Fred Khumalo reminded us two years ago, on the occasions of the Mafika Gwala lecture, that as a young man he took a collection of his verse to Mafika Gwala to get his opinion. The “great poet…suppressed a giggle…[Then Gwala] said: ‘What is a dale? What is a promontory? What is a knoll?...You must write what you know. I want to see you next week. I want you to write me a poem about Doris.’”
In this story, which is about an storyteller teaching a lesson to another younger storyteller, are some lessons we can overhear for ourselves. Firstly, the importance of having a deadline and a sense of urgency (“I want to see you next week.”) Secondly, and the kernel of Gwala’s lesson: don’t reproduce words or ideas until you have control of them. A writer can’t afford to be a corrupter of words, or to be corrupted by them, or worst of all to corrupt others by channelling ill-understood words. What is a dale, by the way, so we don’t have to answer this question individually? An open valley, especially in the northern part of Scotland. What is a promontory? A stick of high land which juts into the sea. And what is a knoll? A small rounded hill. The word “knoll” only lives on in the English language because, according to conspiracy theorists, John F. Kennedy was shot by a second gunman on 22 November 1963 who was concealed on a “grassy knoll” in Dallas, Texas. Some more questions. What is a state? What is fairness? What is black? And how do those words move us?
Thirdly, Gwala was helping Khumalo with the most mysterious aspect of a writer’s activity, the selection of a subject (“write about Doris.”) Who was this Doris? Khumalo tells us that “Doris, by the way, was not a woman. He was a colourful character who worked as a marshal at the local taxi rank. But he also was famous for telling stories. He moved from shebeen to shebeen telling stories and jokes in exchange for a sip of beer here, a nip of brandy there. I was shocked and disgusted that this great man of letters expected me to write a poem about a dirty drunk.” When a writer or an artist or a musician is at his or her best, he or she will have a kind of magical unerring rightness in what they say or what they play, one of the main reasons we can have some faith in the arts, which can mislead as well as redirect. And the subject Gwala suggests to Khumalo, Doris from the taxi rank, is himself a storyteller and a joke-teller who works for the minimum income of “a sip of beer” and a “nip of brandy,” that is to say, happiness.
Gwala is defining the task of writers as telling the story of story-telling. I want to talk today about the stories we have told ourselves about this country for twenty years, especially on the left where most writers and poets belong, the hold that those stories have on our imaginations and our sense of possibility, and the connection between those stories and the disasters we see around us.
Briefly, the extent to which the left-wing in this country refuses to observe what it sees around it—except for the poor who are brought in only as mute testifiers. It’s embarrassed to be a South African left, which means dealing with the true circumstances of our country, and too grandiose, too unrealistic, and far too much in love with plausible formulations and instructions (“we MUST have an NHI, a Basic Income Grant, a state-owned airline. Electricity MUST be free. Healthcare MUST be free.”). It looks at the U.K, and thinks, “the left there is in favour of expanding the state so we should be,” without considering the nature of our state, which is more like a sieve than a state. Who would put the hard work of millions of workers into a sieve? Our left wing looks at the United States and thinks, “the left there is in favour of unrestricted immigration, so why should South Africa have borders?” without reflecting on the difficulty of integrating millions of very poor and unskilled people into our society and economy. Some of these causes our foreign left picks up are reasonable in themselves—I would say the protection of different kinds of gender identity—but the way they are talked about makes it clear that our left is joyfully imitating some other society without securing basic respect, respect embedded in the people, for gay and lesbian people. Our left has ignored and even protected mob violence by unions and students for decades, never imagining that the Zuma family could learn the same tactics and put them to work at a far greater scale. Is Jacob Zuma not, after his fashion, a fellow traveller of our damaged left? Our left has made a fateful and glamorous identification of itself with a certain abstraction of blackness, without considering how many times ethnic mobilisation has brought everybody to grief in almost every country on earth. The left should have the most powerful message in human history: (a) that there is an equality between all human beings in certain respects; and (b) that a loaf of bread or a glass of milk is of far greater utility to a poor child than to a millionaire. Those two axioms bring us as far as we need without Derrida, Lenin, Edward Said, or Malcolm X.
I want to speak in the spirit of Mafika Gwala rather than about him. He once wrote that “problems don’t melt like soap/ but [they] itch under the skin like a ringworm.” In those lines he make a connection which is probably true but hard to justify in rational terms. The problems in our country are felt in our bodies. Conversely, the way we feel in our bodies—whom we trust implicitly and what we fear and how we overlook—shapes the country’s problems
Leo Tolstoy once said, “A man is sitting happily alone in a room. A newspaper is brought in. The man becomes unhappy.” He would want us to itemise the ways in which our unhappiness is driven by the newspapers and the particular parts of our bodies which are affected. So what feelings? I mean the sense of falling, finding that there is nothing under your feet, that whirling sensation of vertigo when you read that a young woman has been raped and murdered in a post office. I mean the feelings of horror and pity, like choking from an asthma attack, when you hear that a small boy has drowned in the pit toilet of his school and has been robbed of his entire life, which had about it the same beauty and mystery possessed by the life of any and every child. I mean the feeling of being poisoned, with a certain bitter and sour taste in your mouth, when you listen to how certain politicians and public figures speak, or dance when they’re questioned about grave crimes, or spin corrupting stories which are meant to confuse and divide people.
And I also refer to the terrible shock of anticipation in your stomach, just as if you are driving on the N2 and you see a truck sliding across the highway towards you, when you hear the calls to intensify the mistakes of the past, that mysterious South African impulse to create a new disaster from the ashes of the old disaster. I mean the desire to put the vicious criminals who bankrupted the country on our backs again, even to burn down our shopping centres as a kind of offering to their good fortune. I mean the need to undermine the integrity of the courts by assailing the judges who make good decisions. I mean the sudden demand to seize farmland and painfully recapitulate Zimbabwe’s lesson of starvation and desperation, as if any justice or useful revenge is to be found in starving the children of this land. I also mean the insistence on allowing groups of students to burn books and paintings and libraries, more offerings to our goddess of destruction, as if anyone’s life was ever improved by burning a book. I also mean the reckless insistence on steamrolling the last viable parts of our economy, by nonsensical comparisons to Sweden and Cuba, with a state which runs its own post office into bankruptcy.
We live in a country of tears because we can be sure that we will hear a second and a third and a fourth version of all these stories of heartbreak and disaster, identical in all but the details, until we stop counting. Through this process we come to know something uncomfortable about ourselves: that we have been subdued to the tides of murder and negation that we work in, like “the dyer’s hand” Shakespeare mentions in Sonnet 111. How disfigured have we been? Mandela’s real contribution to this country was as a careful reformer. When he made a change of policy, he didn’t do it by grandiosity, or through abstractions like socialism and capitalism, but by weighing up the advantages versus the disadvantages of each change. And he was always alive to the disadvantages, from demobilising the army, to antagonising Afrikaners, to the cost of moving parliament from Cape Town. Mandela was still alive when we began to disfigure his legacy, which also meant disfiguring our framework of good and evil in national politics. He was still an active member of the African National Congress in 2001 when he jeered behind closed doors at a meeting of the National Executive Committee for his scientifically accurate views on the HI virus. The president of our country, who is still an honored member of the same party which is still ruling, circulated papers insinuating that Mandela was a pawn of the Central Intelligence Agency. As South Africans we worship power, not truth, and in general we will not allow anyone, even Nelson Mandela, to tell the truth without retaliating against him.
What Mbeki and others were doing was putting the squeeze on Mandela: the use of amoral pressure to destroy any resistance, the use of corrupt story telling to separate the offending person from the community. Squeezing used to be seen as the hallmark of totalitarian societies but it has become something we, as South Africans, do to each other and in open view. Sometimes it seems as if there are only squeezers and people who are being squeezed. The abuse is not a secret. What else were the corrupted intelligence reports filed again Mcebisi Jonas and Pravin Gordhan to squeeze them out of the Treasury? What were the fraud charges created by Shaun Abrahams to break Gordhan, who was already an elderly man? This process of squeezing the honesty and truth out of a society is South Africa’s distinctive contribution to a new hybrid between democracy and dictatorship. The only storytelling it allows is the corrupt storytelling of Jacob Zuma and his faction.
Gwala understood that this corrupting force in our country, this corrupting hand and corrupting tongue. It is the clue to his combativeness, which preserved his feelings and thoughts from corruption. So we read, for example, that “a press release from the Poetry Africa festival, which ended in Durban last night, touted the presence of Mafika Gwala as the ‘exciting re-emergence of the respected Black-consciousness era poet.’ ‘Crap [says Gwala] I have been always where I am today. Why do they speak of me as if I am emerging from the dark?’ According to the reporter, “that is the first of several questions I pose to him on the eve of the festival’s opening in Durban earlier this week. Gwala throws it swiftly back at me in a clipped, decisive tone: ‘You tell me.’” The reporter suggests that his new prominence is due to an interest in the past. Gwala dismissed [the statement] with disdain. ‘When was Poetry Africa started?’ he asks. We agree, about 10 years ago. ‘And why have I never been invited before? Why only now am I being asked to participate?’
Are these considerations unpoetical? What would Gwala say? In his well-known “Defence of Poetry,” which is naturally in itself an unpoetical poem, he asked a series of leading questions: “What’s poetic/ about Defence Bonds and Armscor?” “Can there be poetry/ in the Immorality Act?” “What’s poetic/ about deciding other people’s lives?” And he answers that “As long as/ this land, my country/ is unpoetic in its doing, it’ll be poetic to disagree.”
Let’s borrow the authority of another famous poet on what poetry can do. Joseph Brodsky, the great Russian poet who became famous also for his English-language essays and who was put in prison for the sin of being an independent thinker, compares poetry to the airforce and prose to the army. Brodsky meant to suggest that poetry has speed and acceleration, unlike the solid and stolid slowness of creeping prose. But if poetry is in the air, where it can see further than everybody else, it is also the reconnaisance wing of the written word. Poetry finds out what we can do with phrases, images, sounds, sentences, and perspectives, creating an armory which earthbound prose writers like myself can turn to more ordinary purposes. Let’s consolidate Brodsky’s description and say that prose and poetry, theatre and fiction, have to be the armed forces of the mind. We misuse each of our 11 official languages. The greatest part of our utterances involve unthinking repetitions of dogma, commands, and demands for obedience (“Do this, do that, or else,” “Don’t come with stories,” “Empty out your pockets or I will stab you,” “I’ll moer you,” “I’ll klap you,” “I’ll give you a snot klap”). The verbal arts, if they are working properly and they’re not, are our only defence against the occupation of language by dogma, cliché, and command.
Somewhere J.M. Coetzee says: “It’s bad when I write. It’s worse when I don’t.” There are a few things to notice about that short story, in two sentences, which is a kind of mini-autobiography, falling into the genre we have defined as a story about a storyteller. Firstly, there’s the primary concern with himself. He doesn’t relativise his own condition or reflect that he is living, or was living at the time, in a country with people with somewhat worse problems because he is at the centre of the story of his own misery. Secondly, he doesn’t imagine storytelling as a form of joyous connection but as a joyless duty, like polishing the silver again. Thirdly, and the reason I am quoting him, is the stylised pessimism, not quite black comedy and not quite intending to be a joke. Instead it’s pessimism as a mask which has hardened into a face, not deadly serious, given the nature of the pose, but pretending to deadly severity.
So we shouldn’t rush to trust the formulations given by writers and artists who, by virtue of their professions, mislead themselves by weighing the impressiveness of their formulas over the accuracy of such remarks. I don’t intend to invoke this stylised pessimism when I say that the situation of the country, a country which has captured and corrupted itself from top to bottom, has never been dreadful. Not because the country has never been worse but because the remedies have been exhausted.
Consider the mixed black and brown community Gwala grew up in.
Remember mixed and united Verulam?
All that is a dream circling around people’s minds
In rotation of the barrel setting of a pepperbox.
We resolved at the beginning of this talk, as you remember, in the spirit of Gwala, never to leave a word uninterrogated or to repeat a vaguely understood phrase without pausing on it. So what is a pepperbox? It’s a firearm, usually the size of a revolver, but with a number of chambers fastened together in a rotating cylinder. Which pepperboxes was Gwala referring to? Did he mean Daniel Malan’s or Johannes Strijdom’s? Did he mean Balthasar Vorster’s, or Roy Moodley’s, that old friend of Jacob Zuma whose security company, according to reports, installed guns and gunmen in Phoenix in July of this year? That “mixed and united Verulam” Gwala, a “mixed and united” Phoenix, a “mixed and united” South Africa are now two great violations further away from us. How long before they are forever out of reach?
The answer is not to drape ourselves in the cloth of one party or another, not even the apparent consolations of black or brown consciousness. As Gwala insisted: “we didn’t take Black Consciousness as a kind of Bible…It’s a means towards an end. We needed Black Consciousness to correct the many errors that had been committed by our leadership...But then we started losing them one by one, dropping them off, dropping them off. The more dashikis we had, the more bourgeois we got.” Success as a country, which means the reduction of poverty and suffering to a minimum, don’t come from consciousness or pride but from a posture of learning and improvement, which means openness to new data and openness to the world.
Nelson Mandela once set out the following proposition about this country, which now sounds heartbreaking optimistic. I want you to listen to it as an example of storytelling, and joke making, in the service of the good, bringing people together and moving them together towards the goal of common improvement:
South Africa could bring something to the world through reconciliation and a joint effort of reconstruction, after our history of division and discrimination. We had faith that our insistence on a common humanity also had relevance to other countries. This reciprocal learning is one of the great benefits of the globalisation of our contemporary world. The globalised nature of our world was one of the great new features that my colleagues and I had to catch up with at the end of 27 years sojourn on Robben Island, and other prisons. Incidentally, my secretary says to me every day, ‘You have been loafing for 27 years. You must now work and be busy every day.’
Mandela, despite the criticisms levelled at him by people who never had to win a war, was a politician of genius and in certain respects, and not by coincidence but by necessity, the best and truest writer this country has ever known. He understood that storytelling was one of the most important parts of being a politician.
In the passage I have just read, Mandela tells a story of interchange and reciprocity—“reciprocal learning”—between this country and the others in the community of nations. And to that he adds the comedy of his secretary who teases him about his imprisonment—“You have been loafing for 27 years.” Through that small remembered piece of conversation, shows us the easy, informal, gracious, and warm relationship between the greatest president of the twentieth century and his secretary. He gives us the example of a man who lives with the value of equality in his bloodstream, who has a strong desire not to be dominated by any person and an equally strong desire never to dominate another person.
Who would take South Africa today as a good example? And whom or what do we take as a good example or let’s say a good omen for our future? This amazing process of “reciprocal learning” Mandela identifies—whether in the sciences or economic policy or cultural advancement, the source of our strength as a species—has almost completely ceased between South Africa and the world. In our brooding bath of resentment, which is as true on the right as on the left, amongst the rich as amongst the poor, we are completely cut off from the world of Google and SpaceX, and from a world in which Adewale Adeyemo, who was born in Ibadan, Nigeria, in May 1981, is now the deputy Secretary of the Treasury in the United States. This amazing world of creation, invention, and discovery which we call the future is even more unknown to us than it was in the past, as if we are on an island and are watching the world sail past us and into the distance. Meanwhile our left wing knows only about the injuries of the past. It has no vision of the future. Conversely, our right wing knows nothing of the injuries of the present and has no explanation of the past.
We have much more extensive information on economic modernization than was available to Mandela or Gwala. But we can benefit from their clarity and honesty rather than ignoring the ruined lands of Zimbabwe, Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela. How did Gwala see it?
we had our differences on African socialism which I regarded as being half-baked and unscientific in today’s world of advanced technology and planned economies. To me, African socialism had the pattern I was then watching in Natal. That of a tribal chauvinism being moulded in the name of black cultural identity and self reliance. There were various projections towards an artificial Zulu unity…Cultura politics…had to be rejected outright. Also, in the name of black consciousness certain individuals and groups were riding on affluence and smiling all the way to the bank.
Numbers can lie but they can also lead us to inescapable truths. When Thabo Mbeki came to power in 1999 China’s adjusted GDP, per capita, was $873. Today it is $17,700. That represent a twenty fold improvement, 2027%. In that same year South Africa had a GDP of $3,081 per person. Today the figure for South Africa is $11,800, a nominal improvement of 3 and a half times although in fact our living standards are not any higher. China understands that it is China, not Sweden, so it must solve real problems for the Chinese, not imaginary problems for imaginary Swedes, whereas our left wing is constantly mimicking the left wing ideas of other countries which have no applicability to our own. The economic left has been in power in this country since 1999. Since that time we have had a government shaped by trade unions and by social democratic ideals, an alliance which had led to an economic deathride. The EFF and the Zuma faction know exactly where we are headed and they have drawn the appropriate conclusions. They are fully prepared to thrive in the ashes of the country once they have burned it down completely, holding the people captive with the most meagre grants. But their resolve and grasp of the fast approaching outcome is why they are the most potent and negative forces in the country.
How can we end the deathride or even turn it back to continuous improvement, something which is the birthright of a democracy? According to Gwala, “ideas more long-ranged than an FN rifle or a Sanna 77, and more absolute than a hippo, [they] will always crop up and surpass those ideas born of repression.” Gwala’s utopia was spare, as utopia should be spare:
There’ll be plenty to build on; We shall till and mine the land (Not feed on fat profits)
We shall share our efforts
We shall honour the machines We shall honour the sun
We shall honour the rain
To retrieve lost dreams.
poets won’t have to write of hate
Neither will there be tree and flower poems; No, poets will add or delete
whatever is of a people’s wish
in concert with the people’s will.
There is no state anywhere in this poem. Honour, collaboration, mutual respect, but no predatory state nor predatory party nor tenderpreneurial class. Our actually existing state is nothing but a sieve. It doesn’t redistribute money as much it squanders it, as much it converts ambitious business people into conspiring thieves, and as much it demobilises the working people and renders them incapable of constructive labour. No country in the world has a population which is less organised for work than our own, which is the meaning of having the world’s highest unemployment rate.
Cadre deployment, racial quotas, and crony economic empowerment, as much as they are the unbending demands of political and social factions, are the policies which created this disaster. What stories can we tell to rescue ourselves? We can turn to the story of the communitarian and even libertarian left, which is in some ways the story of both Gandhi and Mandela. After all, neither had a state to rely on so they were interested in individual responsibility and community organisation, decentralisation rather than state-dominated centralisation. Gwala saw this already in Biko’s life: “By restricting him to King William’s Town, the state must have thought Steve would fail to stand by his belief in an encouragement of black expertise and black self reliance. But what happened is that the BPC operation grew in the Eastern Cape and by the time of the bannings, it could boast of several self-help projects, the hallmark of which was the Zanempilo clinic.”
Along with that story is the story of inner lawfulness. Mandela, and others in his generation, gave us the model for having a sense of lawfulness inside ourselves. He in particular, and not only him, showed us what it meant to treat each person with fairness and, in many cases, how to treat an adversary or even a jailer with honour. That is the story of cherishing the spark of the law inside yourself, along with the blood of equality.
Here is another story which tells us about the feeling of equality. As president, to take only one example, Mandela made his bed each morning. On a state visit to Shanghai, he was told that the staff at his hotel saw his neatly made bed each morning as a negative reflection on their own work. So he called them in and explained his reasoning to them in person. Mandela wanted to improve himself as well as his country. As Gandhi put it in 1918, “I was in the political life because there through lay my own liberation.” Manual labour was always part of that, for Mandela as for Gandhi and Tolstoy who both made their own shoes (as you probably remember, Gandhi made a pair of sandals for Smuts). Most important was extinguishing inside the self the idea that there are better and worse people, higher and lower people. (It’s why even in a conservative society like the United States presidents like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton show up at soup kitchens, build houses, show they are not afraid to get their hands dirty.)
Persuasion is just as important, by far the most important form of political action, one to which reading and writing are central; Isabel Hofmeyr describes Gandhi’s major treatise Hind Swaraj as an attempt to use reading to redirect destructive revolutionary energies. The book is ‘a dialogue between an Editor and a Reader during the course of which the Editor trains the Reader to read and interpret correctly. This process shifts the Reader from his misguided admiration for the violent methods of the revolutionaries toward becoming a potential satyagrahi.
The next feature of any real progressive politics is the encounter, the willingness to meet other people with whom you disagree (and in the worst cases allow them to attack you). To see in the adversary someone who can be transformed and who can aid in your own transformation. Gandhi, like Mandela, admired the professional abilities of his opponents. For ‘what was Botha, the South African General? A farmer among farmers’. Gandhi praised Louis Botha who ‘as a judge of sheep . . . could hold his own against any expert and even won a diploma for sheepkeeping. Although he won laurels as a General, fighting occupied a very small part of his life.’ Jan Smuts was ‘not merely a distinguished General, but a lawyer by profession . . . and an excellent farmer to boot’. Both Smuts and Botha were ‘Generals [who] were none the less keenly alive to the value and importance of steady constructive work.’ The intellect refuses to be reduced to the simplicity of confrontation and sees the adversary as a guide to future constructive labour. (Mandela was more enthusiastic than Gandhi about science.)
Finally, Mandela was not sentimental about the poor (or, for the most part, the rich). He complained that “there is something wrong with a society in which freedom is interpreted to mean that teachers or students go to school drunk . . . striking workers resort to violence and destruction of property; businesspeople lavish money in court cases simply to delay implementation of legislation . . . and tax evasion turns individuals into heroes of dinner-table talk.” The country “needs to infuse itself with a measure of discipline, a work ethic and responbility for the actions we undertake.” It meant “mobilising one another and not merely waiting for Government to clean our streets or for funding allocations to plant trees and tend schoolyards.” It meant decentralizing education to “make every home, every shack or rickety structure a centre of learning.” It meant building rather than destroying: “Coming from a past where authority was resisted, where state structures were fair game and the mantra of the day was ‘We shall support everything the regime opposes and oppose everything it supports,’ there was a need for a mental switch.” I believe that Gwala also, who was in touch with the people’s will, would have agreed.