Dog’s Bone

Mbekis, de Klerk and Mandela
Mbekis, de Klerk and Mandela; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.