The South Africa of the Mind

I was, while walking through Glasgow, listening to the audiobook of Tony Judt’s Reappraisals – a collection of essays largely written for the New York Review of Books.  It is a book that changed my mind on many things not least on Israel and Palestine but also thankfully on Judt’s friend Edward Said.  This is not to say that I have changed my mind on Said’s, I believe, mistaken interpretation of Albert Camus but it allowed me to understand him as the humanist he was.  Said, as Judt explained, was someone who was not merely partisan to a cause but whose virtuperous pen could admonish both the West and Israel as well as the ‘Orient’ without fear or favour.

But it was the essay ‘Dark Victory: Israel’s Six-Day War’ that I was listening to once more and to one passage in particular.

For pre-1967 Zionists, Arabs were a part of the physical setting in which the state of Israel had been established; but they were decidedly not part of the mental template, the Israel-of-the-mind, through which most Israelis saw their politics and their environment. Taking the Jews out of Europe did not take Europe out of the Jews…Israel in 1967 was a European country in all but name.…I do not just mean the German speaking Jews on Mount Carmel who reproduced every little detail of life in late-Habsburg Vienna and never bothered to learn Hebrew, or the English-speaking Jews drinking tea, eating fruitcake, and playing cricket in Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi; I am speaking about the whole country.

Some days previous to this I had received a criticism from a fellow user of wordpress to say I did not understand that the settlers that Frantz Fanon directed his attacks at in The Wretched of the Earth had created like, Albert Camus, their own European version of the Algeria-of-the-mind. This was, so the criticism went, precisely what colonialism did. That is to say it created a mental template which understood the land as belonging to the empire and it silenced or removed the native population both culturally and physically from the landscape.

To be sure this was precisely Edward Said’s criticism, in Culture and Imperialism, of the novels of Albert Camus.  Taking his position from that laid down by Conor Cruise O’Brien, Said pointed out that in Camus’s The Outsider the Arab, that Meursault kills on the beach, is both silent and nameless. Furthermore, in Camus’s The Plague the Arabs in the Algerian city of Oran are almost entirely removed.  Of course Said’s claim that the same is true of the short stories in Exile and the Kingdom is somewhat more contestable. But to be sure Said is right on the money when he states of both The Plague and The Outsider that: ‘the structure of civil society so vividly presented – the municipality, the legal apparatus, hospitals, restaurants, clubs, entertainments, schools – is French, although in the main it administers a non-French population.’

But here one can’t help but wonder at Said’s refusal to acknowledge that the whole driving force of the critique that The Outsider offers is directed at precisely this.  The novel is after all about a man, Meursault, who has, through his environment, lost his distinct ‘Europeaness’ and is condemned to death not for the murder of an Arab, but because a normatively punitive European judicial system refuses to consider a moral and epistemological outlook that is not its own.  While in The Plague Camus suggests that the occupation by Europeans is the outbreak of a pestilence within the human condition that must be resisted against (this of course would need a lengthy justification that I will not embark on here).  It is true that Camus does not offer representations of fully formed Arab characters in these books, nor does he attempt to speak on their behalf and quite rightly so. As he was to say in a late interview: ‘I speak for no one: I have trouble enough finding my own words.’

So what was Camus’s Algeria-of-the-mind?  Personally I think it can be found in his collection of journalistic pieces and essays published, two years before his death, under the title Algerian Chronicles and in particular in the article ‘Letter to an Algerian Militant’.  In it he states: ‘you and I, who are so alike, who share the same culture and hopes, who have been brothers for so long, joined in the love we both feel for our country, know that we are not enemies.  We know that we could live happily together on this land, which is our land –  because it is ours, and because I can no more imagine it without you and your brothers than you can separate it from me and my kind.’

But then if this is Camus’s vision of Algeria, then I took to wondering just what a South Africa-of-the-mind might look like for a white South African. What I thought of doing was reflecting on my own experience and my own vision.  But what I forget is just how much of it was formed by apartheid. I am, after all, the last of a generation who has any adult memory of that time.  I realised then that there may in fact be two distinct South Africas amongst the whites, one affected directly by apartheid-era propaganda and enforced division and one not.

For me what was greatly disheartening in the last few years was trying to get young people to help at an education project in Khayelitsha.  In my experience foreigners were far happier to go than local young white people born and bred in South Africa – or certainly the ones that I know. And when some did they seemed unwilling to return, at least one confessed that they felt uncomfortable.  That is to say that what they experienced was not their South Africa, that it remained foreign, unfamiliar and at times alienating.  I can’t deny that I too felt this on occasion.  But there were other times, like when three teenagers began to playfully bang on the tables chanting ‘pay back the money!’ that I felt instantly at home and in my country.  But I think that by far the majority of white people do not feel like Camus did of Algeria, that they ‘share the same culture’ as the vast majority of the population.  What is more few, in my experience, seem willing to change this attitude of denial.

And if this is so of many of the whites of the ‘born free’ period then it certainly exists in a stronger and more disturbing form in my own generation and older. And perhaps it is worth reflecting on the fact that all of those aged 18 on the 17 March 1992, who participated in the referendum of that year that approved de Klerk’s negotiated reforms, quite literally entered into a social contract that approved the vision of a unified multicultural society.  It is these generations, perhaps more so than the other later ones, that are required to invest mentally and financially in moving towards an open and homogenous ‘mental template’ which recognizes all South Africans as equal participants within our social and cultural landscape. Here I do not wish to over simplify our problems by suggesting that money can change our plight, that money can change the balkanization of South Africa.  But I do think that who one chooses to share one’s wealth with is, at its roots, something to do with the vision of the South Africa one identifies with. We did after all change the political system from one where Afrikaner Nationalism meant that companies like Naspers, Santam and others promoted Afrikaners because of a shared Volkstaat-of-the-mind, to one that understood that all South Africans are part of a greater South African identity.

Certainly if the sharing of wealth is any kind of heuristic as to how people perceive a unified South Africa then I know, from experience, that the white moneyed elite is still very much stuck in a divided society. As I discovered, over many years, to get money for development projects from the white moneyed elite in South Africa is like tapping blood from a rock of Cape granite – 84.88% of Cape Town it should be remembered voted for change in 1992, the highest percentage in the country.

Only last year I was told that there was quite simply no money to run an educational development project in conjunction with the Cape Town Art Fair – this was not true it should be said of the Joburg Art Fair.  The fact that the Cape Town event was dripping with sparkling wine and canapés and that some of the same people who seemed over the years to have no money for development could afford prodigiously expensive tickets to the Zeitz MOCAA Ball was for me the final straw in the South African art world.  Simply put white money seems to go to mainly three places: indulgent leisure, indulgent vanity projects that might look like attempts at transformation but actually support their family, friends and their own development and thirdly where money can make more money (at times there are some happy cross overs).

But what does this have to do with the white South Africa-of-the-mind?  Well for me it shows that  not only the white ‘born frees’ but also the the white elites are effectively living by design in an alternative South Africa to the vast majority.  A South Africa that they wish to create for themselves, a South Africa that simply does not exist.  Perhaps some kind of analogy can be made of what Said suggested of the Israeli/Palestinian dilemma:

For good or ill there was only going to be one real state in the lands of historic Palestine: Israel. This was not Utopia; it was merely hardheaded pragmatism shorn of illusion. The genuinely realistic approach lay in accepting this fact and thinking seriously about how to make the best of it.

I would not be the first person to say that we, in South Africa, are heading towards a day of judgement. Perhaps the only break that we can apply to this is to sit up and realize that the South Africa-of-the-mind is both in reality and idealistically a unitary one. We are in this together whether we like it or not and the solutions to our problems will only be resolved together.  We, the whites of South Africa, have borrowed too much from the cultures around us to ever feel at one with our disparate metropolitan origins.  And if we are to survive we will have to begin to recognise this and give back to those cultures that we changed and that have changed us.  Many of us did, after all, agree to this in 1992.

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