their role in propagating inequality. May mentioned, however, that on the basis of the book and the talk, it was difficult to pin down the reason for the political and media controversy that surrounded the release of the book. He found Terreblanche’s review of policy analysis to be interesting, and posed the important question of whether people in South Africa are able to ‘get ahead’ by moving up the income distribution.
May characterised the South African economy by saying that market hostility to the poor and the ANC’s decisions on poverty were part of the logic of a mineral-rich economy. He took Mbeki and Trevor Manuel’s statements that the macroeconomic fundamentals are right and South Africa now needs the right microeconomic policies, and asked the question “what are these microeconomic policies?”, an issue not addressed by Terreblanche. May mentioned various options such as redistribution, land reforms and social grants, which he felt could have been discussed further. May criticised the use of money as a measure of poverty by Terreblanche and others, stating that if social services were used as a proxy for access to resources, the poverty situation looked more promising. This is a particularly important aspect, as many government policies have aimed at combating poverty indirectly, through improving resource access, rather than directly, by improving access to income. May highlighted the defensiveness of the government towards Terreblanche’s book, Stats SA’s recent statistics and the Income and Expenditure Survey, finding this behaviour particularly curious as this government has a ready-made excuse for poverty: it can blame it on the five previous periods of unequal power relations. May’s responses thus effectively highlighted many of the shortcomings of Terreblanche’s lecture.
The forum was then turned over to audience members, who packed the Howard College Theatre to the point of overflowing, reflecting both the controversy surrounding the book and the importance of inequality alleviation. Questions were posed by academics, students and other interested parties, and were focussed mainly on issues relating to the current economic system (and alternatives to it) and the role of civil society. Audience members asked whether the global economy had ever seen responsible capitalism, and what the alternatives to this system could be, as although Terreblanche had criticised the prevailing system of liberal capitalism, he had not offered alternatives to it. Terreblanche responded that ‘capitalism’ is by far the dominant part of our ‘democratic capitalism’, where the government has been co-opted by close relations with global corporatism. He maintained that although he feels the continental European social democracy is a more responsible system than US/British liberal capitalism, South Africa does not have the tax capacity to implement a social democratic system. Another audience member responded that, in his experience, even the social democratic system is not much kinder to the poor than liberal capitalism.
Other questions focussed on the hostility of the state to dissent, and the repression of the poor when they try to exert pressure on the government. Terreblanche maintained that the lack of a strong civil society was partly responsible for this situation. Although civil society played a strong role during apartheid, it had become paralysed as its leaders moved into senior positions, leaving civil society leaderless. It is necessary to explore ways in which to strengthen the role that civil society plays in our democracy, Terreblanche argued, and to include the poor in decision-making, as the ANC has become a middle-stratum party.
As the audience members left the auditorium in search of refreshments and continued discussion, I was left with the impression that the lecture had merely managed to scratch the surface of an exceptionally complex and important debate. Rather than focus on and analyse in depth a part of the topic, Terreblanche had chosen to cover a wide range of issues, and thus had battled to really deepen the existing knowledge of many audience members. Nevertheless, there were several fascinating and informative parts to the lecture, and it generated much subsequent debate, further fostering interest in the role of academics and civil society in combating poverty and inequality.
AIDS: Crisis and Resistance A review by Mandisa Mbali
By Alan Whiteside (HEARD) and Mark Heywood (TAC and AIDS Law Project)
AIDS in South Africa is widely recognised as representing an enormous crisis for South Africa. According to the government’s own statistics 200 000 people are projected to die of AIDS in 2003: which the TAC claim translates into an average of 600 people dying of AIDS per day. However, in the upper echelons of government it appears that the urgency of the situation is less well recognised. Assertions of AIDS denial by senior members of the South African government and its withdrawal from the NEDLAC negotiations for a National Treatment Plan have placed government on a firm collision course with civil society and in particular the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).
In this context, the Second Wolpe lecture for 2003, which was a debate between Health Economist Professor Alan Whiteside and TAC secretary general and Applied Legal Studies academic Mark Heywood, had a great social and political relevance and urgency.
Professor Alan Whiteside’s Presentation
The debate began with Prof Alan Whiteside, the Director of the Health Economics and AIDS Research Division (HEARD) trying to convey a sense of the socio-economic and political crisis represented by the AIDS epidemic. Whiteside’s talk was structured around three hypotheses:
· The position taken by government on AIDS is logical given the current knowledge they have
· There is little buy-in from the general population of TAC’s position
· AIDS needs more political mobilisation
Whiteside pointed to some shocking statistics to indicate the scale of the crisis faced by the country, region and continent. For instance, Swaziland, a neighbouring country to South Africa has a 38,4% HIV prevalence. Whilst South Africa’s epidemic appears to be levelling off at 25%, the prevalence statistics between provinces is equalising: this means that whereas provinces like Kwa-Zulu-Natal (KZN) once had drastically higher prevalence rates than other provinces, they are now ‘catching up’ with KZN’s HIV prevalence.
According to Whiteside, the dynamics of the epidemic can be used to explain the South African government’s position on AIDS. He argued that the HIV epidemic is in some senses ‘invisible’, as if a person with HIV has a disease that is not ostensibly visible, that is until the onset of opportunistic infections. At another level, the HIV epidemic curve is rising ‘ahead’ of the AIDS epidemic curve: this means that whilst many people are currently HIV infected, the dire consequences of the epidemic of AIDS (with its accompanying deaths in the absence of HIV treatment) have yet to be fully felt. Furthermore, as AIDS deaths are spread across the country their cumulative impact on the South African population is experienced as a less immediate crisis than, for instance, 9-11.
Whiteside showed that the full extent of the devastating impacts will take from five to fifteen years to manifest themselves - probably between 2005 and 2010. However, politicians by their nature, often have the next election as their main focus, and tend to think in the short term. Although, as was demonstrated in Whiteside’s presentation, there will be devastating social consequences if the government continues to ignore the epidemic. Life expectancy will fall to low levels not seen since Neanderthal times. The poor elderly people and orphans will be further immiserated and impoverished by the deaths of breadwinners and adults in their most important years of productivity and childrearing.
Further outlining the devastating demographic impact of AIDS, Whiteside pointed to Medical Research Council data that from 1999-2000 women between the ages of twenty five and twenty nine were three and a half times more likely to die than in 1985, due to the AIDS epidemic. The same report shows that in the same period men between the ages of thirty and thirty four were twice as likely to die, as a result of the AIDS epidemic than in 1985.
Whiteside went on to argue that AIDS denial may have a social origin, as research has indicated that very few people claim to have known someone who has died of AIDS. In the 2000 Afro-barometer survey, 13% of respondents claimed to have known someone who had died of AIDS. This compares to Zimbabwe, a heavily affected neighbouring country where over 60% of respondents claimed to have known someone who had died of AIDS.
Furthermore, research has shown that job creation and the economy are South Africans’ top two concerns, whereas AIDS, is not even in the top five of South Africans’ list of concerns. On the other hand, ING Baring’s research has shown that AIDS will reduce South Africa’s GDP by 0,3%.
The health economist’s presentation was concluded by arguing that there ought to be three priorities in government’s response to the crisis: i.e.
· Prevention should be viewed as the government’s top priority, especially in the absence of an effective cure, and in the light of the fact that treatment that was expensive and had side effects.
· That care and treatment should be prioritised.
· The government should make a more serious effort to mitigate the impact of the epidemic
In terms of these three priority areas, his final reflections were that government should develop a comprehensive HIV Treatment plan to raise individuals’ life expectancy but at a broader level to raise levels of hope about the epidemic in society. Economic research by Niccoli Nattrass and other economists at University of Cape Town has demonstrated that such an HIV treatment plan is entirely economically feasible. This has shown that the decision of whether or not to adopt an HIV treatment plan is a primarily a political as opposed to an economic decision. HIV is at an even deeper level about social justice and social equity. TAC must address this and also look at the possibility of political mobilisation going beyond lobbying for HIV treatment.
A Critical Analysis of Whiteside’s Presentation
In my view, whilst Whiteside’s presentation was generally rich is its presentation of quantitative data on HIV prevalence, epidemic curves and economic impact, its analysis of the socio-political factors behind denial left a lot to be desired.
As shall be shown, his assertion of the ‘invisibility’ of AIDS did not hold up in question time, as two researchers based in rural areas of KZN claimed that they are seeing an increase in death rates directly attributable to AIDS.
Moreover his notion that the government’s stance is logical given the supposed ‘invisibility’ of the epidemic also withers when subjected to critical scrutiny. It can certainly be argued that government denial is underpinned by certain older discourses and has a certain rationale but to use to term ‘logical’ to describe this is fundamentally incorrect. The use of this term by Whiteside implies that government policy draws on the best research findings around AIDS and has a certain intellectual non-contradiction. However, AIDS denial is un-scientific, as has been proven at length by the medical establishment.
The use of this term was unfortunate because it implied that Whiteside supported denial, when he was clearly in most places in the talk presenting himself as opposed to it. A more correct term would have been rationale/discourse. There have been rationales behind many wrong-headed and unethical policies in history including those associated with the system of apartheid, but that does not mean that they drew on the best research at the time, or were ‘logical’.
Furthermore, Whiteside’s assertion that TAC does not have as much buy-in in the general population is somewhat contradicted by the HSRC’s study’s finding that 95% of South Africans interviewed agreed that anti-retroviral therapy should be provided for those living with HIV/AIDS related illnesses (Simbayi, Shisana et al, 2002:12).
Also, he was contradictory in places about anti-retrovirals: whereas earlier in the talk he had mentioned that anti-retrovirals were expensive and had side-effects; later in his presentation he called for an HIV Treatment programme, and cited research showing it was affordable. It general, I would argue that in trying to have a foot in both camps, by in a contradictory fashion taking similar positions to government and TAC on anti-retrovirals, at different stages in the talk, the value of his call for the government to take AIDS seriously was undermined especially in terms of calls for adoption of a National Treatment Plan.
Mark Heywood’s Presentation
Mark Heywood’s presentation entitled “The Silence of the Lions – The HIV/AIDS Epidemic and Dual Loyalties in the New South Africa” had a radically different take on the government and the TAC’s response to the AIDS crisis in South Africa. Heywood disagreed with Whiteside’s contention that denial is caused by the general ‘invisibility’ of the epidemic and explained government denial more in terms of being discursively driven by discourses of race and Africa and discourses about poverty and nutrition. Heywood also demonstrated that denial has penetrated government at all levels, paralysing policy responses around access to anti-retrovirals.
Heywood began his presentation by arguing that in the government loyalty to the ANC, as a party has supplanted loyalty to South Africa as a country: in terms of this the mistaken views of the President on AIDS have taken precedent over loyalty to the people of South Africa.
He disagreed with Whiteside’s contention that the epidemic is invisible by pointing out that the government’s own estimates indicate that on average 600 people are dying daily of AIDS in South Africa.
The TAC general secretary outlined the Campaign’s reasons for embarking on its Civil Disobedience Campaign. In the first Civil Disobedience action TAC marched to police stations in Sharpeville, Cape Town and Durban to ask the police to charge the Ministers of Health and Trade and Industry with culpable homicide for AIDS deaths since 2000, which it associates with the government’s failure to develop a National Treatment Plan.
The slogan ‘Dying for Treatment’ has been adopted by TAC for its Civil Disobedience Campaign. Heywood argued that far from being a gimmick, TAC has provided government with evidence of the extent of the epidemic and has provided them with practical proposals to reduce the price of HIV medicines for four years. Furthermore, political satirists such as Pieter Dirk Uys and Zapiro suggested, similarly to TAC, that government leaders are culpable for the high number of AIDS deaths the last few years. According to Heywood, TAC activists respect democracy and the government but they are angry: and have good cause to be angry as they have not been given sufficient say on HIV treatment, as commentators such as Stephen Friedman have recognised.
The roots of the current crisis over AIDS denial are to be found in the failure of political representatives to put their duty to their country ahead of their duty to their party (the ANC). Heywood linked this to government’s failure in the post-apartheid
era to create an independent civil service, which was not always forced to follow the ruling party’s line on issues of import.
In this regard, in relation to AIDS policy, since 1999 political interference has impeded the civil service’s response to the epidemic. Heywood argued that the government has more than enough information to act: the government’s own agency, Statistics South Africa, released a report showing that there is a “unique racial topology of morbidity and mortality” which can be linked to HIV. Furthermore, the 2002 Nelson Mandela/HSRC survey showed that one in ten people are infected with HIV.
In the light of the information the government has its policy response to HIV has been exceptionally poor, according to Heywood. He used an anecdote to illustrate this mentioning that a nurse in Bloemfontein had informed him that nurses in a public health facility there were refusing to treat people with opportunistic infections associated with HIV.
In terms of his analysis of AIDS policy in the post-apartheid era, the causes of government inaction over AIDS have shifted. Whereas from 1994-1999 inaction was a case of classic political denial of AIDS, witnessed internationally in countries with new epidemics, the post-1999 government inaction over AIDS has a different cause: AIDS denial.
AIDS denial in the Mbeki era consists of the reduction of AIDS to an imaginary epidemic. The notion of the AIDS epidemic as imaginary is discursively driven by the idea that mainstream understandings of AIDS are racist. Simultaneously government AIDS denial understands of poverty and malnutrition as the primary cause of immune suppression (AIDS). In terms of this critique of denial, according to Heywood the TAC agreed that nutrition is important but contended that HIV treatment is still medically required once a person’s immunity is ravaged to a certain extent by the virus. Furthermore this rationale for AIDS denial is self-defeating, as AIDS deepens poverty, as shown by a Health Systems Trust report showing that AIDS affected households were spending up to a third of their incomes on private healthcare. More ominously, TAC has received reports of sharing of anti-retroviral therapy amongst household members and prescription of mono and dual therapy, which increases the likelihood of drug- resistant strains of the virus developing.
In the President’s speech to the opening of parliament, AIDS only merited 30 words, nearly all of which were on the government’s response through the South African National AIDS Council, which is hopelessly disorganised. Within the executive responsibility for AIDS has been delegated the Jacob Zuma the Deputy President, meanwhile in all of Mbeki’s 52 speeches in 2002 not 1 was solely dedicated to the topic of AIDS.
Furthermore, Heywood argued that the civil service has a constitutional obligation to be accountable to the public, to be diligent in performing its constitutional duties and that it is supposed to encourage the public to participate in policy-making. These obligations are being undermined in government’s dealings with TAC.
In particular, ANC publications are used to misrepresent the public on AIDS and HIV treatment. Similarly senior party officials such as Smuts Ngonyama have accused Doctors Without Borders (a Nobel Prize winning NGO) of biological warfare for setting up a pilot site providing combination drug therapy in Khayalitsha outside Cape Town. Similarly there are ongoing rumours of the ANC having an ongoing role in controversial research into the discredited and dangerous drug Virodene.
In conclusion Heywood called on all present to support TAC’s Campaign of Civil Disobedience and the movement’s call for government to sign the NEDLAC agreement on a National HIV Treatment Plan.
A Critical Analysis of Heywood’s Presentation
On the whole I found Heywood’s presentation to be more engaging and although he spoke primarily as a TAC activist I found the fact that his presentation more internally consistent as it focussed primarily on three clearly interlinked issues: government denial; the need for a National Treatment Plan; and TAC Civil Disobedience Campaign.
It was interesting to note that some of Heywood’s analysis of the reasons for government denial bore similarities to recent research showing that government denial is discursively driven by the historically legacies of racism in late apartheid AIDS policy-making and in colonial medicine in Africa more generally.
Heywood’s presentation combined the passionate intensity of socio-political activism on a pressing contemporary concern, with an attention to detail on phenomena related to policy-making including: constitutional and intellectual property law relative to the epidemic; HIV prevalence; anti-retrovirals and the health infrastructure needed to administer them. Furthermore, accusations often made by academics that activists ‘lack nuance’ in their analyses of policy were proven incorrect in the case of Heywood, who demonstrated an amazing breath of knowledge on the HIV Treatment related issues and at the same time provided interesting insights into the exercise of power within and between government structures and levels, and the ability of civil society to influence vital areas of policy.
However, I was amazed that Heywood was not even more critical of Whiteside’s contradictory stance on anti-retrovirals and the need for HIV Treatment Plan. I was hoping for a more direct debate between the stances of the two speakers during question time.
Furthermore, it would have been interesting to hear Heywood’s predictions on whether, how soon and on what terms government will accede to TAC’s demands, and if so what role the movement sees for itself. Although such fortune telling is art rather than science, TAC has gained substantial experience in getting concessions from government on rolling out anti-retrovirals in the public sector for prevention of mother-to–child transmission and post-exposure prophylaxis for rape survivors. He could have to some extent extrapolated from these experiences and recent interactions with government officials to give the audience some pointers about what may lie in store for TAC.
Comments and Questions
There was lively discussion during the comments and questions time, some of which is reflected in my critique of both presentations.
In the first round of questioning Whiteside’s notion of the government’s stance as logical was questioned by University of California Berkeley AIDS researcher Mark Hunter. He argued that Whiteside was too pessimistic about he possibilities for government intervention, especially with anti-retrovirals, which are potentially cheap and effective. Hunter agued that Whiteside did not support TAC’s notion that government was somehow responsible for the current crisis. Hunter went on to criticise Whiteside’s notion of government’s position as logical, by arguing that the responsibility of public intellectuals faced with the AIDS crisis is to argue in favour of TAC’s stance not defend the government’s indefensible position.
David Hemson of the HSRC built on Hunter’s critique by contending that his research had shown that AIDS was very visible in heavily affected communities such as those surrounding Ladysmith. In such communities, due to AIDS deaths, there is no longer enough time to bury people on Sundays alone, so Wednesdays are now also burial days. At the same time stigma is widespread in these communities, as mention of AIDS is viewed as ‘un-African’.
Heywood responded to these questions that AIDS denial is illogical and untenable and highlighted that his own disagreement with Whiteside was over what perpetuates government denial and how to fight against it. He also replied that TAC views HIV treatment as having the potential to reduce stigma, as historically stigma attached to earlier epidemics of STDs, TB and cancer had been reduced through knowledge and treatment.
Whiteside responded to Hemson’s critique that AIDS is not invisible by re-stating that the Afrobarometer survey showed only 13% knew someone who had died of AIDS in 2000. Regarding the critique of his reading of denial as logical, he argued that as South Africa is facing a crisis, the question is more around how to mobilise around the AIDS epidemic.
In the second round of questioning, a member of the audience asked why only the wealthy have HIV treatment access. There was also a question from a journalist about why the government is criminalizing opposition to the left of the ANC and referring to them as ‘ultra-leftists’. The final question from the author of this review was on how intellectual property rights impede access to affordable drugs.
In response to the question of anti-retrovirals, Whiteside argued that they are toxic and poorly tolerated and that they merely buy HIV positive people more time, and as such as a ‘last resort’. On intellectual property rights, he claimed a lack of expertise but commented that “automatically knocking the pharmaceutical industry is not the answer” to reducing the price of HIV drugs. He argued that pharmaceutical companies were pulling out of developing new HIV drugs and HIV vaccine research because of TAC and its global allies’ campaign for generic essential drugs to be made available in developing countries.
Heywood countered that Africa represents less than 1% of the pharmaceutical industry’s profits, so Africa’s health needs will never be the main driver of private, market based drug research. He asserted that Health trends in the wealthy Northern countries of the world, where HIV is not a major cause of death, dictate the focus of private drug research. He then argued that this shows the need for public investment in research into medicines. Apparently, TAC would rather be fighting the multinational pharmaceutical companies over access to generic essential medicines in South Africa and other developing countries than fighting the government. He spoke of TAC’s campaign to challenge their pricing abuse and abuse of market power and dominance through their complaint at the Competitions’ Commission. He mentioned that the legal framework already exists for government to produce generic HIV drugs.
On anti-retroviral therapy Heywood conceded that the drug cocktails are not a cure, but that their importance should not be underestimated: scientists at the Barcelona AIDS Conference in 2002 found that it offered “long term durable viral suppression” but that they were not a cure as “the virus retreats into memory cells” were it can reproduce again with devastating consequences on cessation of effective anti-retroviral treatment.
In terms of the vilification and criminalisation of TAC, Heywood argued that it will not work as TAC has more HIV positive members and a higher degree of financial transparency than other AIDS organisations being championed by the government.
The questioning was generally of quite a high quality. As in his presentation, Whiteside expressed hostility towards anti-retrovirals on the grounds of cost and side-effects. Yet in question time, when I pointed out to him that generic medicines could reduce their cost, he argued that this would reduce innovation and research into new drugs. On the other hand as Heywood argued African health crises do not dictate how research dollars are allocated by pharmaceutical companies: our continent’s miniscule market share prevents that.
Whilst Whiteside showed some important data on HIV prevalence and the epidemic’s impact, his assertion that the epidemic is ‘invisible’ and the government’s position is ‘logical’ did not hold up to critical scrutiny in question time for justifiable reasons. Heywood’s presentation, however, was engaging, wide-ranging and he clearly presented the TAC position by linking government denial, government’s conflict with TAC over anti-retrovirals and the civil disobedience campaign. Whilst Heywood could have been a little harsher in his critique of Whiteside’s contradictory stance on the need for an HIV Treatment Plan and could have told us more about where he sees the future of TAC and AIDS policy-making, he emerged as the more engaging speaker the speaker with the stronger arguments.
However, both speakers issued a crystal clear warning: AIDS represents an enormous and urgent challenge to South African society. As such, the government must respond to the epidemic with more urgency by rejecting AIDS denial and putting a serious plan in place to roll out HIV treatment in the public sector.
A South African architecture: what is it, where is it?
Global capitalism - regional architecture
Smooth-talking experts tell us that corporatism has changed - its beenglobalised. Big money is shifted electronically to now squeeze or starve people in any corner of the world. But on the factory floor, down the mines, out on the farms, it feels the same: folk still toil for massive profits manipulated by others. So whats new?
The entertainment thats thrust at us, the information fed to us, the clothes we wear, the goods on sale, even the types of food we eat are becoming more and more alike,everywhere. We are swept by similar fads, subject to the same massaged fashions. Thats good for business, for mass production, for world-wide distribution and, of course, mass consumption.
Increasingly, buildings also change to look alike houses, clinics, libraries, hospitals, schools, shops ... the lot. They often look and are the same, wherever they're built. Central Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban look a great deal like each other and like downtown Bangkok, Denver, Warsaw, Delhi, Sydney. Anywhere is drearily everywhere,everywhere is wearily nowhere.
The same style pollution" - mirror-glass office blocks, concrete hotels, steel apartments; the same glitzy, flashy anywhere is everywhere. What was suburbia is filling with look-alike office parks, shopping malls, town-house enclaves, huge intruder-proof walls; Rosebank, Randburg, Sandton become yet more like downtown anywhere, everywhere. Now, our newspapers report, Soweto is going the same way.
Who cares? Progress is, well ... progress. What matters are profits - investment, speculation, the quick turnover; making a mega-buck killing.
Local architectures under threat
Many of us, perhaps a majority, do seem to care. We relish the richness of variety, the wealth of differences, the lessons of human dignity to be learnt from mutually respected distinctions. We love the hybrid, mongrel-like nature of lively, world-wide local identities. Cynics say were naive; rather than bland uniformity, we innocently believe that there can be unity in cultural diversity.
Some - too few - architects are troubled by what is happening to their work. They are concerned about how this or that feature of other architectures are being lifted out of context to be plonked down in unsuitable circumstances; in conditions that are climatically, economically, socially inappropriate. They attempt, in their efforts to resist this alienating sameness, to identify what is genuinely local, what is loved and viable about the ways of life and the built worlds in which they live. They try to pin-point and study what is distinctive about the buildings that have helped to shape their physical and cultural settings.
This is not easy. In most instances, traditional local architectures grew from relatively consistent patterns of living; climatic conditions did not vary markedly across the relevant local regions; building materials were usually drawn from local areas; methods of building were recognised locally and often passed directly from generation to generation. Most important, the values and ideas which buildings came to represent were acknowledged commonly. But today living patterns are in transition, climate can be controlled mechanically, materials for building can be imported from elsewhere, building methods are coded and can be similarly used everywhere. Now commerce dominates the value, the very motivation for building.
In the face of this, local traditional architectures - like so much else we cherish as locallydistinctive - is fragile.
As more and more people rebel against the indifferent monuments of transnational, corporate capital, so a shabby cover-up is foisted on us. We are presented with the same old boxes, but with tacky signs and symbols stuck on; apparently in the belief that if one shouts loud enough, no one will hear what is being said or notice what is being done. This "post-modern" architecture has led to the unnerving phenomenon of our cities not only looking out of place, but being out of time.
The arbitrary pillaging of history, of cultures, in the search for bits to stick onto the facades of our buildings, has produced an urban environment in which we no longer know where we are or in what historical period we are expected to be living. We are culturally polluted.
Efforts among architects to resist this process have become associated with a set of ideas known as critical regionalism. First formulated by Tzonis and Lefaivre in the 1980s then developed and given wider circulation by Kenneth Frampton, these notions offer ways of engaging critically with universal, global elements of our world and with particular local circumstances.
Such critical sets of ideas begin by recognising that if we are to feel at home in our built worlds, then those worlds must express who we are. Architects must draw on the particular physical qualities of the places where we live - the light, the climate, the shape and pitch of the land - as well as on the experiences, historical and current, of the people by and for, with whom buildings are produced. At the same time, critical regionalists recognise that most local, regional areas have been subjected to the depredations of colonialism, corporatism, racism. There are no utopias of the past, of the local, the vernacular.
Critical designers seek to reminds us of where we have been so that we are better able to go where we wish. They do not simply push aside the products of an increasingly global economic system. On the contrary, they attempt to use contemporary materials and techniques by counter-posing the new with the old, the local with the universal, so that we may see each in a different light. This is an architecture of resistance to global meaninglessness, not a superficial synthesis. This is an approach to design which recognises, and invites us to recognise, that it is only by attempting to understanding our pasts critically that we will be able to give shape to the future.
Critical architecture in South Africa
There are local practitioners who search for contemporary architectures that are locally rooted. They are few, their work is scattered and its regional qualities are not readily recognisable. A caution: the few from whom we are able to draw examples are predominantly white. The profession has and, for the present, remains confined to the middle_classes. The last figures of which I am aware (1993) indicate that of 2,480 registered architects, 12 (0.48%) were black; of 1,454 students architects, 56 (3.85%)were black and of the 144 who graduated that year, three (2.08%) were black.
That some among the dominant group care about struggling for regional expressions is a tribute to their sensitivity; especially as their colleagues eyes have remained and do remain fixed on overseas.
Norman Eaton was amongst the most significant of these pioneers, especially in his 1930s and 40s designs for comfortable middle-class homes in Pretoria. There he tried to capture a regional feeling by sensitive use of familiar vernacular materials and forms: by such adaptations to the hot sun as small windows, projecting sun-shades and roof eaves, by installing traditionally Cape timber window-shutters, and by the sweeps of earth-coloured brick pavings he used externally.
Around the same time, Douglass Cowin employed contemporary ideas of spatial design while attempting to accommodate our Johannesburg climate. Here, in a series of compact suburban houses, he used daringly constructed over-hanging eaves, cleverly placed screen walls and similar means to keep out unwelcome sun and cold prevailing winds. He tried, with considerable success, to match the plans of his designs to the relaxed, informal, the
servant-dependent lives of his middle-class clients.
These efforts have contemporary echoes. Springfield Terrace, with Table Mountain beyond, is a recent design by Roel of Uytenbogaardt and his colleagues. It is a distinctively local application of British terrace housing or the accommodating brownstone homes of Brooklyn, New York. Those adaptable town-houses of three or four floors have gone regional: solid masonry construction with hard-wearing local materials, wide projecting eaves and small windows on exposed sides for sun-protection, trees planted to shade entrance fronts that open directly onto the streets, and well-sized rear gardens for household use. Cars can be parked at front doors where they are readily visible, pedestrians can move safely along traffic-free shaded alleys that link the terraces. Its a fine instance of regional adaptation.
This also applies to the public library that Uytenbogaardt designed for Hout Baai. Here too a cool interior has been snatched from heavy rains and strong sunlight: more wide, low_slung eaves; more sturdy local materials; another set of informal internal spaces and alcoves, a gesture to relaxed southern African ways of life; more framed views onto nearby gardens and distant mountains; another imaginatively controlled use of construction, especially of the roof-trusses, to shape internal and external spaces.
Back to Gauteng, where Jo Noero has sought to adapt the new traditions of township, and even shack settlements to such socially urgent buildings as career centres and schools. This body of work includes attempts to marry the new, often makeshift means of construction and dynamic aesthetic of everyday township buildings to readily available, local materials - like corrugated iron and plywood boarding. Noero has contributed to a vibrant, modern architecture that is part of current city-life, a township jazz of architecture; one that could well mature as that music has done.
Thereafter, in an attempt to illustrate some of ones central concerns about the debased state of most contemporary South frican architecture - shared, I trust, with the late Harold Wolpe - I sought to outline a number of putative first principles in our troubled discipline. These were drawn from a published piece among my regular contributions to The Sunday Independent newspaper.
Architecture - space, order and relationship
My celebrations, and criticisms, of architectural work have appeared in these pages for over a half decade. The time is probably long gone for explanations of what might lie behind the general design comments I have offered. Better, I hear it suggested, late than never. This, then, is a tardy correction; a passing dip into the bases of building design. It is not, be assured, another of the prolix, numbing exercises in the abstruse constructs which architectural theorists indulge so often.
Architecture is, I submit, about order and relationship, rather than surface appearance-that hoary chestnut, taste. It is about space, light and organisation, not style, charm or whimsy. A work of architecture springs from the nature of its materials, the quality of its site and the methods of its production. The most exacting questions about a building that is recognisably architecture are: how is it made? what gives it order? how does it respond to its context? what is the idea, or set of ideas, that lies behind its form, its image? What, in short, is its human purpose?
Architectural design, I was told early in my then unquestioningly male-dominated studies, is the manipulation of space for the convenience of man." Amended to embrace all humanity, that maxim has stuck with me through the vicissitudes and abrupt changes of my career. Architectural designs, I have long come to appreciate, are conceived, erected and used purposefully. Sound architecture is socially responsible and responsive.
Order is given to a building by the disposition of structural and constructional elements -disciplined by its geometry and the properties of the materials deployed in its making. Structure comes in basic, elemental bits: bricks, stones, beams, joists, rafters, boards, nails, ties, struts, columns and .... others. These are combined in a relatively limited number of ways to form the more complex parts of buildings: walls, arcades,
floors, courtyards, galleries, entrances, windows, roofs. All or selections of these are combined to provide physical and, on occasion, emotional or spiritual shelter. They enclose space, articulate spatial relationships and modulate light.
Buildings are revealed as spaces sequentially, as people pass through and around them. They have social value only in so far as they offer settings for human interaction - at play, work, in contemplation ... in living.
The geometry of buildings may be elementary or complex. Order may be lucid, banal or puzzling, complicated or simple, grand or domestic, majestic or mundane. It must, though, be appropriate to the purposes to which the buildings are put and the contexts - physicalas well as social - in which they occur. There is here, scope for change, for adaptation to shifting purposes, varying contexts.
All worthwhile architecture is concerned with ideas of form and shape, of content and organisation. Appearance, style, grows out of elaborations of design ideas within the customarily firm limitations set by materials and techniques of construction - of, that is, assembling the selected materials.
All this is but the grammar of fine building. These are the crafted basics that underpin architectural design - a conscious, distinctively human activity. As far back as 1624, Henry Wotton linked these properties to a further, similarly humanistic goal when he coined the oft-cited aphorism, Well building hath three Conditions. Commoditie,Firmenes and Delight. Delight in building, while resting firmly on the two other factors, calls on distinctive desiderata - the aesthetic qualities to which, one imagines,
all but the most philistine, cynical or practice-weary designers aspire.
It is, at best, extremely difficult to realise aesthetically cogent architecture if the starting point is "what is to be the image of this building?what style am I going for this time?,whats in fashion now? This does not mean that each new building is a wheel re-invented. Designers can and must draw on the past. Not, though, by plucking images, styles, from history books, exotic journals. Not by papering such images onto contemporary building structures and materials. Drawing on history must, surely, take place on the basis of a studied understanding, a disciplined grasp of the social and constructional principles which underlie historic buildings. Or, indeed, those of cultures other than ones own.
These precepts of spatial order and relationships have, directly and indirectly, been the subject matter of my reviews. They have included the single, elemental spaces of, say, ancestral Zulu beehive structures, the cylindrical, conically-roofed buildings of, among others, the Sotho peoples, the ingenious shacks that are home to so many impoverished urban dwellers. They also include the physically elaborated, the symbolically laden pre-colonial settlements of southern Africa. And, more recently, the same concepts are readily evident at complexly inter-related sets of spaces such as the Baxter theatre, Cape Town, the stoep houses on the Berea, Durban, or the Bauhaus influenced houses that Hellmut Stauch designed in Pretoria during the 1950s.
The observations which I offer here, are, patently, also drawn from wider, from world-wide examples. My own tiny sample comprises sacred buildings like the powerful Sanchi Tope of India (BC 150), the Byzantine glory of Santa Sophia, Constantinople (AD 532-537), the phlegmatic Pantheon, Rome (AD 120-124). There is nothing simple-minded or reductive about these huge single-volume spaces, each excels as architecture.
Then, persisting with this rough but ready division, there are multi-cellular buildings the world over. Here, my immediate choice falls on favourites such the rectilineal Egyptian house at Tell-el-Amarna (circa BC 1400), the strict right-angles of the layout at the Taj Mahal, Agra (1630-53) and the inventive planar design of Gerrit Rietvelds modest Schroder House in Utrecht (1924).
Architecturally credible and creditable buildings of this order are, patently, not oversized pieces of sculpture; they serve the physical and social needs of their occupants as well as of those who use the spaces about them. In this, they are pre-eminently social entities - architecture is nothing if not a social practice. Designers need, then, seek to make the most of the social and physical climates in which they work. That, I take it, is the rooted meaning of regional, critically regional, architectural design.
Finally, I passed onto a briefly illustrative instance of consciously sought, critically regionalist, resistance to the current status of architecture in South Africa, and elsewhere; one that is located directly across the valley to the rear of where we were sitting in Howard College.
Searching design at Cato Manor
Some five years ago, I was invited by the Cato Manor Development Agency to join a panel of assessors for an architectural competition. Competitors were to submit proposals for the agencys headquarters in the central node at 750 Francois road, Intuthuko Junction. The new complex was to include accommodation for rental by, particularly, non-governmental bodies. The contest, like the eventual structures, was funded by the European Union in Brussels.
We assessors were as one in assigning the award to a team of designers who practice in Natal under the title East Coast Architects. Their success highlights a vexing juxtaposition: while they are, have long been committed to seeking distinctively southern African architectures, essential financial support comes from Europe. What price, then, the widely expressed fear of eurocentrism? Though not fully complete, the project is sufficiently advanced for comment on that score.
My co-panellists will, I imagine, agree that our thoroughly debated choice has been vindicated. The architects have produced a well-designed, handsome set of buildings in what promises to be a coherently arranged immediate environment. They have, to date, fully fulfilled the potential of their proposals for the competition. Further, and possibly of wider significance, they have continued their probings into the architectural compatibility of indigenous building practices, of the extant Cato Manor settlement and of modern, industrially-rooted building processes. That alone could prove to be an eventful advance in local design thinking.
The accommodation is distributed across six separate but linked structures; which the architects refer to as pods. Two are yet to be completed. Each relates in an appreciably un-orthogonal manner to the others. Each is rectangular in plan-form and contains a square-shaped inner garden-court which extends from ground through to upper-floor roof level. With mature planting, this will open intimate and/or distant views of greenery to all occupants. The units on the western and southern frontages - directly facing two main roads - are built up to the pavement lines; the remaining two pods help to shape the enclosed form of a large open space at the rear. In this, as in like matters, echoes of traditional settlement patterns are as patent as they are adeptly adapted to current circumstances.
The private office suites and associated accommodation are situated on the first and second floors, leaving the ground level free for planting and retail premises. These, plus an extensive undulating screen-wall, mark an exact distinction between public, street, space and the private inner courtyard in which, inter alia, secure parking for tenants vehicles is available.
The corner has, the architects report, been treated negatively, it remains free of buildings in order to provide an open for public meetings and like gatherings. There are also other related elements; such as screening for semi-private events, a raised bandstand-stage and a curved wall that forms an inner sound-reflector and outer sign-board. The space is, in short, an off-street facility for formal as well as casual, impromptu use. It is a robust urban rather than a genteel suburban amenity.
The reinforced concrete structural frames of the pods are enclosed by panels of cement block-work that span between the windows. These stretches of block-work are finished in textured materials and colours that resonate with the surrounding building fabric - there is a recognisable continuation of what might be termed the grain of the sprawling Cato Manor township. That reaches through to the thin, almost flimsy eaves projections of the mono-pitch roofs over the pods. These resemble familiar neighbouring features not least the fragile, frequently boulder-weighted roofing materials found on many informal shelters.
There are other such explicit acknowledgements. They range widely: from the use of traditional thatching purlins which, here, provide an innovative means of securing a pleasantly dappled system of sun-screening on the west and north-facing facades. They include plywood dados on the pods stair-landings. Since it is employed as packaging for motor-vehicle imports, inexpensive plywood can be obtained by Cato Manor householders from nearby docks or factories. In this context, the architects have suggested further ways of exploiting this and similarly versatile - usually unconventional - building materials.
Then there is the somewhat cumbersome gum-pole access bridge that has, in my view, been uncomfortably thrust into the parking courtyard. This certainly capitalises on a significant local, even trans-regional building material. It does not, however, begin to measure against the majestic, soaring central tower and other imaginative adaptations of this home-grown timber which the same architects have installed at Somkhele, northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. But more of that especially distinctive design in a future report from this column.
Returning to the Cato Manor buildings, my reservations apropos the gum-pole bridge must, surely, differ markedly from the designers views. They stress an obligation to make ... legible a dialogue between the diverse poles of disparate and divided communities in Durban to respond to the often discordant tension between normal/permanent and informal/temporary, between cheap/loud and polished/polite.These abrupt polar categories are, they say, characteristic of the still divided peoples of post-apartheid South Africa. At Cato Manor, they are expressed in the subtle geometries typical of informal settlements geometries that distinguish much of the overall and specific planning of this project but are rarely found in our formal/permanent, polished/polite inner city or suburban areas.
However intense the customary vicissitudes of day-to-day practice which the architectural team probably confronted, its members have cleaved to their original intentions. They have not shuffled into the snug retreat of another re-cycled vernacular, nor have they succumbed to smug, souped-up hi-tech architecture, increasingly the hallmark of corporate machismo. To the contrary, they have been and are even now striving for local authenticity; for appropriate, integrated, new vernaculars.
They report that the development is almost fully let at comparative rents. As was anticipated initially, the tenants come predominantly from institutions such as Cato Manor Tourism and the Cato Manor Interpretative Centre. Their presence is leavened by smaller tenancies - an internet café, a curio shop ... a real estate company. The place is already abuzz, even while final building works continue.
Approx. 3,700 words
A South African architecture: what is it, where is it? :A review by Derek van Heerden
The lecture comprised 4 main sections. In his introduction he reminded us, lest we forget, that we live in grave times that are becoming graver still with countries like Syria ad North Korea being named as possible candidates for US ‘liberation’. He then entertained with interesting anecdotes about his long association with Harold Wolpe, the patron of the lecture series.
The second section of the lecture was the ‘meat and gravy’ of the evening and here he introduced the topic by stating up front that he was pitching his talk at a wider, more general audience rather than at an exclusively architectural one. To this he added that the debate regarding the emergence of a South African architecture was an almost exclusively a ‘white male’ affair since the profession and the schools of architecture are still dominated by this particular subset of the population. 2 Problems: Firstly, Critical Regionalism (CR) – Kenneth Frampton - is almost exclusively an architectural issue - the debate has points of reference for associated disciplines (Development Studies, Planning etc) but for general academia and the broader audience, the issues may have seemed contorted, trite and somewhat indulgent. Secondly the search (quest?) for a representative South African architecture is as pressing for many of our emerging and newly graduated black architects and the numerous and highly talented female members of our profession as it is for ‘the handful of practitioners’ that Lipman singled out – the graduation statistics used were 1993!
I have jousted with Alan often about his claims of being an ‘unashamed modernist’ having, during his illustrious career, been in the presence of or worked for some of the greats - le Corbusier. Lubetkin, Lasdyn to name a few. In my view, anyone who holds doctorates in both architecture and sociology and who has, for as long as I have known him, insisted on a strong social agenda for architects and architecture, cannot be a modernist. Early European modernism/internationalism, driven as it was by an utopianist/socialist dream of a new society, became co-opted by capitalism once it crossed the post WWII Atlantic - Mies van der Rohe’s dictum, ‘less is more’ became the mantra of property developers from Chicago to Chandighar - the middle or high modernism that left the legacy of nondescript monotonous, high rise, developer type cities that reflect what Lipman called ‘everywhere is anywhere’ and ‘anywhere is nowhere’. The alienation of the public or beneficiaries of such modern architecture became glaringly apparent in the 60’s and 70’s with the decay and general social disorder that became the life exerience of people inhabiting the housing ‘projects’ and ‘new towns’ of high modernism. Charles Jencks, a popular architectural theorist, pronounced the ‘death of modernism’ with the demolition of an award-winning Chicago housing project, ‘Pruit Igoe’ in 1972 .
The new populist Post Modern architectural paradigm put forward by Robert Venturi in ‘Learning from Las Vegas – Less is a bore’ again became dumbed down in the hands of developers and has manifested locally in what Lipman called Tuscan, Cornish or Camelot nostalgic residential enclaves. He argued that architects and architecture that engaged with CR will reflect and engage with issues of:
· Culture – vernaculars, forms, organisational diagrams
· Materials – regionally prevalent, found
· Climate – size of openings, sun-screening, overhangs etc.
Although Lipman had earlier espoused the benefits of the ‘non-slide’ architectural lecture, I think his argument would have been greatly assisted here if his audience could have been shown examples of the buildings of Norman Eaton, Joe Noero and Roelof Uitenboogaardt that he suggested demonstrated these concerns.
When the lecture ran over time and Lipman elected to dispense with the selected 10 slides of the CMDA building that had been carefully set up on a temperamental slide projector, the first questioner requested that he show the slides - for we were now in the final phase of the evening – question time. The slides were duly shown (repeatedly in some instances when the reverse/forward functions on the remote obstinately refused to obey his command). Lipman spoke forcefully although somewhat inconclusively about aspects of the building such as the ‘gum pole and thatching lathe sun-screens’, the ‘thin planar shack like roofs’ and the planted interior courtyards that puncture the office floors. Questions from the floor included:
· How to avoid simply packaging buildings designed to suit the agenda of multinational capital in an ‘African style’– the analogy was to typical World Bank or UN reports that feature African theme covers enclosing usual global/US policy.
· An admission by a questioner that the while ‘she liked the CMDA building’ she wandered at the response of ‘locals’ to the building.
· A suggestion that the existing colonial vernacular models – Edwardian/Victorian/wood&iron verandah houses - were worthy of contemporary reinterpretation and would ‘fit the bill’ as a new regional vernacular.
· An observation that the CMDA building was a ‘Spaza’ Building (‘Spaza’ meaning ‘almost’ or ‘not quite’ so a Spaza Shop is not quite a shop) and that for the architects and the developer (in this Case CMDA with EU funding) to have delivered such an insubstantial (and universally unacceptable – Modernist?) building was condescending to the users and to the residents of Cato Crest.*
Lipmans’ answers/responses to the questions were varied and even though the last questioner came in for a ‘bit of stick’ for being ‘patronising about patronage’, the evening ended in good spirit and (I believe) a good time was had by all!
*As a member of the design Team for the building, I wanted to congratulate the questioner, Architecture’s new Prof, Franco Frescura for his observations – this was indeed the design team’s intention - to suggest, by the use of ‘insubstantial materials’ as ‘clip on’s’ to an otherwise simple concrete framed structure, a contextual reference to the impermanence and fluidity of Cato Crest at this moment in time - 2000. If Cato Crest goes according to plan, the Intutukho Junction building will be clad in stainless steel 15 years hence!
Derek van Heerden
Lecturer, School of Architecture, Housing and Planning
Passageways: Revisiting Self, The Society of the Spectacle and Moby-Dick by Darryl Accone
In seeking to make some sense for myself of the way the world has turned since the terrible morning of September the 11th 2001, I revisited works by two political philosophers: The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord and Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Both men would have resisted or resented the label of political philosopher, and understandably, for their learning, thinking and writing encompassed far more. But the remarkable political prescience in these books marks Debord and Melville as harbingers and provides a telescope to look beyond September 11.
Guy Debord – he dropped the hyphenated Guy-Ernest – was born in Paris on 28 December 1931. He was the theoretician behind that now commonplace phrase "the society of the spectacle". That we live – and have lived for some time – in such a world is beyond question. Many bandy about Debord’s portentous and evocative coinage, whether in bemoaning how mass media invade everyday life or in lamenting how news has been spectacularised to provide entertainment rather than information. In all of this hubbub, it is rare for the name of Debord to crop up. He remains largely forgotten; perhaps worse still, the range and meaning of his ideas has been adulterated and simplified
What Debord meant by the society of the spectacle comprises far more than the dictatorship of television and other forms of electronic communication. To Debord, the mass media represented only the "most stultifying
superficial manifestation of the spectacle". The problem was deeper and wider: as he declared in Thesis No. 1 of his book, The Society of the Spectacle:
1 The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation ofspectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.
In Thesis 4 he anticipated the simplistic identification of the spectacle with mass media only. Ominously, No. 4 elaborates:
4 The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.
And No.34, at the end of Section I, Separation Perfected,avers:
34 The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.
Founded on "incessant technological renewal" and the "integration of State and economy", the spectacle is the whole of social activity appropriated by the spectacle for the spectacle. Art, science, everyday life, politics, urban planning, to list but a few: in all of these, the spectacle replaces reality with images.
The Society of the Spectacle was published in November 1967 by the Buchet-Chastel publishing house in Paris. Comprised of 221 theses, it was a profound critique of the alienation and commodification of consumer
capitalism. Six months later, theory was to become praxis as the events of May 1968 in the Sorbonne, then more widely in the French capital and thereafter throughout France and the world, shook the Gaullist establishment and archaeo-conservative governments globally. Debord’s 221 theses were the chief articles of faith sparking and sustaining the worldwide student-led revolts of that miraculous month.
Almost 36 years since its first publication, The Society of the Spectacle retains its stimulating, provocative and predictive qualities. Debord, though, has been dead almost nine years. On 30 November 1994 he shot himself in the heart, not wanting to succumb to the incurable illness of alcoholic polyneuritis. He provided reasons, broadcast in the film Guy Debord, son art et son temps (Guy Debord, his art and his times), screened by Canal Plus in France on 9 January 1995:
"As with all incurable diseases," read a title at the end of the film’s flighting, "there is much to be gained by neither seeking nor accepting medical care. This is the opposite of an illness that you contract through an unfortunate lack of prudence. On the contrary, contracting it
requires dogged determination over a whole lifetime."
Leaving aside the piquant irony of a Debord film flighting on television, it was perhaps apt that this last, if posthumous, public act should be in the form of a film because Debord invariably described himself as a filmmaker, and only allowed himself to be called a theoretician. Thus it is likely he would recoil at being appropriated by Cultural Studies academics, anarchists and direct-action activists. No doubt he would also disapprove of this paper’s appellation of him as political philosopher. What is certain that besides being a filmmaker, he was prime mover in founding the Situationist International (SI), which grew out of the earlier Letterist International (LI) that he also helped establish. It was situationist graffiti such as "sous
les pavés, la plage" ("under the paving stones, the beach") that appeared across Paris in May 1968.
Both the LI and SI are key to how Debord set about reformulating Karl Marx’s theories. In Thesis 1 of The Society of the Spectacle, you will have noticed the deliberate echo of Marx’s
"The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of
commodities’, its unit being a single commodity."– Marx, Capital, Part I, Chapter I. Commodities
1 The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of
spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.
"Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Section I, Separation Perfected, Thesis 1
What is astonishing is the way Debord developed, elaborated and distributed his theory. Its evolution took the form of a search for what he called "The ‘North-West Passage’ of the geography of real life" (Pref.,
100; Eng., 10) That psychogeographic passageway ran as a systematic drift
through the city past and present, a dérive the LI called it. It was a
surrender to the promise of the city, a willingness to be diverted by it:
real-life detours in the footsteps of which would follow Debord’s détournements: elegant, precise prose that had been deliberately plagiarised, reworked, re-imagined and rethought so as to emerge utterly revivified.
By living this way in the world, the LI aspired to create a mode of life understandable and accessible to all, and one that everyone could
follow. To that time in late 1952, when the LI gathered in the shabbier cafes of the Latin Quarter of Paris to drink and plan their rambles, Debord ascribed the animosity that was continuously directed at him by the establishment, the academy and the intelligentsia:
"Some think that it is because of the grave responsibility that has often been attributed to me for the origins, or even for the command, of the May 1968 revolt. I think rather that what has displeased people so persistently about me is what I did in 1952."
The LI, following Isidore Isou’s Letterists, reduced poetry to its smallest, most basic component: the letter. That technique was then extended to all artistic and social activities, among them architecture and cinema. Isou
it was who invented the collage-like genre of détournement, whereby extant materials were cut up and put together to create an entirely new
The LI was followed by the SI, the manifesto of which stated: "We have to multiply poetic subjects and objects, and we have to organise games of these poetic objects among these poetic subjects.This is our entire program, which is essentially transitory. Our situations will be ephemeral, without a future: passageways." (Debord, 1957)
From these senses of play – the ludic qualities – of the LI and SI, Debord was to progress on his odyssey towards the writing of The Society
of the Spectacle.
Here I wish to turn to Herman Melville, not a figure one readily associates with playfulness. From the age of 47 to 66, Melville was deputy inspector in the New York Custom House. He died on 28 September 1891, some eight weeks after his 72nd birthday. Just over forty years before, on 18 October 1851, his novel The Whale was published in London; publication of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale followed in New York on 14 November of that year. It was dishearteningly received. Only six years later, after a visit to the Holy Land, Melville all but abandoned prose; the last prose work published in his lifetime, The Confidence-Man, in retrospect seems a cruelly reflective title. Yet Melville had embraced the possibility of such a disastrous end to the voyage he had embarked on with Typee in 1846 and Omoo a year later, both of which were immediate successes. In the spring of 1850, he had recorded that: "So far as I am individually concerned, & independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sorts of books which are said to ‘fail’."
In his magnum opus, a concordance to the world, Leviathan of salty experience, learning, allusion, profound puns, voluminous references and encyclopedic whale lore, Melville failed magnificently. Melville scholar Newton Arvin noted that: "The sailing of thePequod is to be for Ishmael a
temporary passage out of existence". [Herman Melville, New York: William
Sloane Associates, Inc. 1950]
For Melville, the writing of Moby-Dick was to be a permanent passage out of existence.
Henry A Murray, touching on Melville’s discovery of the Unconscious, opined:
He was aware he was on a thrilling adventure, for he likened himself to Columbus ...
Melville proceeded to lose himself. This casting adrift was better, it seemed to him, than subjugating himself to a straight course in a humdrum world; ‘better to sink in boundless depths than float on vulgar shoals;and give me, ye Gods, utter wreck, if wreck I do’." [Review of Lewis Mumford’s Herman Melville, in the New England Quarterly, Vol. 2, July
The gods granted Melville that wish. But in the century and a half since the White Whale was first descried, to shouts of "There she blows! –there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!", Melville’s stock and that of his masterpiece have soared. He is remembered just as Debord is neglected. There are other points of comparison.
That path of the Unconscious – those detours of the mind – constituted Melville’s dérives. The ludic quality of Debord’s LI activities and subsequent creation of situations with the SI have a parallel of sorts in the playful allusions with which Moby-Dick is replete. And Melville is an exponent nonpareil of détournement. In Call me Ishmael, his brilliant case-study of Moby-Dick, published coincidentally in the same year as The Society of the Spectacle, the American poet Charles Olson observed:
"Melville’s reading is a gauge of him, at all points of his life. He was a skald, and knew how to appropriate the works of others. He read to write. Highborn stealth, Edward Dahlberg calls originality, the act of a cutpurse Autolycus who makes his thefts as invisible as possible. Melville’s books batten on other men’s books." [Skald: composer and reciter of poems in ancient Scandinavia honouring heroes and their deeds.]
Debord’s writing battens on those of Hegel and Marx and countless others. But it does far more. As Thesis 207 in The Society of the
Spectacle has it:
"Ideas improve. The meaning of words has a part in improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress demands it. Staying close to an author’s phrasing, plagiarism exploits his expressions, erases false ideas, replaces them with correct ideas."
In the next thesis, the subject of détournement is elaborated:"Détournement is the antithesis of quotation, of a theoretical authority invariably tainted if only because it has become quotable, because it is now a fragment torn away from its context, from its own movement, and ultimately from the overall frame of reference of its period and from the precise option that it constituted within that framework. Détournement , by contrast, is the fluid language of anti-ideology."
Debord would play out his theories: theory became life, and life theory. Invoking Chateaubriand, he wrote of himself that "Of the modern French authors of my time, I am therefore the only one whose life is true to his
Melville wrote of his ocean-going and whaling experiences as a young man, but also out of his voracious reading. Melville took his countryman,
the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, very much at his word. "A man is the whole encyclopedia of facts," wrote Emerson, continuing:
"The student is to read history actively and not passively; to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary ... He should see that he
can live all history in his own person."
This insight comes from another great Harold, the late Melville scholar and peripatetic philosopher Harold Beaver, who took off from the sure comforts of being Professor of American Literature at the University of
Amsterdam to embark on an Ishmael-style voyage, almost as if he said to himself in the words of Moby-Dick’s narrator, "I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world".
Beaver remarked of Melville: "His complete inner life was to be the ‘text’; the complete storehouse of the world’s books, its interpretive
‘commentary’. Moby-Dick presents his individually forged passport to a
He continued: "For as the Pequod circles the world, so this universal and global book must range through universal and global references in space and time, through all religious creeds and philosophical ideas (ancient and modern) ...
"So spin me – not a yarn, but a whole I>cyclopaedia! Like harpooneers we flounder about, half on The Whale and half in the water, ‘as the vast mass revolves like a tread-mill beneath us."
Given its all-encompassing nature, it is no surprise that Moby-Dick has much to say about September 11 2001 and the war on Iraq. In a moment of eery synchronicity, the strikes on the World Trade Center occurred
just as Melville academics, scholars and devotees were preparing to celebrate the150th anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick on the
18th of October 2001. And as footage of the two jetliners crashing into the twin behemoths of capitalism was shown over and over by global television networks, the wraiths of Guy Debord and The Society of the Spectacle were
discernible, obscured from broad view by the media clichés and conventional wisdom surrounding the terrible event.
Take Thesis No.57 of SS [p.37]: "The society that ... local revolutionaries.
And No. 44: "The spectacle is a permanent opium war .... to transcend it."
Debord posited also that the spectacle transformed everything into its opposite. In his notion of the "reversible connecting factor", explored in his films, he asserted the principle of negation inherent in the structures of domination. If monuments were symbols and the spectacle concentrated on a single point, then annihilation of such symbols most clearly uncovered the hitherto invisible circumstances in which people actually lived. That idea
accords with what some voices outside the American polity were saying after the shock and awe of the attacks subsided. They were scarcely heard.
Another Debord insight, had anyone bothered to raise it, would have been more audible, perhaps even seized with relish. Debord’s 1978 autobiographical film, In girum imus nocte et consumimir igni, made potent reference to the nihilistic motto of Rashid al-Din Sinan, the Old Man of the Mountain who was the twelfth century leader of the Assassins, the Levant’s
millenarian terrorists. The Old Man’s secret, Debord’s film tells, was "surrendered, it is said, only in his last hour, and then only to the most
faithful of his fanatical disciples: ‘Nothing is true; everything is permitted’
That recalls Thesis No.9 of The Society of the Spectacle:
"In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood", which in turn is a détournement on Hegel, in The Phenomenology of Mind, a reversal of Hegel’s proposition there.
There are further observations to be made on this chilling credo of the Assassins. Debord found an equivalent philosophy in his favourite
film, Marcel Carne’s masterly Les Enfants du Paradis. Astonishingly made during the Nazi occupation of the French capital, it is a complex contemplation of the nature of performance and an evocative portrait of popular Parisian theatre in the early 19th century. Among its real-life characters is the thwarted playwright Lacenaire, who turned his literary genius to criminal exploits and was executed in 1836. The film has an exquisite moment – included in Debord’s In girum film – when Lacenaire turns to his aristocratic rival, Comte Mornay, and his retainers, and says: "It takes all kinds to make a world ... or unmake it." The appeal for Debord of that reversible connecting play on words must have been enormous.
And that verbal Manichaeism is extended in the palindromic title of Debord’s autobiographical film.
This Latin palindrome translates as "We turn in a circle by night and are consumed by fire". Of it Debord said:
"the ancient phrase that comes completely back upon itself, which was constructed letter by letter like a labyrinth one can never leave, in
a manner that so perfectly marries the form and content of perdition".
The appeal of its letter-by-letter construction to a sometime Letterist need not be elaborated.
Moby-Dick has its own assassin in the character of Ahab’s whaleboat pilot, Fedallah. Literally, this translates as "the sacrifice or Ransom of God: feda + Allah. According to Harold Beaver, Dorothee Melitsky Finkelstein
interpreted the name as a pun on fedai – "the devoted one" or "he who offers up his life". Those appellations applied to the Assassins, those "avenging ministers" or "destroying angels" sent by the Old Man of the Mountain on
commando strikes against the princes of Islam in the name of "the hidden prophet", the seventh and last Imam, Ishmael – Ismail in Arabic. And Fedallah it is who urges Ahab to take the pledge that "Hemp only can kill thee", becoming by that encouragement the assassin of theOld Man of the Ocean. In hunting Moby Dick, Ahab is caught round the neck by the velocity line, made of hemp, which is attached to his harpoon that has just struck the whale, and dragged into the depths.
Perdition lies at the heart of Moby-Dick. Eternal death and damnation await Ahab and the Pequod which in sinking takes with her a passing sky-hawk. Melville tells us that the ship, "like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it." Devils and fallen angels: such is the world of Ahab. Charitably, he has been seen as a fallen angel, most recently by critics such as Clare Spark in Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, published four months before September 11. This Manichaean coeternality is suggested by Melville himself, in Chapter 16, The Ship, when Ishmael is signing up for the Pequod. Captain Peleg tells Ishmael: "He’s a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab".
But crucial is what Melville told the man to whom he dedicated
Moby-Dick, his literary hero and neighbour, Nathaniel Hawthorne,
celebrated author of The Scarlet Letter, among other works. The secret
motto of Moby-Dick, revealed Melville, was what Ahab utters when he baptises the fiendishly pronged harpoon he has had specially made to hunt the White Whale, a weapon that takes for its baptismal waters the blood of the Pequod’s pagan harpooneersQueequeg, Tashtego and Daggoo.
"Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!" deliriously howled Ahab:
"I do not baptise you in the name of the father but in the name of the devil."
Here we have Satan and Jehovah at war, an Armageddon of the Old Testament, not the New.
Eloquently, Charles H Foster in his essay "Something in Emblems: A reinterpretation of Moby-Dick ", judged:
"The baptism is Melville’s unmistakable verdict that however grand and godlike Ahab may be, however much he is master of men and of language, however much we may find our own account in his war with the gods and fate, we are finally to view him as the ‘ungodly man’, the denier of God, the partner of the devil. Here, of course, Melville made symbolically his most violent attack on political and social conservatism, and it was quite appropriate that he should call Hawthorne’s attention to the baptism as the master-key unlocking the ultimate meaning in Moby-Dick."
[The New England Quarterly, Vol 34, March 1961, pp 3-35]
There is a vision of hell vouchsafed readers some sixty pages before the diabolical baptism. It is in the chapter, The Try-Works, which describes the on-board furnace for melting down whale blubber:
"As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilised laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul."
The remainder of this paper will tack ways in which the Pequod symbolises the ambiguous American ship of state in May 2003 and Ahab the leader of that sole global superpower, George Bush junior. What Moby Dick, the whale, stands for is more elusive.
Moby-Dick, the book, as political allegory is neither startling nor new, and we shall return to some aspects of such readings. But in the immediate aftershocks of September 11 2001, Melville’s book was often adduced, its symbolism and possible allegorical readings tossed around in the oceans of media coverage, both electronic and print. This was the Moby-Dick of which Melville wrote: "A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it."
Among the soundbytes, there was some sanity and profundity. As ever, Edward Said drew out a telling strand. Ahab’s yearning for revenge on the creature that had injured him so grievously was "suicidal finality" said Said, who cautioned of the perils of mystifying Osama bin Laden, and of the dangers of America embarking on a punitive expedition like that of the Pequod. The subsequent imperial adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq show those warnings went unheeded.
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the Washington Post ran a comment piece headlined "Bush must steer clear of Ahab’s error". The article referred to Ahab’s destruction of his quadrant (Chapter 118, p.608), and noted: "It’s the moment when the hunt becomes irrational, leaving the ship nothing to steer by than the dictates of the chase itself."
It continues: "The administration appears willing to sacrifice almost anything – America’s alliances, its prosperity, even the security of its
citizens – in its determination to oust the Iraqi leader from power." So too with Ahab, disdainful of the problems of other whaling ships he encounters, foresaking the trust of the Pequod’s owner’s and the lives of his crew.
A passage to vengeance, transitory and troubling: we speak both of "I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened" Ahab and of political and military power, united in vengeful intent. At the end of Sunset, Chapter 37 of Moby-Dick, Ahab rails:
"Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run ... Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!."
Unilateral, anti-dialectical, a terroriser of nature, a narcissist grievously wounded on his own quarter-deck: Ahab is akin to the leader of a global superpower, and the whaling captain’s "bigotry of purpose" makes him the archetype of imperial ambitions. The "reversible connecting factor" that plays out in the hunt for Moby Dick, the great White Whale, may yet
have its counterpart in contemporary ‘‘reality’’: "reality rises up within the spectacle and the spectacle is real", said Debord, even if in that moment of consummation, reality is the first casualty.
Reality was checked by the result of the US presidential election of November 2000. Eerily, even this may be said to be foreshadowed in
Melville’s book. On the last page of the first chapter, Loomings, Ishmael
imagines a performance billing topped by:
‘Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States’
‘WHALING VOYAGE OF ONE ISHMAEL’
and rounded off with:
‘BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN’ (sic)
The election referred to is the 1840 campaign, deemed to be the first such "rip-roaring" presidential contest. It put into the White House
William Henry Harrison, who three decades earlier had twice defeated the Native American forces of Tecumseh and thus helped open Ohio and Indiana to white colonisation. Harrison and his Whig running-mate John Tyler defeated the Democrat candidate Martin Van Buren, but for Harrison, at least, it was a pyrrhic victory. He died after only a month in office, exhausted by the campaign.
The battle in Afghanistan refers to the rout of the British army at Kabul on 6 January 1842.
The fruits of the invasion, coup and occupation of Afghanistan one hundred and sixty years later can certainly not compare with the riches of Naboth’s vineyard, which Ahab, seventh king of Israel, acquired by murdering their owner. But the oleaginous doctrines applied by the Bush regime to Iraq have yielded that great boon to America: oil, the very same beneficent substance that whales bestowed on American economy and society in the nineteenth
The importance of whaling to American prosperity and industry is well set out by Melville, but most eloquently projected by Charles Olson, whose Call me Ishmael is a wondrous work indeed. I quote:
"So, if you want to know why Melville nailed us in Moby-Dick, consider whaling. Consider whaling as FRONTIER, and INDUSTRY. A product WANTED, men got it: big business. The Pacific as sweatshop. Man, led, against the biggest damndest creature nature uncorks. The whaleship as factory, the whaleboat the precision instrument. The 1840s: the New West in the saddle and Melville No.20 of a rough and bastard crew."
Melville had sailed on the whaler Acushnet down the river of the same name on that vessel’s maiden voyage out of Fairhaven on 3 January 1841 – three months and a day before Harrison’s presidency terminated. It was this voyage, ended when Melville jumped ship on the Marquesas the next year, that began the trickle that was to spout forth so extravagantly in the
tale of Moby Dick.
Melville’s thesis that the business of whaling – ruthless and relentless commercial extraction of nature – contaminates all involved in it,
resonates with what Debord described as "the obvious degradation of being into having" and the resultant "generalised sliding of having into appearing". [SS # 17] For many were – and are – the uses of whale by-products: ambergris, the waxlike, diffusing scent found in the intestines of the sperm whale yields constituents for perfume. (An aside on this odoriferous trail is that according to Beale, the leading whale authority of Melville’s time, ambergris is the hardened faeces of the sperm whale.)
And whale oil, sperm oil and spermaceti wax were converted into illuminating oil, lubricants and the raw material for candles. It was only after petroleum was found in Pennsylvania in 1859, eight years after the publication of Moby-Dick, that kerosene, paraffin and petroleum quickly replaced whale by-products in the manufacturing of heating and light.
Melville makes much of the mighty contribution of whaling in Chapter 24, The Advocate. Quote:
"And lastly, how comes it that we whalemen of America now outnumber all the rest of the banded whalemen in the world; sail a navy of upwards of seven hundred vessels; manned by eighteen thousand men; yearly consuming 4,000,000 of dollars; the ships worth, at the time of sailing, $20,000,000; and every year importing into our harbors a well reaped harvest of $7,000,000. How comes all this, if there be not something puissant in whaling?"
In fact, Melville under-reported the massive money tied up in whaling. According to Olson, 70 000 people and $70-million were involved by
1833; in 1844 the figure was up to $120-million and whale products trail only meat and lumber in export value.
But Melville was correct, later in The Advocate chapter, to point out of whaling that:
"One way and another, it has begotten events so remarkable in themselves, and so continuously momentous in their sequential issues, that whaling may well be regarded as that Egyptian mother, who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb." [Nut – mother of Isis, born pregnant and her twin foetus Osiris, who impregnated her; and Set/Typhon]
It was a real-life whale, Mocha Dick, named after the island of Mocha off the coast of Chile at 38 degrees south, 71 degrees west, that was reported to have pursued a whaleboat back to its whaling ship and flailed at it while it was being hoisted back on board. The terrible story of the Essex was recounted by its first mate, Owen Chase, in the very directly titled
Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket; Which Was Attacked and Finally Destroyed by a Large Spermacetti-Whale in the Pacific Ocean.
What heightened the terror and horror of the incident was that the surviving sailors were eventually forced to draw lots to decide who should be killed and eaten in order to survive in the small boats on which they tried to journey home.
The demonstrated power of their putative prey made whalemen of Ahab’s time cautious. They did not have the harpoon-gun that was at the disposal of later hunters or any of the sonar devices used by contemporary whale-killers.
Nonetheless, the lure of progress towards the final frontier drew them on. Here is Olson, at the very beginning of Call me shmael:
"I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America ...
I spell it large because it comes large. Large, and without mercy."
And, a few paragraphs on:
"Americans still fancy themselves such democrats. But their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only matter of space the average person ever knows, ox-wheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.
"To Melville it is not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people. Ahab is no democrat. Moby-Dick, antagonist, is only king of natural force, resource."
Saddam Hussein may or may not have had weapons of mass destruction.
[To be sure, those WMD the existence and location of which Tony Blair guaranteed to his cabinet colleagues, the British parliament and the people of Britain, seem strangely to have disappeared. But then, as the London Review of Books quipped, Blair is Britain’s greatest wartime prime minister since John Major.]
But Iraq is a royal resource of oil; indeed, one of the world’s largest reserves of it. Every other rationale for war was rehearsed and deployed by the willing coalition of White House and 10 Downing Street , from WMD to the so-called moral case for invasion to regime change. Of course there was no mention of oil. Or of the imperial precedent for meddling in Mesopotamian affairs. In 1914, then Great Britain invaded Mesopotamia. By 1918 the occupation and conquest of the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul was complete and a League of Nationas mandate granted Britain in 1920. The following
Pravasan Pillay's Review of Darryl Accone's Wolpe Lecture
In retrospect Darryl Accone’s thoughtful Harold Wolpe lecture, “Passageways: Revisiting Self, The Society of the Spectacle, and Moby-Dick in the wake of September 11”, deserved the intimacy and attentiveness normally reserved for a late-night conversation between friends. This is mentioned not to cast doubt on the suitability of his talk as a public lecture but merely to point out that some of its reflection and insight may have been lost in a forum that, by its nature, tends to favour brashness over nuance.
Even with this slight disadvantage one sincerely hopes for the sake of genuine intellectual stimulation that this inventive thinker is invited to deliver more such talks in future. It would also be considerate on the part of the lecture organisers to perhaps distribute copies of the scheduled lectures beforehand. This would surely help generate a deeper level of understanding and engagement from the audience than seen in this particular instance.
The lecture, in essence, was an examination of the world after September 11 by way of the texts of two thinkers of extraordinary political prescience, specifically, The Society of the Spectacle (1967) by Guy Debord and Moby-Dick (1851) by Herman Melville.
Guy Debord was the theoretician behind the now common and often misused concept of the society of the spectacle. He was born in Paris in 1934 and killed himself in 1994 to avoid giving in to the incurable illness of alcoholic polyneuritis. He was a filmmaker, a theoretician, and a founding member of the Letterist International (LI) and the Situationist International (SI) that grew out of it.
Herman Melville, who found early success with such books as Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), is best known today as the author of Moby-Dick or The Whale as it was first published. Though the book was poorly received at the time it is now recognised as a classic and is at the center of much debate and study in academia. Melville died in obscurity in 1891 at the age of 72.
Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, comprising of 221 theses, which Accone described as “a profound critique of the alienation and commodification of consumer capitalism”, is considered today as an influential text in situationist thought, certain strands of anarchism, hardcore, and, for lack of a better phrase, political underground punk. It was also the inspiration behind much of the revolutionary actions of May ‘68.
Accone pointed out that though the concept of the spectacle is used by many today in referring to either the mass media invasion of everyday life or how the news has been spectacularised as entertainment (e.g. embedded journalism), it is rare to hear the name of Debord in connection with these, often simplified and misleading, pronouncements. He added that the spectacle comprised much more than the dictatorship of television and other forms of electronic communication. Its scope is revealed in Thesis 1 of the text:
1. The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense collection of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.
For Accone the spectacle is “[f]ounded on incessant technological renewal and the integration of State and economy, [and] is the whole of social activity appropriated by the spectacle for the spectacle. Art, science, everyday life, politics, urban planning, to list but a few, the spectacle replaces reality with images.”
The spectacle is that which renders human beings alienated spectators of their freedom. In the society of the spectacle life becomes no more than the acting out of empty roles and passive rituals in which illusory feelings of involvement are generated through images. Images mediate between human beings and reality. So images of things we desire come to take the role of the actual things we desire. To get closer to these images we pursue commodities, which we exchange for our time, energy, and creativity but instead of satisfying our desires these commodities, which are symbolic not of our desires but of images of our desires, tend to multiply them. The spectacle, in fact, reaches everywhere. There is delicious irony to be found in the fact that this very report and even the progressive Harold Wolpe forum in which this lecture concerning the spectacle was delivered are in essence generated and organised by spectacle for the spectacle.
The route out of the spectacle involved a search for, what Debord called, the north-west passage of the geography of real life, which Accone described as a “psychogeographic passageway [that] ran as a systematic drift through the city past and present.”
For the Letterists this was called a dérive, “a surrender to the promise of the city, a willingness to be diverted by it.” This was a self-conscious effort to arrange a new vision of everyday life. In practise a dèrive involved wandering around the city for days on end trying to find forgotten desires and secret rebellion. By living in the world in this way the LI aspired to create a mode of life understandable and accessible to all.
Debord also emphasised the détournment, which was “precise prose that had been deliberately plagiarised, reworked, re-imagined and rethought so as to emerge utterly revivified.” A simple illustration of this would be the work of a few Canadian direct-action activists who dètourned Calvin Klein billboards a few years ago by filling in the word ‘sheep’ after the slogan ‘just be’. The Society of the Spectacle itself is a dètournment of Marx, Hegel, and many others.
It was interesting to note the similarity between Debord’s idea of dètournment and the cutup method of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, which involved splicing together two or more texts to form a new text, often with a new meaning. Burroughs believed that people were conditioned by language – that words were a kind of virus mediating between people and their controllers – and that cutups would show when and where the programming (he called them word-lines) had taken place and who or what was responsible for it.
This comparison becomes all the more fascinating considering that both Burroughs and Debord were interested in Hassan i Sabbah (in the lecture he was referred to as Rashid al-Din Sinan), the founder of a 11th century Ismaili sect called the Assassins, who was reputed to have said on his deathbed: “nothing is true; everything is permitted.” This motto is referenced in many of Burroughs books (The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded) and letters and Accone pointed out that Thesis 9 of The Society of the Spectacle, “in a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood”, recalls it. It is also interesting that two years ago the avant-garde performance artist Laurie Anderson created a piece, entitled “Songs and Stories From Moby-Dick,” in homage to a writer [Melville] she has described as “a 19th century William S. Burroughs.”
The lecture’s most brilliant contribution was Accone’s attempt to link the ideas of Melville and Debord. He asserted that Melville, in his desire to write those sorts of books that were said to fail, and, in achieving this with Moby-Dick, effectively wrote himself out of existence. Accone quoted Henry A. Murry: “Melville proceeded to lose himself. This casting adrift was better, it seemed to him, than subjugating himself to a straight course in a humdrum world; better to sink in boundless depths than to float on vulgar shoals; and give me ye Gods, utter wreck, if wreck I do.” These detours of the mind or desires to “sink in boundless depths” constituted Melville’s dèrives. In addition Accone asserted that Moby-Dick is a prime example of dètournment in that Melville’s book was built on the back of the tremendous amounts of books that he read and wove into his own writing. He referenced the American poet Charles Olsen: “Melville’s reading is a gauge of him, at all points of his life. He was a skald, and knew how to appropriate the works of others. He read to write…[his] books batten on other men’s books.”
Both The Society of the Spectacle and Moby-Dick have much to say about the state of the world today. The most interesting observation, with regard to Debord, was his assertion of the principle of negation inherent in structures of domination. The destruction of the World Trade Centre read in this manner can be seen as a revelation of the entrails of the spectacle: “if monuments [are] symbols and the spectacle concentrated on a single point, then annihilation of such symbols most clearly uncovered the hitherto invisible circumstances in which people lived.”
The extent of the historical foresight found in Melville’s Moby-Dick borders on eeriness at times. For instance, at the end of the first chapter a headline, referring to the defeat of the British army at Kabul in 1846, reads, “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN (sic)”. There are many such ostensibly supernatural touches about the book. This historical parallelism is not the work of mystic though. Melville’s writing is a reflection of his own time. That events of our day find a precedent should hardly be surprising considering that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as tragedy and then, again, as tragedy.
This seems a trite point to belabour but its value lies in the glimpse it offers into the cycles of oppression that have plagued parts of the world. In the above instance one is disturbed not by the seemingly supernatural prediction but by the sheer length of time for which the Middle East has been the focus of rapacious imperial designs. The history of this oppression was highlighted very well in Accone’s lecture.
The symbolism of Melville’s book is less straightforward to sort through though. Few would disagree with D.H. Lawrence’s strident “of course the whale is symbolic” but exactly what the whale or the book does symbolises is less clear. It seems advisable if uninventive to not attach a distinct reading to the book but to rather note that it is there for readings to be attached. Indeed, in an interview marking the 150th anniversary of the book, Professor Timothy Marr of American Studies at the University of North Carolina seemed to confirm this view by referring to it as America’s Rorschach test.
This seems further confirmed in the various readings given to it through the generations. For instance, in the climate of anti-authoritarianism and individualism that permeated American society post World War I Captain Ahab was portrayed as a populist hero of sorts. However after World War II with the proliferation of dictators and the particular horrors of Hitler and Stalin Ahab’s stock began to drop. He was cast as a destructive zealot and it was the innocent democrat Ishmael that emerged as the hero of the story. Then in his brilliant Mariners, Renegades & Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953) C.L.R. James argued that the Pequod could be read as a kind of corporation with Ahab at the head and the crew of many nations under his tyranny. He read Ishmael not as a hero but as a sort of intellectual Ahab. And in the 1960s environmentalists took the book’s critique of the whaling industry and similarities of that industry to the oil industry as a warning of impending ecology disaster. That so many readings are possible seems to only add weight to Accone’s assertion of Moby-Dick being a prime example of dètournment.
Accone’s interpretation of the book has much insight. He reads Ahab as George W. Bush and the Pequod as the present-day American state of ship: “Unilateral, anti-dialectical, a terroriser of nature, a narcissist grievously wounded on his own quarter-deck: Ahab is akin to the leader of a global superpower, and the whaling captain’s “bigotry of purpose” makes him the archetype of imperial ambitions.” This is not a unique reading. Many commentators in the wake of September 11 have identified in Bush the single-mindedness and lunacy of Ahab. Indeed Edward Said made the first, admittedly brief, comparison as little as five days after the attacks (“Time for Intellectual Honesty: There are many Islams”, Counterpunch, 16 September 2001).
Another parallel drawn by many, including Accone, is the passageway to perdition that both Bush and Ahab have irrevocably embarked on. The crucial and unsettling point being that both men are taking their own people down with them. In a thoughtful article (“Moby-Dick and the War on Al-Qaeda: Remember the Pequod!”, Counterpunch, 22 January 2002) Bredan Cooney invoked the words of William Faulkner, writing in 1927 about his fascination with the book, to sound exactly this caution. The book, Faulkner wrote, showed a man “bent on his own destruction and dragging his immediate world down with him with a despotic and utter disregard of its people as individuals”. It is plain that Bush like Ahab with his inability “to resist the hypnotic attraction of the self with its impulse to envelop and control the universe” is unintentionally plotting just such a course for the world.
In this regard Accone rightly highlighted the importance of the harpoon blood baptism scene in establishing the true nature of Ahab. Many sympathetic Melville critics have painted Ahab as an ambivalent, “grand, ungodly, god-like man” but for Accone this pivotal scene (for Melville himself) ultimately confirms that Ahab is a denier of God and the partner of the devil. So to in Bush there is ultimately no redeeming factor. He is: “the ecocidal president who suggested prospecting for oil in the Arctic Reserve; who has burnt the Kyoto Protocol and suggested instead the euphemistically named “Clear Skies” that will increase greenhouse gas emissions by US producers and consumers; who has flushed away 30 years of nuclear arms control; and who favours so-called anticipatory defence.” Lastly, in perhaps the most original aspect of his interpretation, Accone asserted that the whale shouldn’t necessarily be associated with Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. Instead the nature of the whale is contingent. In connection with this he pointed out that with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq now over hawks in the Bush administration are quietly turning their eyes towards Iran thus seeming to confirm the whale as catch-all canvas onto which Americans paint their fears and hence justify their actions. That there should be a whale to hunt seems to be a question rarely brought up.
Land: Critical Choices for South Africa: A review by Peter Dwyer
Andile Mngxitama began by situating the “land question” (and the related issue of labour) as a legacy of colonial dispossession and a “question of power”. One fundamental reason he suggested for the slow pace of land reform since 1994 was that the ANC government chooses not to tackle the entrenched power relations connected to the ownership and control of land. Unless the government is prepared to do so, Andile argued, land reform will be undermined by the “sheer power of the landed classes”.
He further argued that because the government’s macroeconomic policy is reliant upon private, foreign and national, investors this means it is unlikely to give land back to the poor for fear of worrying investors that their property and investments are not safe in South Africa. He therefore reiterated that “we must smash the power of the land-owning elites” and as the government is unwilling or unable to do this there are three different ways to redistribute land.
Firstly, the government (free-market) approach of ‘willing buyer willing seller’ was discounted because he is not aware of any global historical precedent when such a process has resulted in land redistribution. Actually, he could have noted that the ANC government, like the Brazilian Emperor Pedro II, who in 1850, fearing land invasions by soon to be freed plantation slaves, passed a law declaring that land could only be obtained by purchase not by occupation. Effectively this denied access to the land by all but the wealthy. Today Brazil is home to one of the most prolific landless peoples movements in the world: The Movement of Landless Rural Workers – MST - who the LPM is forging ties with.
Secondly, he rejected a government led expropriation process on behalf of the landless as paternalistic and dis-empowering and that in Zimbabwe such a process has resulted in more land going to elites and government cronies (it was noticeable that Andile made few references to events still on-going in Zimbabwe). His preferred option is “a people-centred model” led by landless people with some assistance from the state. This includes direct action and “illegal actions” (a proposal that was greeted with approval by some sections of the audience) and he implied this would also enable people to begin to take charge of their lives by devising their own land reform programme (similar to the people centred development originally at the centre of the RDP and Freedom Charter).
He ended by highlighting the challenges facing the “the movement for social justice” in South Africa. Whilst noting that “the government is creating a black capitalist class” he did not want to talk about “class and gender” but never said why. Specifically, he is concerned how “white people” become spokespersons and the face of a new movement and how this may reproduce relations of racial subordination as white people can create an illusion that something will be done on behalf of black people. Therefore, the next big question facing the new emerging movement is one of “strategy”.
It would have been interesting if Andile could have explored this section of his talk in more depth. Not just in terms of the ‘when’, ‘how’ and by ‘who’ his preferred option for land reform could be set in motion (strategy and tactics) but why a ‘bottom up’ process is important. For he seemed to suggest that people can, through their own actions, learn something about themselves (perhaps such a process may also undermine any reliance on white spokespeople?). Indeed, research on the MST in Brazil shows how through being involved in the MST people have acquired education, knowledge and self-confidence. Likewise, MST members are now helping to devise agricultural and land policy for the newly elected Workers Party with whom they have a fraternal but independent political relationship. Given that the future of the ANC led Alliance is the source of constant speculation, as is the emergence of a left-wing alternative to the ANC, no doubt the LPM are following events in Brazil carefully.
Questions of strategy figured highly in a fascinating talk given by Gillian Hart. Whilst agreeing that land reform policy in South Africa is “technocratic” and framed in narrow economic terms she suggested that the historic neglect of agrarian question by the liberation movement (I assume she means primarily the ANC and SACP) did not help. She argued that, with the exception of Govan Mbeki, the liberation movement emphasised the role of the urban industrial working class in paving the way to socialism. This was, she believes, based on a flawed assumption that the dispossession of the land is a necessary (and natural) event on the road to capitalism (and socialism) and coincides with the conservative view that South Africa must ‘modernise’ and ‘catch up’ with the US and Europe.
Instead, she argued for a broader understanding of the agrarian question and how land is connected to other “realms of life”. She emphasised that we need to de-link the land question from agriculture whilst “re-framing it in terms of both a moral and material imperatives” for broadly based redistribution that must be connected to struggles in “multiple arenas” (although these rather vague terms were never fleshed out).
This is an important corrective to the mechanical and deterministic thinking that dominated, what passed for, the ‘Marxist’ left (both in South Africa and globally) based on an uncritical reading of Marx and an unquestioning belief in the progressive nature of Soviet-state led industrial expansion that looked set in the 1960s to replace the US as the dominant industrialist power. Although she neglected to say that there has always been a different ‘Marxist’ tradition (e.g. Kautsky, Lenin, Bukharin and Trotsky’s work on the agrarian question) neglected by the dominant liberation groups in South Africa and elsewhere.
Gillian Hart then intriguingly discussed how Taiwanese industry (some now located in South Africa) benefited from a huge land reform programme in East Asia in the 1940s and, although this was a conservative process, how this provided a social wage that underpinned rapid industrial growth. This she argued shows how distinctively non-western trajectories of industrial expansion combined with re-distribution have actually played a key role in designing the conditions of global competition.
Although not suggesting South Africa replicate this policy it was not clear if she was suggesting that a land reform programme should free up ‘rural’ capital (investment) and savings into ‘industrial’ capital so as to pump-prime the South African economy. Neither was it clear if the basis of land reform should be equality or efficiency and why, given dominant power relations and current economic policy the government should support such a reform process. Perhaps my potential misunderstanding stems from Gillian Hart not being critical enough of the Taiwanese experience that was effectively a mass clearance of the peasant class to make way for capitalist development. Perhaps also more clarification is needed over the nuts and bolts of the social wage, for I fear her suggestions can also be understood as using land reform as a way of funding capitalist development by using a social wage to reduce the costs of labour for business.
However, Gillian Hart is right to suggest that the term social wage might be a means (a campaign?) for linking struggles going on in “multiple arenas”, in particular to get organised labour to take on the land question and shift from “a narrow rear guard action in defence of diminishing jobs” and link up with emerging social movement that are grappling with different dimensions of the same issue. In terms of concretising such a campaign she returned to the legacy of Govan Mbeki and his 2 years in the 1950s in Ladysmith and how his grassroots work with local communities raises questions of organisation today. That is, there is a need for a ‘back to basics’ of working with grassroots communities and trade unions. She suggested this could be done by drawing on the work of Italian Socialist Antonio Gramsci and his notion of a ‘war of position’: the importance of building up new kinds of understanding and alliances in civil society bearing in mind that the ANC is still a very power force.
Underlying some of what both speakers discussed seems to be a belief that their is a ‘re-peasantisation’ of South Africa as neo-liberal capitalism forces people to go back to the land due to retrenchments and mass unemployment. Indeed, Gillian Hart spoke of a “rapid disintegration of working class”. This suggests that the working class (implicitly narrowly defined as an industrial working class and perhaps in danger of replicating the crude, ‘Soviet-Marxist’, interpretation of ‘class’ they seek to criticise?) is no longer a force for social change and so elevating the importance of ‘social movements’ (a term rather loosely used and not elaborated upon).
However, given that for every one person employed another 10 are reliant on that income and that if we include social welfare grants, something like 70 per cent of the population are still reliant on wage labour and money, might they be exaggerating the decreasing reliance upon wage labour? Consequently, might this also underplay the perpetual way capitalist social relations have historically transformed class relations and structural occupations?
Additionally, I was not clear if lurking here was a suggestion that parts of South Africa are understood as being semi-feudal despite capitalist relations dominating much of urban and rural areas. If so it would have been interesting to hear the reasoning behind this, especially given that this is a period in which unused land is being converted into international (and national) tourist havens, private game parks, golf courses and country lodges etc. Whilst landowners channel profits and rents into new exploitive business ventures or bank their earnings overseas through international capital networks.
Also missing was a contextualisation of these debates, issues and tensions in what is happening globally. Whilst neither speaker mentioned events and movements elsewhere I am sure they know that today there is a growing array of active movements fighting in barrios, plantations, factories, schools, and campuses across the globe facing similar challenges. One of which is the fragmented nature and sporadic activity of such groups – a problem facing the social movements in South Africa.
As to how greater unity and co-operation can be forged (an underlying theme of the lecture) Gillian Hart hinted that we may well want to revisit Gramsci’s work on ‘war of position’ (although she did not mention his theory of ‘war of manoeuvre’ - the related and more radial component of this strategy). Whilst Gramsci seems popular of late, those drawing on his work often avoid saying how Gramsci talks of the importance of the ‘subaltern classes’ (the word he used for working class to get around fascist prison censors). Together with those earlier Marxists who discussed the land question Gramsci seemed much clearer about the agents of change (whether he and others are right is a point of contention) than vague appeals to “social movements” and “civil society” that seem to evade questions about who will demand a social wage and from who and what are the dynamics of the demands that will push for this.
Review of David Theo Godlberg’s lecture The Death of Race
Review of David Theo Godlberg’s lecture The Death of Race given on 31 July 2003 at the Wolpe Lecture Series, Centre for Civil Society and School of Development Studies, University of Natal
Paradoxically, many studies of racism are focusing on the absence of race in the language of contemporary western society rather than its presence (e.g. Frankenberg 2003, van Dijk 1993). The post-WW2, post-civil rights, post-colonial and – more recently – post-apartheid periods have forced societies to re-evaluate and adjust their formerly brazen use of race to divide and organise society. We tend to think of racism as typified by slavery, the holocaust, colonialism and apartheid, and the renunciation of these by the west leads many to conclude racism is dead. But is this the case, and is it correct to conflate racism with these historical periods?
It is these questions which David Goldberg is tackling through his new book 'The Death of Race' due for release in 2004 through Basil Blackwell. The title of his draft first chapter ‘Buried Alive’ which was the basis of his lecture on 31 July 2003 – tells us what he thinks: it is premature to celebrate the death of racism.
A key innovation in Goldberg’s approach is to avoid starting with the usual line that racism has cleverly ‘evolved’ and adapted ‘chameleon like’ to be acceptable in the new environment of political correctness. Instead, he expresses disappointment in movements against racism themselves for abandoning their programme half way through the transition. Goldberg’s entry point, then, is not to plot a genealogy of racism, but rather to sketch a periodisation of movements against racism. He argues that antiracist initiatives can be periodised around three movements: (1) abolitionism in the nineteenth century, (2) the civil rights movement and anticolonialism of the twentieth century until around 1960, followed by (3) multiculturalism and anti-apartheid movements in the latter part of the twentieth century. (On Goldberg’s periodisation, I would add the world’s response to Nazism – itself a factor in civil rights and decolonization – as a major component of the second movement).
Goldberg’s core argument is that, whereas each of these began as movements against broad social structures that produced the conditions for genocide, exploitation, and segregation, they all petered out, becoming movements concerned with mere semantics. Following Appiah, Goldberg distinguishes between antiracism and antiracialism. While antiracism is concerned with the substantive impact of racial ideologies and programmes on the lived conditions of its victims, antiracialism is only concerned with concepts, categories and labels that invoke race. (For me, these overlap with Frankenberg’s 1993 concepts of race cognizance and colour evasiveness respectively). With antiracialism, it is these categorizations, in and of themselves, that are found to be offensive. To put it crudely, the difference between antiracialism and antiracism is the difference between style and substance. For antiracialists, there is little difference between a white person disliking a black person on the basis of their black identity, than a black person disliking a white person on the basis of their white identity. Affirmative action is thus described as racist. By contrast, although Goldberg does not say as much, we could imagine that antiracists are more likely to see Eurocentric/white supremacist racism as being of a qualitatively different kind. It recognizes the power relations that produce the identities of settler/colonized; slave owner/slave; government/subject; boss/worker. Affirmative action, therefore, may be seen as a legitimate avenue to redress the effects of these power relations.
Goldberg argues, then, that these movements set out to transform the iniquitous conditions of society but only ended up removing overt racial subjugation, exclusion and exploitation without following through on a thorough attempt to redress these. It is as though the moral momentum is maintained to end that what is broadly acknowledged to be wrong, but commitment to transform economic and political conditions does not survive the renunciation of the racist programme. The revolution is incomplete. How did this happen? One reason is that these antiracist movements snooker themselves by outlawing the language through which they could acknowledge and confront the legacy of the racist past. As if to confirm their transition away from racist programmes (slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, apartheid), ‘post-racial’ societies ban the very category of ‘race’ from their language. References to ‘black’ and ‘white’ are in and of themselves seen to constitute racism. References to race become taboo and movements therefore disarm themselves of the tools with which to confront the racially differentiated effects of discriminatory social political and economic structures.
Another reason why anti-racist movements appear – from a radical perspective – to run out of steam at the point of transition is that they are not, in fact, radical movements at all, and believe that they have achieved their objectives. Maybe they were antiracial movements all along. The initiatives that Goldberg/Appiah classify as antiracial probably see themselves as opposing racism, defined in quite different terms. What we are seeing, in fact, is liberalism; a set of ideologies which its holders consider progressive – and it has been in its vocal opposition to slavery, the holocaust, and apartheid – but considers its end point to be the achievement of democracy alone. The key debate then is whether democracy is the sufficient condition for a post-racist society or whether democracy can accommodate enduring forms of (often racialised) exclusion. The problem is that liberalism would not recognize such exclusion as racist but rather as the legitimate outcome of the market society in which everyone – supposedly – has equal opportunities for upward mobility. Flowing from liberal conceptions, the evil to be eradicated for antiracialists is the illogical prejudice and hatred of a person on the basis of their ‘skin colour’. This is the evil that leads to ‘hate crimes’ of various kinds and to irrational exclusion of certain kinds of people from various aspects of society. Racial laws such job colour bars are seen as illogical as they exclude people from vertical social mobility on the basis of their ‘race’ despite of the fact that they may have capabilities beyond this glass ceiling. Colour blindness is, thus, a significant moral achievement for this grouping.
The problem, of course, that this fixation on labels is a red herring which distracts from the ‘real’ issue. At the very least it cannot accommodate a broader historical contextualization of the political and economic conditions that produced racial deprivation. Even more worryingly, for all its moral righteousness, antiracialism is not an unambiously progressive shift and can, in fact, be a ticket back to racism. Racism is therefore not dead, but ‘born again’ in Goldberg’s words. Racism is not gone, but has simply transformed in the new social environment. In societies of imperial Europe, apartheid South Africa, the US pre-civil rights, racism was a relatively unproblematic social norm which needed little explanation, qualification or apology. It was broadly acceptable to order society into races, to order races hierarchically and to implement a variety of programmes that flowed from this logic such as extermination, labour exploitation, missionary and education initiatives, political subjugation, and spatial segregation. However, the effect of anti-colonialism, anti-apartheid and the civil rights movements was to introduce a level of shame to this use of racial categories. In effect, racism was made aware of its nakedness and was no longer able to parade in openly without being, at some level, self conscious. Overt racism is no longer an unproblematic social norm as it once was and has had to adapt accordingly.
The response by those who wished to continue ordering society hierarchically and to use this ordering to justify exploitation, attempts to educate the uneducated, attempts to live separately from those who were considered to be lower on social hierarchies, was to strip their justification of all references to racial categories. Racism thus responded to the need for it to become more discreet. This is precisely where antiracialism, a movement against the use of racial terms, and racism defined as the construction of a hierarchy between the ‘superior’ West and its inferior others, are entirely compatible. It is quite possible for the west to create an inferior Other using the same criteria it did in the past, such as backwardness, barbarism, cruelty, traditionalism, unproductivity – in short, uncivilized – without referring to black and white at all. Distinctions between first and third worlds, developed and undeveloped, educated and uneducated will do, as they all denote an evolutionary separation (Fabian 1983: 17-8).
Something which I have been wrestling with is the extent to which racism remains an appropriate category for describing a logic which divides and hierachically organises society according to non racial categories? Is it sufficient to say that because these social divisions and hierarchies overlap with race, without ever acknowledging as much, that they are racist? Racism – in some ways – is too small a term to describe what is going on. Racism is just one way in which a powerful group can denigrate, and therefore exclude and subjugate, another group. Such processes of ‘Othering’ produce those who are dividing society as a civilized centre (worthy of equal moral responsibility), and an uncivilized other. A centre produces its others by describing it as chaotic, dirty, backwards, uneducated, irrational (see Mennell 1992 on Elias). Europe has applied such descriptions to its own citizens to produce social inferiority along class lines – defined in an identity sense as well as a narrow economic sense. Through various dimensions of othering, e.g. race and class, middle classes all over the world have attempted to define themselves as modern and civilized.
Should we even be concerned about the extent to which these identify formation processes are ‘racist’ – a definitional exercise which sends us down the intellectual cul-de-sac which has characterized the ‘race-class debate’. What is important about them is that they diminish – in the eyes of those who hold such construct – the importance of ‘others’ as objects of moral responsibility. For me, it is this mechanism that is the crucial continuity between the past and present – not whether or not behavior is still racist.
To illustrate this point: the post apartheid South African government appears to go against Goldberg’s predictions that antiracist movements will outlaw the use of racial terminology. This discourse is indeed prevalent amongst the liberal opposition party – the DA – which warns against a ‘reracialisation’ of society. To the contrary, the ANC government places strong emphasis on employment equity (affirmative action) and on black economic empowerment (i.e. black ownership of business and access to business opportunities). In South Africa, the antiracialist line is held by the opposition while the government ostensibly retains an antiracist ideology. However, while affirmative action and empowerment do help remove barriers confronted by those already benefiting from the formal economy, this ideology is not used to confront the continued exclusion of large percentages of the population from the job market all together. How far – then – can antiracism help address this exclusion – which was clearly linked to the racialised political economy of apartheid but which is in fact growing in post apartheid (post racist) South Africa?
Finally – on a different point – Goldberg argues that the weight of race is born differently by different people in society. This is useful, but I would probably use a different analogy. I would argue that the pressure points of race are different depending on an individual’s particular and multiple relationship to gender, race, sexuality and many dimensions of difference. Black women, under apartheid, bore a different burden to black men. Indian and coloured communities bore different burdens to African communities. Hundreds of white gay men conscripted to the army were sent for psychiatric treatment and even gender reassignment. And there is room for maneuver: some black people became the informants of apartheid’s intelligence services while some white people were committed activists who were persecuted and even imprisoned for their anti-apartheid activities. Even white men who supported the National Party – the apparent beneficiaries of apartheid – continue live with the effects of post trauma stress as a result of their experiences in the South African army.
Nelson Mandela himself stated that “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of prejudice and narrow-mindedness … the oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity. The oppressor must be liberated as sure as the oppressed” (Quoted by Carter, Gina “Society Where Everyone Has a Place” Independent on Saturday. 25 July 1998, p 8. Also see Magubane 1996: 17). That racism is to be morally condemned is not in doubt. However, doing so in race studies can simply replicate romanticized notions of victims and oppressors (Bonnett 2000: 123; Back and Solomos 1993: 183, Grossberg 1996: 88). It is crucial – therefore – to locate racism as one element of the social production of difference according to a variety of planes (ethnicity, development, gender, sexuality, etc) and with which individuals engage in a variety of ways. We should take care to ensure that it is this social production of difference which is the target of our concerns.
Back, Les and Solomos, John (1993) “Doing Research, Writing Politics: the Dilemmas of Political Intervention in Research on Racism” Economy and Society. vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 178-199
Bonnett, Alastair (2000) White Identities: Historical and International Perspectives. UK: Prentice Hall
Fabian, Johannes (1983) Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object. New York: Columbia University Press
Frankenberg, Ruth (1993) White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press and Routledge
Grossberg, Lawrence (1996) “Identity and Cultural Studies – Is That All There Is?” in Hall,
Stuart and Du Gay, Paul (eds) Questions of Cultural Identity. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage, ch. 6, pp. 87-107
Magubane, Bernard M. (1996) The Making of a Racist State: British Imperialism and the Union of South Africa, 1875-1910. Trenton NJ, Asmara Eritrea: Africa World Press
Mennell, Stephen (1992) Norbert Elias: An Introduction. Oxford UK and Cambridge USA: Blackwell (Originally published in 1989 as Norbert Elias: Civilization and the Human Self Image)
van Dijk, Teun (1993) “Analyzing Racism Through Discourse Analysis: Some Methodological Reflections” in Stanfield, John and Dennis, Rutledge (eds) Race and Ethnicity in Research Methods. California, US: Sage
Bram Fischer and the Question of Identity
Topic: Stephen Clingman on Bram Fischer and the Question of Identity
Date: Thursday 7 August 2003
Time: 17h30 - 19h00
Venue: Howard College Theatre, University of Natal
Queries: 031 - 2603577
Stephen Clingman is the author of a number of important books incuding the acclaimed biography of Bram Fischer "Bram Fischer Afrikaner Revolutionary". He is professor and chair of the English department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
"This is not only the story of an extraordinary personality but also an extraordinary family, and the time and place of one of the twentieth century's most devastating experiments in the denial of common humanity. How Bram Fischer resolved - in sacrifice of material success, easy honors, personal freedom, and finally his life - the contradictions of his situation as a white and Afrikaner, is told with honesty, deep intelligence, and admirable skill worthy of the subject. The apartheid government would not give Fischer's ashes to his children. He has no monument in stone; but this book is testimony that his life continues in his great contributions to the free South Africa now realized."
Review of Stephen Clingman’s “Bram Fischer and the Question of Identity”
The story of Bram Fischer’s life is one of overlapping loyalties and conflicting commitments. Stephen Clingman’s Wolpe Lecture, “Bram Fischer and the Question of Identity,” sought to ground Clingman’s questioning of identity – both of Fischer’s personal identity and of a general model of identity – within the context of that life story
Clingman divided his lecture into four sections, each one of which related a different fragment of Fischer’s story, and each one of which sought to describe a different moment in the complex development of Fischer’s own identity and self-identification.
The first of these sections described the events of Fischer’s trial, under the Suppression of Communism Act, in the mid-1960s. Clingman began by detailing some of the contradictions created by the way in which the Apartheid State chose to treat Fischer. In the days before he was arrested, the Minister of Foreign Affairs decided to grant Fischer a passport for the first time in many years. After his arrest, the State then permitted Fischer to travel to London while temporarily released on bail.
At this point, Clingman quoted statements made by Fischer in the period between his arrest and his journey to London. Fischer stated categorically that he was “a son of our soil” and that he had “no intention of avoiding political prosecution.” He swore that he would return to face the court; he believed this to be both a duty and an obligation.
Fischer did return, despite the best efforts of his colleagues in exile to dissuade him, but did not in fact return to face the court. Instead he seems to have suffered a sudden change of heart and, three days before he was due to reappear in the dock, went underground. His lawyer read a letter to the court in which Fischer explained that while he was no longer willing to accept a political prosecution, he had no intention of leaving his country. His duty as an officer of the court was superseded by “the duty of every true opponent of this government to remain in this country” – a duty that was particularly felt, he believed, by an Afrikaner. A public furore followed the reading of the letter.
Newspapers across the country carried stories about Fischer’s disappearance. Heated conversations livened dinner-parties in all the best households: where had Fischer gone? And, more importantly, what did he look like? Was he daring enough to retain his features? Or had he had plastic surgery? And would anyone ever recognise him again?
The truth was somewhat less dramatic. Fischer had retreated to a farm in Rustenburg where he went on a diet, shaved his forehead to create a receding hairline, grew a goatee, and dyed his hair. He also began to smoke a pipe. The effect, as described by Clingman, was a cross between Tintin’s Professor Calculus, and Trotsky.
At the end of this process, and for the brief period of months that he remained at large, he was able to return to his chambers and ride up and down the lifts in the courthouse without being recognised. For the length of this period, at least, Bram Fischer had, as Clingman’s conclusion to this section of his lecture had it, “changed his identity.”
This statement preceded the series of “questions of identity” that Clingman began to detail in the second section of his talk, and thus provided the foundations for much of what followed. It is worth pausing in retrospect to think through some of the implications of beginning a series of questions about identity with this particular pre-emptive answer.
This statement describes Fischer’s identity as indistinguishable from its performative surface: his clothes, his hair, his accessories, his waist, and his gait. Fischer assumed a new name, a new set of (presumably forged) identification documents, and a new appearance. His identity – as it appeared to the public around him – thus changed.
As described by Clingman, this visible change of identity must be read as being the result of a relationship between Fischer and the general South African populace. It is also, perhaps more urgently, a relationship between him and the South African Police; and, as a consequence of his bravado in visiting his old place of work, between him and those colleagues of his who remained within the Apartheid legal system.
It leaves out much. It does not describe a relationship between Fischer and his close political allies – those who aided in his visible transformation, and who would have been aware of the continuity of his identity beneath this performative surface. It leaves out the psychological dimensions of Fischer’s actions: not the visible effects of going underground, but the (again, presumably) conscious decision to do so in the first place – despite his earlier and seemingly sincere intention to endure a political prosecution. And, perhaps most significantly, this account entirely omits any mention of Fischer’s family: his wife and his children. Where were they during this transformative period?
To find an answer to that question, one has to turn away from Clingman’s lecture and turn, instead, to his earlier biography of Bram Fischer. There he relates how, in the months immediately prior to Fischer’s arrest, Molly Fischer was killed in a car-crash. Bram was driving. In a letter to his daughter, Ilse, Fischer wrote: “At times I could nearly go mad with remorse and despair.
“I would have done so, I think, but for the help which you & Ruth & Paul gave me.” Ruth and Paul were Fischer’s other two children and, unlike Ilse who was still in South Africa, were living permanently in England. He visited them during his interval in London, after being granted bail and immediately before returning to South Africa – not to face prosecution, but to go underground. The actions Clingman described as taking place entirely within the ambit of Fischer’s public and political personas also took place within the context of terrible familial disruption and trauma. Clingman’s implication – in this lecture, if not in his biography – that these personal traumas had such a negligible role in the sudden shift in Fischer’s identity creates a significant lacuna in his argument.
This private aspect of Fischer’s identity remained unrecognised throughout the remainder of Clingman’s lecture. Molly Fischer was spoken of only on the occasion of their marriage; their daughters were not mentioned; and their son only mentioned on the occasion of his youthful death – and then, strangely, only in the context of the impact of his death on Walter Sisulu, an old friend of the Fischer family. Clingman quoted Sisulu as saying that he had felt the boy’s death as like the death of his own child. Fischer’s response was not noted. Without ever once explicitly dismissing the impact of the personal or ever once clearly placing it outside of the ambit of his analysis, Clingman’s speech seemed to erase all traces of Fischer’s private identity, the identity displayed in the private spaces of family life, of friendship, of close companionship. Only the public presentation of his identity seemed worth examining.
The remainder of Clingman’s lecture did little to dispel that impression. In the second section of his lecture he developed some of the questions of identity he had implicitly raised in the first part: as a consequence of the presentation of this narrative, and of the absence of all personal identity, the conclusion of this section of questioning was strikingly impersonal. Identity, Clingman argued, could be best diagnosed by observing first the way in which an individual articulated his concepts of the nation in which he lived, and second the way in which he moved between one place and another. “Place” in his formulation seemed to be primarily the nation-state, secondarily a sense of belonging or of displacement, and finally a mental condition of perpetual dis-comfort in any given society. In this scheme Fischer could be described as having the identities of a revolutionary, an organiser, and a lawyer. But not the identity of a father, or a husband.
He could, however, been seen as being a son. In the third part of his lecture, Clingman turned to the development of Fischer’s political persona, and began by describing the political careers of Fischer’s fervently nationalist grandfather, and less-fervently national father. He argued – convincingly – that the first signs of Fischer’s later rebelliousness came from his period as a Rhodes Scholar in the 1930s. This literal displacement challenged a parochial understanding of politics, derived from his patriarchal heritage. Following this, Clingman launched into a lengthy series of metaphors for the evolution of Fischer’s layered identity. A selection of these metaphors:
The map of self and society that Fischer was developing. Identity as a process of adjacency. Fischer sought to find his place in the world. His sense of being at home was challenged. His identity was displaced, or dislodged. The 1960s brought a hardening of identity, forcing it into more fixed positions. A boundary had been crossed. He was an alien within his own country; he was at home in a country he imagined. Displaced again.
Running through this narrative of Fischer’s history was a sense of his identity as not merely inextricable from geo-political discourses, but in fact as so closely identifiable with them as to be indistinguishable. Identity wholly resides in political choice.
A more nuanced version of this was present by Clingman in the fourth, and final, section of his lecture. Here he turned away from Fischer’s own identity and tried to generalise out from his earlier observations. Identity is always on the threshold of the symbolic: a person is always in the process of becoming a symbol. And, as Clingman noted, there is a price to pay for becoming a symbol: a sacrifice of the merely human.
Clingman also presented a fascinating case for considering identity as having a grammar, and as being articulated with a care and a subtlety similar to language. It is notable, however, in the context of the above points, that the particular parts of grammar that he chose to highlight were metonymy and metaphor: could identity be read as a metaphor for another source of power (the nation, the state)? Or did it instead possess a metonymous relationship to that source of power, repeating it in miniature? Neither of these, it should be clear, goes any way towards opening up the familiar and familial senses of identity, or personality, and of self – self-presentation, self-understanding, and self-identification. It is difficult to recognise anyone, let alone Fischer, in this final scheme.
One of the earliest rallying cries of the present wave of identity and identification, most clearly seen in the global rise of identity politics and of identity studies in academia, was “the personal is political.” Our contemporary, everyday, understandings of the meaning of identity – of what constitutes it, the practices by which it is constituted, and the limits upon its articulation – are all premised on this simple to state, but difficult to fully comprehend, cry. Clingman’s lecture did not seem to fall within this.
Instead, the premises upon which his questioning of identity was founded seem to be somewhat older. There was certainly a framework in which a man’s identity could be simply described by his conscious political affiliations, by his positioning within a global geo-political network of states and nations, and by his impact on the development of a national history. A man’s wife and his children were irrelevant to this part of his identity, although they might provide interesting material for anecdote. This framework carries the name of its exemplary figure: the Great Man. A Man – almost always male – who stands above the world, strides between countries, and who changes the world around him. He is too busy in the world to be merely human.
Bram Fischer may have been a great man, but he deserves better than to be called a Great Man. Clingman’s biography presents a subtle and nuanced account of his rich, full, and human life. But when Clingman turned that life to the questioning of identity in the current world, its human dimensions disappeared. And with its disappearance, the richness of Clingman’s understanding of human identity became fatally abstract and dry.
The African Renaissance and the Neo-Liberal World Order: A review by Peter Dwyer
A dinosaur in the lecture theatre or “the muffled sounds of the foghorn of hope”? A review of the Harold Wolpe lecture ‘The African Renaissance and the Neo-Liberal World Order’ by Professor Neville Alexander 28 August 2003.
Some might say that a dinosaur gave a lecture at the University of Natal recently. For since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent collapse of ‘bureaucratic state -socialism’ (‘Communism’) and the euphoric wave of optimism for liberal capitalism that accompanied its collapse, any talk of the political importance of the 1917 Russian Revolution, class struggle and socialism is considered a relic from a prehistoric era by many in academia, politics and the media.
However, others might say that what they heard from Neville Alexander was that the emerging social movements (both nationally and internationally) represent “the muffled sounds of the foghorn of hope”, amidst a neo-liberal storm and the mirage of an African Renaissance that is “part and parcel of a single (neo-liberal) programme to stabilise the African continent for capitalist operations”. What is certain is that when a former Robbin Island prisoner, prolific academic and ever committed political activist gives a talk you know there will be much food for thought and so I make no apologies for this rather lengthy review.
Alexander began by saying that he did not have a prepared paper and this seemed to give him the flexibility to adjust his talk as he proceeded. Whilst this is no easy task, it did, at times, mean that some sections of the discussion did not neatly link to those that followed and he spent too little time discussing the notion of the ‘African Renaissance’. It struck me that he used the lecture as an opportunity to reaffirm the relevance of history for understanding the present and as a (provisional?) guide to the future for those still committed to grassroots political activity. Indeed he stated how he hoped that his talk might help “younger people” - a reference to the many students who packed the lecture - to frame the relevant questions that would lead not to “blind action” or “irrelevant research” but “action research”. Although what this might mean in practice was not elaborated upon.
In order to ask the right questions he stated that we, people on the left, must revisit some theoretical and strategic foundations. For Marxists such as Alexander any such ‘soul-searching’ and analysis must be situated within an appropriate historical and contemporary context. Consequently, he outlined the intellectual and political circumstances of our times. An appreciation of which, he insisted, cannot be grasped unless one understands how the collapse of ‘Communism’ gave rise to a dominant discourse and political practice of “centrism” and “social democracy”. Which, he argued, uncritically takes the permanence of capitalist social relations (the way we live, organise, produce, consume etc) for granted. Subsequently, he mocked the deterministic and ahistorical view that it is impossible to fundamentally reform capitalism because of its apparent indestructibility – represented politically by the argument that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism. We should recall that in 1989 the US writer Francis Fukuyama wrote a celebrated article called “The end of history” claiming that the fall of the Berlin Wall left liberal capitalism as the unchallenged victor of the Cold War.
Punctuating the pessimism?
Given this background, Alexander noted how this is not the first time the “socialist project” has been challenged. Certainly, historical precedents abound suggesting it is foolhardy to write off a revival of working class and popular protests and the left. In the 1960s, after a politically quiescent 1950s, Daniel Bell wrote about the “the end of ideology” and literally months before the biggest general strike in European history in 1968 Andre Gorz wrote a book called ‘Farewell to the Working class’. Likewise, Neville Alexander reminded us that Lenin himself told students, in 1916, that he would not see a socialist revolution in his lifetime.
Hence, Alexander wants us to believe that, just as the global stability of the 1950s and 1960s was punctuated by an upturn in political struggle - resulting in a ‘new left’ generating new ideas - “new contradictions” will produce new waves of resistance and spell the end of twenty fives years of neo-liberal policies. Whilst this begs the question of when and how (two of the questions from the audience), by constantly referring to the “global movement” and new community based organisations in South Africa, it would appear he believes this process has already started (the French Marxist philosopher Daniel Bensaid recently stated that the left today is “at the beginning of the beginning” of something new).
Whilst Alexander never precisely outlined what the “contradictions” are or might be (growing global and national inequality alongside unprecedented wealth could be one) he poured scorn on those who talk as if class struggle and class analysis is irrelevant. “As if it is possible”, he scoffed, “to simply talk about the South African or African people as if there is no such thing as class struggle or class contradictions”.
In a further reference to the newly emerging resistance to neo-liberal policies he suggested that despite the intellectual and political neo-liberal fog surrounding us (a contemporary version of the “end of history” or “farewell to the working class” perhaps?), the ravages of those polices continually frustrate and block peoples aspirations so creating the conditions for conflict and the potential for popular mobilisation. It is this well of frustrations and bitterness that Alexander believes gives rise to forms of resistance and are the basis of the “muffled sounds of the foghorns of hope” and so signalling that the (depressing intellectual and political), mist that surrounds us will eventually lift.
No pessimism of the intellect here. Thus, duly and securely armed with “the radar of principle and the compass of class analysis” he challenged the fatalism that still characterises much of the left (and right). To accept this teleological fatalism he insists is to renounce our right to be human beings, “as to be human is to have the right and capacity to choose”. Of course one of the main reasons why he believes alternatives are needed (whether his are desirable or possible is open to debate) is that despite what supporters of liberal capitalism say this is not a world of peace and stability – a “New World Order” as George Bush senior promised after 1989.
On the contrary, the wave of confidence found in mainstream political, media and academic circles (similar to that of the 1950s and early 1960s) after the collapse of ‘Communism’ gave way to the reality of the 1990 Gulf War and a global recession (from which Japan, once the contemporary power-house of capitalism, is still stuck in). The charge, by critics such as Alexander, is that this ‘New World Disorder’ is characterised by the continued economic and political chaos of the global capitalist system. One thinks of the continued famines, the globally un-popular war on Iraq, the crisis in the Middle East, the rise of national chauvinism and religious fundamentalism be it Christian, Islamic or Hindu and the associated intolerance and violence that goes with it. In short, formal politics is not popular and as Filipino activist and intellectual Walden Bello puts it, neo-liberal capitalism is experiencing a growing “crisis of legitimacy”.
Thabo Mbeki and an anti-capitalist protestor meet in a Berlin bar
This talk reminded me that it is indeed somewhat paradoxical that the decade that began with the collapse of ‘Communism’ to the rally cry of ‘there is no alternative’ ended with the ‘Battle in Seattle’ and the rally cry of ‘another world is possible’. Ironically there is even evidence to suggest that the collapse of the Cold War has also resulted in the thawing of relations on the left. For example, the broad “global movement” involves practically the whole of the left (from reformist to revolutionary) and would have been inconceivable during the Cold War, for such a broad movement would surely have split around the question of whether it was pro or anti-Soviet Union. Today the question is irrelevant and the false choices of the Cold War redundant.
It is in this light that Alexander insists that the “world historic significance” of the Soviet Union be studied and reviewed as was done with the French Revolution, so activist-scholars have a point of departure for their own “voyages of discovery and exploration” and this is ultimately connected to what is possible for the South African (and global) left. Of course, one conclusion not considered by Alexander is that such a re-evaluation (a post-mortem on the corpse of ‘Communism’) would be of little use except to say that all attempts at fundamental economic and political change ultimately lead to tyranny and the collapse of the socialist experiment proves this.
Although unbeknown to many, Alexander comes from a Marxist tradition (one of many and different to that of most Communist parties) stemming from Leon Trotsky that has, since the late 1920s, insisted that the Soviet Union of Stalin should never be considered the last word on what socialism is. Nonetheless, for Alexander the 1917 October Revolution offers a model of socialist transformation and did become one of the reference-points – whether we supported it or not - in the subsequent reflection on the future of the modern world. As such, the debates of the late nineteenth century Russian intelligentsia (crudely, how to change the world) became universalised and set the intellectual and political tone for much of the twentieth century.
These debates and questions continue to challenge us today and Alexander highlighted that of trying to understand the “socio-psychological and individual-psychological questions” arising from the post 1989 world order such as those connected to the personal metamorphoses undergone by erstwhile comrades all over the world. He insisted that, despite what we may think, South Africa is not extraordinary for similar personal and social transitions have taken place as other national liberation movements took power. Yes indeed, Nicaragua and El Salvador, to name but two, have their fair share of ‘struggle heroes’ turned ‘fat cats’ who climbed aboard a gravy train and that is why Alexander says South Africans now live in “ordinary times”. Whilst never explaining why this is an international phenomena, elsewhere in the lecture he did warn of accepting some crude and vague notion of ‘human nature’ as a substitute for more empirical investigation and complex analysis.
Unfortunately, time did not permit a more detailed exposition of the second part of the title, what he called “the imperatives of regionalisation in the context of a neo-liberal order”. By which he means that ‘Third World’ leaders think that to obtain a better position for their country (and Africa) they have to create regional and sub-regional blocks such as the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community. This he argues is related to the idea that their country must be integrated into the global economy to be competitive (for there is no alternative) and to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) to create employment.
Economically this is complemented in the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), which he believes is the continental version of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy, and will attract FDI to Africa. Yet for Alexander the simple issue is this: this is a myth it is impossible and is not going to happen. More so as Africa only attracts 1 or 2 per cent (and this is at an all time low) of global FDI with even Japan attracting no more than 10 per cent. In all, he believes that the African Renaissance, with NEPAD its manifesto and the AU its vanguard led by comrades Mbeki and Obasanjo, will benefit a layer of upper middle class and aspiring middle class people and the rest will suffer.
In place of a conclusion
Alexander’s talk reminds us that the decade that started with the collapse of ‘Communism’ - the so-called alternative to capitalism - ended rather unfashionably with the ‘Battle of Seattle’ – the coming out party of the “global movement”. Thus, an unspoken challenge was laid down by Alexander to liberal apologists and supporters of the global and national status quo (and here he would include the ANC) to explain why this inconsistency exists: namely, how do they explain the rise of a new, anti-systemic and increasingly global movement, for post-1989 surely its existence is a paradox - a ‘contradiction’ as he would say. Consequently, despite the talk of an African Renaissance Alexander explicitly challenged the intelligentsia and students (and of course others) to decide whose side they are on in this process of class struggle that, despite what pundits may say, has not disappeared.
That said, what I think Alexander failed to do, and this is a charge rightly levelled at the left, and herein lays a challenge to him (and others), was to put more flesh on the bones of the dinosaurs he invoked and what, if anything, is worth preserving from these alleged political fossils. What is the relevance in looking back at the Russian Revolution, and the wave of political revolutions it inspired? In what ways is it relevant to the ‘global’ era, how can it be a guide to action for those campaigning for treatment for the 5 million suffering with HIV-AIDS, the 40 per cent of unemployed South Africans or the global millions who marched against (and failed to stop) the war on Afghanistan and Iraq?
No doubt Alexander would retort that there was never, and never can be, any ‘blueprints’ and short cuts to progress, but simply the need to ‘patiently explain’ as Lenin once suggested. After all the roots of the Russian Revolution lay in a century of controversy and agitation. Still, what I didn’t get a sense of from this talk was a clear bridge between the past and present.
Perhaps in the name of a new found or fumbling unity on the left Alexander did not want to discuss (or impose) the forms of collective organisation needed that could begin to build this bridge and practically provide activists from civil society with a strategic, ideological and educational vehicle. That is, the notion of some form of party or other collective organisation as a political home that is open to individuals to enter (rather than restricted, as today's social movement networking is, to representatives of groups); a political community that explicitly seeks to transcend particularistic identities while supporting and building on the struggles they generate.
Then again perhaps such talk is irrelevant and should remain fossilised in the archives of left history. As I said, some say that a dinosaur gave a lecture at the University of Natal recently. Others, that they heard the “muffled sounds of the foghorn of hope”.
Another journalism is possible : Critical challenges for the media in South AfricaJane Duncan
Freedom of Expression Institute.
Harold Wolpe Lecture Series, 30 October 2003Introduction: going it alone?
On October 10, 2003, the Media Workers' Association of South Africa (Mwasa) called off its threatened strike at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). The strike was to have started on that day, and concerned a dispute about wage increases between SABC management, and the two recognised unions at the Corporation, namely Mwasa and the Broadcasting, Electronic Media and Allied Workers' Union (Bemawu). Management had offered an 8.55% increase, while the unions demanded 11%. The matter went to arbitration, and after failing to agree the unions were issued with a certificate to engage in industrial action.
In objecting to the proposed increase, Mwasa and Bemawu pointed to the huge disparities in salaries at the SABC. The unions considered the settlement level of ordinary working journalists to be unacceptably low in view of the high salaries and bonuses top managers received in the last financial year, and this in spite of the fact that the SABC reported a loss of R32 million. The SABC's Chief Financial Officer Robin Nichols justified these disparities by stating the following:
'When benchmarked against executives from MTN and Johnnic, SABC executives' salaries were not in the same league. We are not overly remunerated but it suits the unions to say so because they can then justify engaging in protest action'.
Mwasa made the decision to call off the strike at the eleventh hour, after Bemawu broke ranks with it and agreed to accept management's offer. In commenting on the reasons why Mwasa chose to call off the strike, the General Secretary Themba Hlatshwayo commented on the SABC's SAFM news broadcast that they had reservations about management's offer, but had been left with no option but to accept it. He commented further that their members felt that they could not 'go it alone' and pull off the strike without Bemawu.
This decision deserves comment. The struggle at the SABC was portrayed both by management and the unions as one around wage and benefit settlement levels, when in fact the issues were much broader. The fact that top management sees fit to benchmark itself against the private sector is cause for deep concern, and is a sign of a deeper problem in public broadcasting. The commercialisation of the SABC has reached the point where it is barely distinguishable from private broadcasters. This point was captured by an SABC listener in an FXI focus group last year:
'Is the SABC a public broadcaster? Honestly, I did not know that! For me there is no difference between the SABC and e.tv for instance. I have always thought that it is privately owned. Really, how does the management and board explain the type of content that they have? It is difficult to understand that'.
And what type of content do they have? Another participant commented that '¼the poor have no radio. Radio becomes the melting pot of ideas for the educated'. Clearly the SABC has not been investing sufficiently in meaningful and relevant content, which makes salary disparities all the more unjustifiable. Had the dispute inside the SABC around salaries been linked to the dispute outside the SABC around the lack of delivery to the country's most marginalised audiences. Had they both been linked to commercialisation and had these twin streams of the same struggle been given an organised form, it would not have been necessary or even possible for the union to have 'gone it alone'.
This recent event poses serious challenges for the media, in that it encapsulates the inability of organised journalists to relate the needs and interests of the very communities they claim to serve, and to build this relationship. So tied up were the unions in the complex mesh of labour relations that they did not pay attention to untapped wells of support. Public pronouncements were not made in a manner that made the links. The collapse of the SABC strike is a symptom of a larger malaise: a trade union sector made increasingly vulnerable through workplace restructuring and unemployment, which is being overtaken by community struggles.
The inability of the media, in all its unevenness and complexity, to address the interests of many South Africans, in the languages and formats of their choice, has to be addressed by the media. Otherwise this challenge will be taken out of the hands of the media and addressed by government, which is what is taking place at the moment. This may well open up a whole range of other contradictions. This paper addresses government's initiatives in relation to inequalities in media coverage in South Africa, the media's largely weak and incoherent response and the dangers for free expression inherent in these very attempts to realise the government's take on freedom of expression. It also addresses the contradictions in the government professed commitment to freedom of expression - who is in and who is out of this commitment - and suggests where a real force for change in the media could lie. Freedom of expression versus the media: the ANC and government on media transformation
On Media Freedom Day in 2000, the Chief Executive Officer of the Government Communication and Information System, Joel Netshitenzhe, noted that there was a consensus between the media and the government on the fact that '..there is no threat to media freedom in South Africa, partly because the overwhelming majority of South Africans share a common self-interest in the freedom of expression'. Since then, the government has clearly altered its view. Media have assumed increasing importance on the government's agenda, precipitated by debates within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) about the role of the media in South Africa generally, and in the context of its own programme of action specifically. According to an ANC discussion document on communications:
'The democratic movement as led by the ANC should proactively engage with the media issues so as to ensure as proper reflection and representation of the complex democratic transformation process in order to mobilise the masses of our people to act in unity as shapers of their own destiny'.
Increasingly, the ANC and the government have argued that the masses are unable to shape their own destiny as the media largely do not articulate their aspirations. They have argued that the government cannot pose any possible threat to the media, given that media freedom is constitutionally guaranteed. However, there is another looming threat to freedom of expression: a threat that, ironically enough, is embedded within the media themselves.
This argument has been developed most recently by leading ANC member Pallo Jordan. Jordan argued at a recent Media Freedom Day event that commercialisation of the media is leading to the marginalisation of the interests of the poor in South African newsrooms. He then asked a series of questions about whether the country has removed everthing that impedes on the free flow of information. He also noted that the state-regulated broadcasting sector has transformed and diversified far more than the self-regulated print media.
The government and the ANC are also linking this critique of the South African media to critiques of media globalisation, in the process citing notable theorists such as Graham Murdock, Peter Golding, Robert McChesney and Waldan Bello. An example of this critique was made by President Thabo Mbeki, when he addressed the All Africa Editors' Conference in April 2003.
In this address, he posed media commercialisation as a challenge: a dimension of his speech that received scant media attention at the time. Mbeki made reference to debates about critical journalism taking place in the United States and Asia. These debates link the increasing concentration and conglomeration of media to threats to the integrity of the media. Concentration has fostered a media that is characterised by the homogenisation of views, commodification of news and views, the dumbing down of analysis the tailoring of facts to suit its own world view. President Mbeki argues that '¼this threat, I would contend, is as dangerous - if not more so - than that posed by government'. The media need to be transformed into an instrument of liberation that is critical but truthful: a media that is worthy of its freedom. In raising these points, Mbeki pleaded '¼that we avoid resort of claims to "media bashing" to protect the media from legitimate criticism, refusing to address the critical matter of the social or public accountability of the media'.
Mbeki's critique reflects a debate that has been taking place in the ANC for some time about the deficiencies of the media. Some of this thinking was captured in a discussion document, released ahead of the ANC's fifty-first National Conference, held in December 2002. In the discussion document, entitled 'Media in a Democratic South Africa', the authors noted that the global phenomenon of an expanding media without diversity was evident in the South African media as well. The commercialisation of media was reinforcing the historic disparities in the media inherited from apartheid to create a potent mix of exclusion. Given the economic inequalities in the country, it was inevitable that advertiser-driven media would exclude the poor: a problem that was becoming increasingly stark as advertising assumed ever-greater importance as the commercial media's revenue stream.
The authors argued that the ANC should respond to this global, and increasingly national, political economy of the media by a publicly funded media model. This model is necessary '¼in order for the public and community media to serve as vehicles to articulate the needs of the poor, rural people, women, labour and other marginalised constituencies'. Furthermore, this model '..should accept the limitations of the advertising and commercially driven media', implying that the commercial media should be left to flourish largely untouched, although they should be targetted for black empowerment interventions. However, the prevailing discourse is that the limitations of commercial media should be accepted, and the government should rather focus its attention on building a parallel, but publicly funded and non-commercial, media system.
To this end, the ANC resolved that the government must move towards establishing a public funded model for the SABC, characterised by cross-subsidisation. Public funding was necessary in order to reduce the SABC's reliance on adspend, and to ensure proper delivery on its language mandate. The SABC should be encouraged to establish alliances with other broadcasters on the African continent in furtherance of the goals of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad). The SABC's programming also needs to be sensitive to gender, culture and the well-being of children. In addition, direct communication between the government and the public should be enhanced through the establishment of a dedicated Parliamentary channel and Multi-Purpose Community Centres.
The ANC set itself particular objectives, including the realisation of a publicly funded model by the year 2012. Within three years, the SABC must have close captioning and subtitling for the deaf, the Parliamentary channel must be established within two years, and within five years the SABC must ensure that its programming should be mainly local content and sensitive to gender, culture and the well-being of children. Also, in the next budget, funds should be allocated to establish regional television stations in line with the Medium Term Expenditure Framework.
These objectives come in the wake of the realisation of earlier media transformation objectives, such as the establishment of a statutory Media Development and Diversity Agency to subsidise community and independent small commercial media enterprises. Funding has also been made available for community radio infrastructure and programming.
These initiatives have been concentrated mainly in the broadcasting and Information and Communictions Technologies (ICT) sectors, given the fact that they are regulated by the state through the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa); therefore these sectors are more open to influence through government policy. The print media, on the other hand, is seen by the ANC and the government to be resistant to transformation because it is self-regulated. This critique reflects a broader frustration with those aspects of South African society that is not within immediate reach, in spite of the fact that it is a strong, democratically elected government.
These frustrations are captured in a discussion document towards a ten year review of Constitutional democracy, released by the Policy Co-ordination and Advisory Services (PCAS) in the Presidency in October 2003. In this document, it notes that '¼the government's successes occur more often in areas where it has significant control and its lack of immediate success occurs more often in those areas where it may only have indirect influence'. It terms this the 'dichotomy between power and influence', and sees this dichotomy as being at its most profound in its interaction with the civil service and civil society; hence these sectors are 'much slower to show improvement'. In conclusion, the PCAS notes that '¼[much] of the problem of defining progress does not lie with the HRC [South African Human Rights Commission] or the courts, but with the government itself, and ultimately with the public'.
In the process of addressing practically the media's deficiencies, the government has also problematised a theoretical lodestar of the media, namely the public interest. In 2002, the former Chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications, Nkenke Kekana has argued against the efficacy of the term public interest. He argued that journalists use the term ‘public interest’ to defend their own subjective editorial decisions in spite of the fact that the public interest is not defined. In a democratic society, where the state is the repository of the will of the people, “surely national interest should supersede public interest?"
This criticism was made by Joel Netshitenzhe as well in 2002. At a seminar on Media Freedom Day, he argued:
'National interest as a concept is meant to define the aggregate of things that guarantee the survival and flourishing of a nation-state and nation. Usually national interest is counter-posed to that of other states, as a basis for foreign policy. Critical though is that it is not meant to be subsumed under the fleeting passions of public mood swings. For it is not impossible for the public mood at some moments to declare (as Dante once said): "Death to our life and life to our death", thus precipitating self-destruction.
Further, national interest cannot be decreed in statutes; it's a sixth sense and it evolves with a nation's history, with national experience; and it's often asserted by the ultimate formal authority, the state'.
According to Netshitenzhe, public interest on the other hand ‘..can be viewed as being in the interest of a section of a polity or nation-state, usually civil society or the aggregate of individuals who make up society as distinct from state institutions’. Public interest in its most extreme form defines itself against the state, and as a challenge to it. National interest, as a state-led concept has legitimacy as it is defined by a government whose representivity has been tested at the polls; furthermore, ‘¼governments do not exist for themselves, but to serve society’, and therefore they have a duty to lead.
However, in spite of these conceptual differences, Netshitenzhe argues that certain basic principles should be shared by the government and media alike: principles which should form the basis of a national consensus. Once consensus is reached on these principles, the ground has been laid for agreement on how to define the national interest in a manner that both parties would feel comfortable with. He has also argued that the South African media should serve both the national and the public interest, as the state exists to serve society: hence there can be no Chinese wall between the state and the public. In Netshitenzhe's words, '¼under popular democracy, national interest and public interest can and do coincide; they should in fact be complimentary'.
The government's approach has been couched in what it terms a '…development communications paradigm'. This paradigm assumes, in the words of a Brazilian journalist and incoming president of RadioBras (the official news agency of the Brazilian government) at the 2002 World Social Forum:
'At this particular historical moment in Brazil, there happens to be an unprecedented convergence between what the people have a right to know and the information that it is in the government's interest to disseminate'. Media responses to the government and ANC's critique
And how have the media responded to the ANC and the government's critique? One must approach this question with caution, as the media industry is diverse and there is no one single industry representative body. Hence it is not possible to cite any single response as the media's response in the same way that one can cite official positions of government. Having said that, it is possible to make general observations based on responses to the above mentioned observations, made on various media freedom platforms. It seems fair to say that there has yet to be a thorough and engaging critique of government's position on the media emerging from the media themselves or media freedom bodies.
Two competing but still underdeveloped analyses seem to be evident in media circles, especially within the context of the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef), which tends to waver between the two. The first treats government's incursions into the media with extreme suspicion, as an attempt to reign the watchdog role of the media in, reduce its independence, and deligitimise it in order to pave the way for statutory regulation, and ultimately control of content. Enhanced self-regulation is projected as the bulwark against these threats. For instance, the Press Ombudsman - as a child of the self-regulatory system - has been cited as an deterrent for the State not to interfere with freedom of the press. Editors and journalists have been urged to support it and keep on reminding the readers that it is where they can complain. This reminder is made against the background of trends for governments in the region and beyond to introduce statutory regulation. The public interest is merely re-asserted as an unproblematic counter to the national interest.
For example, in their submission to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications on the Broadcasting Amendment Bill, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) referred to the public interest as ‘the driving principle of all independent journalists’, and went on to argue the following:
‘It is our contention that the use of the term ‘national interest’ in relation to news gathering and dissemination is too restrictive and can have a narrow political connotation. Journalists work in the public interest which is much wider. Politicians of a ruling party may decide that there should be secrecy over an issue “in the national interest” – where the meaning of “national interest” is defined by the politicians. Journalists work in the “public interest”, a sounder, much wider base which might override “national interest”. Chapter Two of the constitution protects the “public interest”.
Another stream of the media appears to be open to investing the national interest with a new respectability. According to Xolela Mangcu, national interest should be based on the founding values of the constitution: if this happens, then there is sufficient room for consensus-building around this concept. This argument was further developed by the Head of Education, Regulatory and Corporate Affairs of the SABC, Dr. Ihron Rensburg. According to Rensburg, South Africa can be grouped together with other post-colonial countries, in that they all share common challenges. These challenges relate to the need to build an united, inclusive nation around common values; if these common values are identified, then it becomes possible to rescue the concept of 'national interest' from the dustbin of reactionary politics by investing it with a progressive content.
These tensions have been acknowledged by the then-Chairperson of the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef), Mathatha Tsedu, in a speech on whether the media should serve the national or the public interest. Tsedu noted that there are essentially two publics that can be identified: one well organised, which understands its own interests and knows how to push it, and the other consisting of 'the silent ones' and whose interests are therefore marginalised by virtue of their silence. He asks '¼In our service of this public interest [as the media], which of these two do we find that we are serving?'. He noted the difficulty that the media face in representing the interests of the second public, given the reality that the need to attract advertising revenue often skews the media towards prioritising the first public. He argued that the media have to create a balance between representing the interests of the first public and the second, although he did not provide practical solutions as to how this balance could be struck.
Tsedu's views on the deficiencies of the media have found favour with Jordan, who quoted him stating two years ago that like banks and leading financial houses, the media have 'red-lined' the poor. However, these commentators fail to leap beyond their analysis to propose what can be done to remove this supposedly last hurdle to the true achievement of freedom of expression. These areas of agreement on this critical challenge is also leading to a situation where Sanef is playing an increasingly facilitative role in smoothing out the bumps in media-government relations.
Some defining moments in this respect include the conclusion of a Record of Understanding with the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Safety and Security and Sanef in February 1999 and a cabinet-editors meeting that resulted in the establishment of a Presidential Press Corps. The Record of Understanding deserved particular comment. In accepting the 'need to balance the interests and maintenance of law and order and the administration of justice on the one hand with the right to freedom of expression on the other’, it provides for a mechanism for Sanef members to negotiate with the Director of Public Prosecutions. This provision is worrysome. How does one negotiate an ethical obligation? It is necessary to maintain a firm position on the protection of sources at all times, otherwise gaps in this commitment will be exploited to the hilt in the grounds that testifying is a duty under a democratic government. The Record opens the door to this possibility. What happens if the respective editor bows to pressure and insists that a journalist should testify or reveal his or her sources to the state? What if the journalist refused on ethical grounds? The matter can become a disciplinary issue. Such are the implications of the Record of Understanding. Hopefully one will not need to elaborate on the debacle surrounding the mechanisms for security clearance for journalists joining the Presidential Press Corps. These sorts of events lead to an unfortunate impression that Sanef has become simply too close to government for comfort.
The critique of the government's position needs to move beyond the narrow concerns with independence and the potential for propaganda. Alternatively it needs to move beyond the media playing a facilitative role in relation to government communications agenda on the grounds of it being implemented by a progressive government serving the needs of the poor. Progressive aspects of the ANC and government's media policy that bring meaningful reforms must be supported and those that do not must be rejected. Making such assessments requires critical distance, not blind allegiance. Also, it requires us to engage with the government critique of the media on its own terrain, that is the terrain of globalisation media theory: a complex and difficult task. Thus far, there has been scant evidence of commentators within the media having done so effectively. If this task is not undertaken, the government's understanding of media accountability cannot be contested. This understanding appears to be veering increasingly towards accountability to the state: the debacle around the Broadcasting Amendment Bill, and their continual lancing at the weaknesses of voluntary self-regulation are examples of this trend in thinking. Unless the question of how media accountability is understood is contested, government will invest the term with its own politically loaded meanings.
Accountability is becoming a particularly hot issue at the moment, given the performance of sections of the media. The conduct of certain journalists has cast a pall over the media. Recently there has been a rash of well-publicised plagiarism incidents. The unfolding saga of the Hefer Commission of Enquiry into spy allegations against Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka is also placing the profession under great strain. Former Sunday Times journalist Ranjeny Munusamy has been subpoenaed to testify amid confusion over whether she herself was acting as a journalist or a source in leaking the story to the City Press newspaper. Her own newspaper refused to publish the story on the grounds that it was too thin on facts and too reliant on untested allegations. Munusamy is now facing a subpoena to testify at the Hefer Commission. Whatever the merits of the story she facilitated - and the merits are getting shakier as the days go by - forcing her to testify will not rescue an already ailing media situation: it will exacerbate it. On the level of protection of sources, what happens to her affects all journalists, which is why it is necessary to support her application to the High Court to review Judge Hefer's decision on her testifying.
The 'celebrated' decline in the practice of the profession cannot be understood outside the context of the material conditions in the industry, especially as experienced by journalists. In May 2003, it was reported that settlement levels in the media were far below the-then inflation level of 11.6 percent. Workers in various sectors achieved below inflation settlement levels of between eight and 11 percent. According to Mwasa, media institutions granted increases of between eight and nine percent. As mentioned earlier, the SABC's settlement level was 8.55 percent. The South African Union of Journalists (SAUJ) achieved settlement levels of around eight percent in newspaper companies. On the whole, settlement levels in other industries have been higher. For instance, the banking sector received ten percent, security officers nine percent, municipal workers eleven percent, bus drivers and the marine and aviation sectors nine percent, with the railway sector trailing behind at 8.5 percent. At the same time that there is a cash squeeze on the pockets of journalism, there is a cash squeeze on training programmes as well. Stress levels arising from intensifying profit extraction have also been reported, and are of increasing concern. Clearly the weakness of organisations representing working journalists - as opposed to owners or editors - has a role to play in these conditions. If 'dumbing down' in the media is to be reversed, then the material conditions of those who are on the coalface of journalism have to be addressed in an organised fashion.
These developments should not be suprising to those who are familiar with the current political economy of labour. Statistics released by Statistics South Africa reveal that class inequalities had deepened far more than race or gender inequalities and in real terms labour costs have dropped sharply, with the return on capital increasing markedly. In response to these statistics, Business Day reporter Ann Crotty noted that '..for those who had any doubts, the figures provide unassailable proof that ANC policies have been much more supportive of capital than labour'
There has also been scant examination of what is actually taking place in those areas of media championed by government, namely public broadcasting and community radio sectors. What progress is there in creating a publicly funded broadcasting system? It is necessary to examine what has already taken place, as these actions set the template for what will take place in the next nine years. One instructive exercise is to look at how the funding arrangements for the MDDA are working out. The government calculated that R500m would be required over 5 years. However this amount was immediately revised. Government recommended that the MDDA should seek to meet only 60% of the total needs. This amounted to R300m over 3 years, or R60m per year. It was understood that Government, donors and industry would contribute in equal parts. The Position Paper then reduced the amount further. It was agreed that the Agency would only cover half the identified needs R256m.
Government stated that in the absence of donor funding in the short term, they would raise in the region of two-thirds of the funding needs. "Government's contribution to the MDDA will, therefore, amount to R30m to R35m on average for 5 years". Finally, now in the press statement released with the Regulations GCIS has committed R3m to the MDDA for 2002/2003 and R7m for 2003/2004. The statement says, "The MDDA will also be drawing support from programmes of the Department of Communications". There is no indication of what this amount is. Further the press statement announces that, "Pledges from media owners amount to some R10m per year at least for 5 years." This is a shadow of the amount of money originally discussed. In light of the needs that exist the MDDA is going to struggle.
One of the main reasons why this is the case is the fact that the legislators took a decision not to impose a statutory levy on media groups, and to rather leave it up to the GCIS to secure voluntary contributions. While the threat of a levy seems to have persuaded the media groups to revise their initial position of not giving any money at all, clearly more money would have been forthcoming through a statutory arrangement. The politics of the funding for MDDA is an indication of the weakness of the ANC and government's position on the media, namely to attempt to set up a publicly funded system in a manner that does not ruffle the feathers of the big media groups. The fact is that it is not possible to ringfence the two media systems in this manner, as their fate is interlocked. These MDDA contributions should be matched to the real needs in the community media sector.
When it comes to the diversification of the airwaves, much hope has been pinned on the community radio sector, which has developed remarkably over the past ten years. The Community Media Policy Research Unit, a joint initiative of the FXI and the National Community Radio Forum, is in the process of conducting an audit of the state, shape and size of the community radio sector. The purpose of this study is to inform the next round of licencing of the sector, once licencing is opened by again by Icasa. Preliminary findings of the research project point to a corporatisation of community radio stations, although this development is highly uneven. For example, the Unit sampled fifteen community radio initiatives in the Limpopo province. From this sample, it emerged that governance is clearly a problem, with most stations not having held Annual General Meetings for some time. This is worrysome given the fact that the AGM is the main mechanism through which to ensure community ownership and control. One of the main hurdles that stations face in organising AGM's is the fact that they are required to provide audited statements, which many stations simply cannot afford. The findings point to stations that are built around individuals, often a highly powerful Chief Executive Officer, with yawning gaps existing between management and workReview of Stephen Friedman’s “Why South African Democracy has not Reduced Inequality”
by Claire Vermaak
An audience member remarked that the Centre for Civil Society had “saved the best for last” with their final lecture in the 2003 Harold Wolpe Memorial Series. A compelling speaker, Friedman provided an insightful, absorbing argument for why South African democracy has not reduced inequality.
Stephen Friedman is a well-known social and political analyst. He is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, is currently involved in two projects at the Centre for Civil Society and writes regularly for the Business Day, the Mail and Guardian and the Sunday Independent.
In introducing his topic, Friedman stated that it is not relevant whether poverty has increased or not. While many speakers use controversial statements to capture an audience’s attention, without substantiating or linking them with the subject matter, Friedman explained that, while changes in poverty have important human consequences, it is rather the levels of poverty that he is concerned with. The quality of data in South Africa is notoriously poor, thus Friedman wisely hedged his bets by saying that it appears that poverty has remained more or less static over the last 10 years, while inequality has increased slightly. Although not all researchers would agree with such statements, there is no credible study suggesting that South Africa’s poverty and inequality indices are defensible. Many observers may have expected that 10 years of democracy would have significantly decreased poverty and inequality by enabling the voices of the poor to be heard in policy-making. The fact that this has not happened leads Friedman to think seriously about democracy, and to pose the question “What has been the effect of extending the vote to the whole population?” Since South Africa is not dealing adequately with the poverty and inequality faced by a large proportion of the population, there must be something wrong with how people’s voices are being heard. Friedman believes that most of the reasons put forward for why the poor are not being heard are flawed, and the goal of his lecture was therefore to think about this issue in another way.
Although many other analysts see South Africa as an isolated case where democratic gains have not produced progress in the fight against poverty and inequality, Friedman sees this rather as being a typical situation. While democratisation in Europe resulted, over time, in policies that reduced poverty and inequality, this has not occurred in the current wave of democratisation. The argument often raised to explain this is that globalisation prevents democratically-elected governments from listening to their citizens’ voices as previous labour-led governments were able to do. However, Friedman finds no strong evidence that the unequal global economic power relations blamed on globalisation are a new phenomenon. In the past, governments were nonetheless able to enact successful poverty and inequality policies.
Friedman argues that the main change that globalisation has brought about is in terms of advances in communication and the exchange of ideas. However, while enhanced communication may in some cases be an obstacle for those fighting poverty and inequality, as elites are able to communicate more easily, it is also a tool; Friedman sees little or no evidence that this has tied the hands of elected governments with respect to such policies.
Rather, Friedman’s main contribution to the debate is that the most important reason why the voices of the poor are no longer effectively heard is that the circumstances in which people can organise to challenge poverty and inequality have changed. In particular, labour markets and work circumstances have changed substantially. The fight against poverty and inequality was most effective in the past when people were concentrated in large factories and workplaces. Under such circumstances, workers and unions could meet easily and had substantial bargaining power to pursue their objectives. Such situations exist today in a far more limited form. This is due to three main developments that have taken place in the labour market: increasing dispersion of work into smaller workplaces, increasing casualisation of work resulting in more piecework contracts, and the trend to informalisation, in the form of unregulated self-employment. In all three cases, the bargaining power of workers is greatly reduced. While these trends are found to some extent in countries that nonetheless have effective labour movements, they are particularly prevalent in South Africa. Friedman thus offered an analysis of labour market trends that is distinctly lacking from many other political and social analysts.
Friedman then went on to discuss critically a number of arguments that have been proposed for why policies to reduce poverty and inequality have not been implemented in South Africa. The first of these is what he refers to as the ‘quasi-religious’ argument, which proposes that there has been a fall from grace of political leaders who wanted to fight poverty and inequality. Friedman argues that the main drawback of this line of reasoning is that it presumes that the ANC is a coherent, united, redistributive party, thus neglecting its origins as a liberation movement. Such organisations tend to suppress internal differences in order fight a common enemy and be as broadly representative as possible. Friedman argues that, prior to winning the 1994 election, the ANC in fact did not make clear choices about social and economic policy. This is evident in both the Freedom Charter and the RDP, which he feels are ambiguous, contradictory documents containing multiple concerns. Since that time, there has been a difference in emphasis of powerful groups within the ANC, focussing on eliminating racial rather than social inequality. Friedman argues that this focus is not surprising, considering that those within the party who have resources and education have natural advantages in influencing policy towards their goals of addressing racial imbalances, particularly if the poor are unorganised.
The second argument that Friedman discussed is that of ‘limits to change’, proposed by Hein Marais in his 2001 book of the same title. This line of reasoning takes into account that the ANC is a diverse political organisation, and contends that the left of the ANC lost the argument for policies advocating social redistribution and inequality. However, Friedman views the main drawback of this line of reasoning as being its failure to account for why those within the ANC who advocated redistribution lost the argument. In order to complete this explanation, he believes it is necessary to identify trends in society that explain why different sides win or lose these types of arguments. He failed to elaborate on such trends.
One of Friedman’s main contributions to the discussion was his assertion that it is a mistake to believe that any organisations speak for poor South Africans. Although new social movements are arising, he does not believe that these movements have yet developed the organisational capacity to influence policy. Friedman offered the South African government’s failure to effectively spend its development budget as evidence of his assertion that no one speaks for poor South Africans. Development spending is inefficient and ineffective because it is based on misunderstandings about what is happening at the base of society. Friedman offered anecdotal evidence of this: in the debate on how to extend mortgage financing to the poor, no-one seems to pay any attention to the fact that the poor do not want mortgage finance. He puts forward the assertion that organisations involved in policy-making do not have a sufficient base amongst the poor to be credible. Assumptions that are made in policy-making ignore social practices and physical practicalities. Friedman believes that this indicates that we talk about the poor, but that there is not much talk by the poor. The outcome of such fundamental misunderstandings about the poor is that little progress is made on poverty and inequality. As a result, many of those with a vote still do not have a voice.
Against this background, South Africa is dealing with labour market trends in which approximately 30% of the labour force is employed in the informal sector, and the drift into informality is doubling every five years. According to Friedman, the challenge facing South African society is to envisage ways for people to acquire a voice under such circumstances. Although new social movements, such as the Treatment Action Campaign and the Landless People’s Movement, may offer opportunities in this regard, he questions the extent to which they have a sufficiently organised base to overcome the real obstacles they face in having pro-poor policies implemented. He concludes that it will not be possible to find and implement pro-poor policies until we address how the circumstances surrounding labour have changed. Friedman thus successfully critiqued several arguments proposed by other analysts in the field, and offered a plausible explanation for why democracy has not decreased inequality.
When the forum was opened to the floor, the questions raised by audience members indicated the clear, thought-provoking nature of the address. As is usually the case under such circumstances, the questions reflected the diverse individual interest of audience members, and allowed Friedman to elaborate on various aspects of his lecture. In response to a question on the structure of the South African labour market, Friedman remarked that there has been a re-emergence of the split labour market in South Africa, with the split based not on race but on skill. The jobs that are being created are of a professional, managerial or technical nature, resulting in a split between the formally employed or skilled workers and everyone else.
He acknowledged a critique that ‘the poor’ is not an ideal unit of analysis, recognising that it ignores differentiation amongst the poor, and creates a barrier between the poor and the non-poor, which can marginalize the poor. However, he does not see any other useful unit of analysis for this type of work.
Finally, Friedman commented further on types of organisation amongst the poor. He suggested that such organisations tend to be survivalist, rather than advocacy, groups. They may have a lack of contact with organisations such as government and NGOs and with researchers who could promote or implement their interests. He acknowledged that, in order to have their voices heard, the poor are at a disadvantage as they have to organise against a more powerful and better-organised opposition. Although trade unions would seem to be a logical channel through which the poor could organise, he believes that the union movement is very weak when it comes to organising outside the factory, in more informal working areas. He thus offers this as a challenge for unions, researchers, NGOs and other organisations to become more directly involved with the poor. “The poor cannot or do not ‘rise up’ and organise themselves.”
The subject of inequality in South Africa is a vast one, and could easily generate a lifetime of research. The temptation in lectures on such a topic is to attempt to cover the whole of the subject, and in so doing to offer merely a superficial overview of an almost infinitely complex issue. The success of Friedman’s lecture hinged on his ability to focus his attention on a particular aspect of inequality in South Africa – that of why democracy has not decreased inequality – and to examine it in depth. He was thus able to offer measured, insightful analysis into the social and political processes that shape the continuation of inequality within South African society.