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Dog’s Bone

A man with a wooden nose knows it can do no good to sniff at axes.”


When a goat is present it is stupid to bleat in its place.”

—Ahmadou Hampaté-Bá (author and transcriber of oral traditions
from Mali, d. 1993)

I can just about describe myself as an alumnus of the University of South Africa here in Pretoria.1 Years ago, when I shied my time away in the shade of Maximum Security wing, on a hillock just outside Moustache City, I was graciously allowed to enroll for studies with UNISA. If memory plays me no tricks the subjects were, inter alia, the History of Art, Afrikaans, Philosophy, and Zulu. One was permitted to procure a number of text-books, and of course I promptly abused this privilege. Thus I got hold of Gombrich’s Art and Illusion; for me it still is a seminal work when you want to know more about the magic of making paintings, when you recognize the ancient human need for “writing the self and re-writing the world,” or—as Walter Battiss, the late painter associated with this institute, in whose honor I am now speaking, put it—when you start looking for the mechanisms which will enable you to prove that the metaphysical is sometimes more real than the physical. “For [according to Battiss] this is what art is all about: to shift rivers and to displace mountains… Life is sculpted time. By living we fashion time.”

My learning of Zulu was promptly stopped. It was explained to me that jailbirds were not to be exposed to “foreign” languages. (The truth was that they had no reliable warder who could monitor the subject.) Thereafter it was ostensibly feared that we lags would through our correspondence courses draw succor and comfort from a live world out there—sacrilegious thought!—and the Boere (warders) suspended our leave to be educated altogether.

Which is a pity. Had I been allowed to persevere I might have been better suited to talk about a big subject like Cultural Perceptions and Perspectives in No Man’s Land, as I still think of this much-vaunted New South Africa. I can only try my best, keeping in mind the country of the heart.

When the dog searches for its bone over such territory it should be with a feeling for place, a sense of time, and a suspicious eye on being. What is old and what new in this province where tides have mumbled cavities of time? In his book A Minor Apocalypse, the Polish author Tadeusz Konwicki writes: “The state owns time; only the Minister for Security knows the real date…. We were in advance or behind on our production schedules…we had this mania to catch up with the West…”

The sense of creation is precisely to satiate time and thus to undo it or to lay it away, because no one but ourselves should own our time. We weave into our work a mix of memory—some of it so ancient it may as well belong to the land—and creative intuition. All meaning is making, a blending, a bastardization, a metamorphosis. It is taking hold of time: the only way we know how to gently ease ourselves into the proper position for dying.

But continuing to move and making a noise, more so now that we are trapped in the straits and the defiles of anxiety, remain a prerequisite to survival. Togetherness (as opposed to apartheid, and you dare not yet speak of unity) is a movement harnessing diversity. For national togetherness, in order not to rot into totalitarianism, must be rooted and nourished by cultural variety. Without differences there can be no motion.

In this country without a name—since so long only described as a vague geographical concept, South Africa, with its self-digesting history—any progress toward the apparently unattainable utopia will depend on growth toward the embodiment of a South Africanness, more justice and greater freedom, a deeper acceptance of differences, and a more spacious recognition of binding characteristics. These must remain the only way to limit violence and murder. Besides, pushing back the skylines of our journey may be our last chance to prevent a stifling new hegemony from replacing the musty old one. After all, we cannot double-track. Behind the dunes lies the toxic cadaver of apartheid. And thus we arrive at the two poles of the equation which we must bring into play: being alike, being different.

One would like to assume that some immutable premises make a tolerant coexistence compelling, and that these will, as well, effect a mutation of the power relationship through a blending of cultures. Hic rosa, hic salta—“here is the rose, here the dance will be,” Marx (after Hegel) claimed. The dynamics for the resolution of South Africa’s problems lie exclusively within the boundaries and the conscience of the country. To do away with doubt by killing the Other is ultimately suicidal—or am I spouting pious nonsense? Communities are dependent upon one another and they cannot be sundered—or will too much blood drown the connections? The accumulation of past sacrifices, the repeated confirmations of an attachment to different and fairer dispensations, and our shared responsibility toward the dreams of the dead—surely these must guarantee the working out of a more humane future. Or are we underestimating the indifference and the brutalization that will follow upon the coming to power of a single party?

When all is said and done and despite the mutually transformative influences with the coming about of new identities, despite the change of regime—a change with power now residing with cabals and caucuses appealing to a majority hegemony—at sundown and for as long as the inner eye of memory can look ahead, we will still encounter the existence of discernibly separate cultural groups (identified by languages, customs, perhaps skin color, or by their stubbornly singular hierarchy of values).

How will the differences be fitted into a larger pattern? Perhaps it will behoove us to remember that old sociological dichotomy between community and society, where community relations are seen as natural or primordial because they arise from all manner of shared emotions and traditions which create a fairly homogeneous culture, and where society can be considered a historical construct, defined (according to Max Weber) by a “rational free market” or “voluntary associations,” in other words by economic necessity or political convenience. Is it too static to reason like this? Now take the black community in America for instance—are they, after a civil war, after a successful struggle for civil rights, after dying en masse in overseas wars, and after decades of affirmative action, now more integrated than before? And integrated with whom? For what?

The problem of communities co-existing beyond the demise of apartheid lies on the plane where fear of the Other (the dusky brother or the luminous shadow)—fear of being ousted and superseded, of losing work (through upliftment programs where the old clientelism of jobs for pals will be replaced by the new version of positions for comrades), of a diminution in income and possessions and status, or a fear of the continuation of unfair relations between master and slave, of reduced and inferior liberties, of repression and strife—where all these apprehensions are real.

It is not the Mandelas and the Mbekis and the Meyers who will be touched by these misgivings—they already live hand-in-pocket with the Oppenheimers and the Gordimers and the Motlanas.2 It is the rough, white-and-black, unpoliticized Lumpenproletariat who will have to take each other on. (I say “unpoliticized” in spite of their gun-toting and slogan-mouthing.) They are the ones who will go out with foaming hearts inspired by vague group instincts to massacre if they deem themselves to be with their backs to the execution wall. They are the people who will not gain advantages by the corruption of “liberation,” who will reject the pretty psalms of brotherhood and the purported “civilization” of the prognosticators, and who could eventually rise up in fundamentalist revolt against the party-state. And they, too, are the ones, when the day is foul with corpses and the playing field steeped in gore, who would have to settle with one another—long after the well-meaning affluent have found refuge along the lakes of Switzerland.

Why is it so difficult for our supposed “revolutionary” policy-makers to incorporate the federal option in their considerations?

Is it because territorial demarcation here still carries the stench of apartheid? Is an unjust sharing-out of wealth feared? Or is it that we, as freedom fighters, still find ourselves in the moment of realizing the booty of a unitary state whose power it is now our turn to exercise—and that we do so at the crest of the equalization of integration, feeling the intoxication of the powerful role to be played by the state as central political and economic authority? The state, our jealous cannibalistic god…

All the more strange now when there is a growing awareness elsewhere in Africa that the centralized nation state is by definition undemocratic, that it cannot work because the conception and outlines do not fit historical realities and cultural demarcations, and where it seems possible that people will progressively advance toward federalist solutions.

Basil Davidson in his The Black Man’s Burden comes to the conclusion that

a hopeful future…would have to be a federalising one: a future of organic unities of sensible association across wide regions within which national cultures, far from seeking to destroy or maim each other, could evolve their diversities and find in them a mutual blessing.

And the Ugandan political theorist Mahmood Mamdani, in an unpublished critical review of Davidson’s work, takes the argument a few steps further. Again I quote:

The point is neither to celebrate “modern tribalism” nor to recoil from it in alarm. Rather, to recognise its contradictory nature is to appreciate the contradictory possibilities in any liberation of modern tribalism. While any type of federation would have to recognise the legitimacy of tribal interests, the resulting tribalism could either be democratically-constituted or turn into a top-down manipulation. The outcome, in turn, would depend on whether or not federalism has been joined to mass participation through a reform which goes beyond simply federalising the colonial hold over the peasantry to dismantling it…. For if we are to arrive at a political agenda that can energize and draw together various social forces in the highly fragmented social reality that is contemporary Africa, we need to devise an agenda that will appeal to both civil society and peasant communities, that will incorporate both the electoral choice that civil society movements seek and the quest for community rights that has been the consistent objective of peasant-based movements.

Let us not forget that the Zulu people still partly live in rural communities, or that the Afrikaners are still peasants—even though their crops were to a large extent the civil service, the mines, the railways, and the police.

  1. 1

    This article is based on a memorial speech given at the University of South Africa on February 14, 1994, in honor of the painter Walter Battiss.

  2. 2

    Author’s note: Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki (ANC spokesman on foreign affairs), Roelf Meyer (National Party government minister and chief negotiator), Harry Oppenheimer (millionaire owner of multinationals like the Anglo-American Corporation), Nadine Gordimer, Ntatho Motlana (millionaire ANC entrepreneur)—as symbols of the old and new elite establishment.

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