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 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.

Do the guys on the extreme right—the Volkstaters (adherents to the ideal of a purified Afrikaner state), these skinheads with beards and beer bellies—constitute the final spasm of a colonialist era, of the time when territorial conquest and racial domination were considered “normal” (and which caused the dominator, the boss, to be a rigidly stupid baboon incapable of adapting to more equitable dispensations)? Or is their thrashing the violent emergence of a “new” reality—demanding that room, even geographical space, be accommodated within pluricultural set-ups for the exercise of group differences?

For forty years we’ve been hamstrung by this country’s official dogma of “we are all different and therefore we should be kept segregated.” Must we now wander for another forty years in the desert after the new golden calf, a teaching which is as European-originated as its predecessor and will be enforced in the same authoritarian and arbitrary fashion, prescribing in the name of non-racism and non-discrimination that “we are all the same and should thus be the subject people of one state”?

The bloody mess of our transitional phase and the contradictions and discordances erupting like pus ever more violently day by day must be symptomatic of deeper rifts. All parties sing piously of moral high grounds (Golgotha?), they speak of converted insights, and they flash their brand new smiles, they fawn and cajole (or reprimand and warn), they philosophize about affirmative action and economic take-off like pie in the sky, they console the rich who will stay rich and promise the poor that they too will inherit the earth, they swish magic wands (looking suspiciously like AK-47s) and dish out last-ditch increases in salaries, they cheat and lie in our teeth. We even see the obscene spectacle of the arrogant Broederbonders (members of the semi-secret Afrikaner League of Brothers), who dumped the country in the shit to start with, now claiming that they were the ones to open the Damascus road to a new deal. (Like the fellow who, with good reason, fled from the lion and now perches high in a tree to pretend for all to hear that he in fact taught the lion the trick of jogging with him.)

In reality all of these mediocre role players conspire to guarantee the power monopoly of the political caste, and they agree about the lowest common denominator of untrammeled access to the state’s feeding troughs—while outside the slaughter continues.

There’s grand talk of expressions of national culture where we have no such thing as a nation. And yet it is exactly toward a cultural awareness that we look for spelling out the essential perceptions of nation-building—the complex questions around identity both local and national, the desperate need for shared ethics allowing us to coexist peacefully, promoting tolerance and an understanding of the variety of origins and expressions and relationships without which there can be no nation, let alone a valid democracy.

We need cultural awareness for the creative conversion that would transcend these differences and bring about a social and political space for accommodating all the requirements I have tried to suggest here. In other words, we need culture to restrict the state’s arbitrary powers and to rein in the bureaucrats and other public parasites. Let me burn my mouth some more: only a vital civil society with the cultural creative process acting as the breath of social consciousness will enable us to drive back to their holes and the cracks in the floorboard the supposed “security” services—National and Military Intelligence, Mbokodo (the ANC’s goon squad trained by the Stasi), the CCB (Civil Cooperation Bureau, our euphemism for death squads)…the rubbish and filth and dogshit bedeviling our lives, threatening now to play an even more dastardly role further on down the road.

True, that’s a lot to ask of culture which, practically by definition, has nothing to do with justice; on the contrary, it is permanently in the process of thinking and imagining itself. Creativity is different from explanation; it can neither take the place of nor account for “something else.” What I’m really suggesting is that any movement toward a more livable and supportable situation in this country ought to be a continuous creative undertaking—we are driven for survival toward mixing and self-definition and understanding of the Other (and not even Job is as afflicted by definitions as the bastard is), because we revolve around the axis of private and public identity (that concept in ideological garb which covers so many atrocities). Our search can therefore not only be a story of political change and economic upliftment. Culture is also concerned, as a thread of remembering and as acts of recognition and resistance and digestion and transformation. Our lives are inked in by culture because we are in need of recording and modifying our dreams, as also our nightmares, to redirect, rivers and to shift mountains. And Battiss’s metaphorical mountains and rivers can only be truly grasped, and perhaps crossed, in one’s mother tongue.

Since I am now looking for the bone of movement there are a few stones I need to roll out of the way; put differently, there are some stones against which it is my pleasure to lift a leg. “Culture,” “the people” are among them. (I hear that one nowadays speaks of “the people and the peasants” in Angola.) The nebulous thing called Culture—I too abuse the concept—must be a devilish spawn of totalitarianism. That use of Culture, preferably organized by “structures” as an extension of the dominant state ideology, flourished in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Socialist, states. In South Africa too we are caught between the plague and cholera, between—on the one hand—apartheid with its patriarchal and colonial tenets of Christian National Education accompanying repression and the censoring of dissidence or deviationism (some of us too, the supremacists decided, were guilty of decadent and degenerate art), and, on the other hand, a potential Stalinism, with its cultural commissars enforcing “people’s culture” as populist idolatry through the appropriate “structures”—where we must fall into step with historical determinism in the name of “national” liberation (conveniently forgetting that “history” is but a majority interpretation by fabrication, the retroactive attempts made by conquerors to impose some inevitability upon the irrational), where we are taught that “freedom is conforming to the will of the majority” (Eat shit, a thousand flies can’t be wrong!), and where we shall yet again experience the marginalization of dissidents.

Typical of both the old and the new situations is our indigenous philistinism—“good taste” and even better intentions, sentimentalism, anti-intellectualism and “commitment,” mutual moral balls-squeezing and political correctness.

In opposition to the above I’d like to put in my plea for doubt and questioning, diversity, the maintenance of our “Ho Chi Minh trail” of underground tunnels of memory and resistance, tolerance, mixing, blending, crankiness, existentialism, humanism, anarchism… To avoid like the plague the tyranny of “being on the side of the angels.” To forswear ideological cover. As Battiss expressed it: “To be born vibrant, of restless minds.” To forgo that laziness which Henry James identified as “the varying intensity of the same.”

It should be clear, I hope, that I don’t plead for elitists pulling their meat in ivory towers, or even for pristine individualism. Locally we also enjoyed an alternative tradition of subversion, you could say of cultural guerrilla action; we too, black and white, rubbed the dog the wrong way. To put it another way, we deserted Calvinism’s chilly congregation halls—thanks to small publishers and all kinds of “alternative” compositions and performances of art. This is the tradition that ought to be deepened and strengthened. How can those of us who fought against the power corruption of the previous regime now shirk the responsibility and the sheer joy of opposing without let-up our dear comrades snared in the putrefaction of power under the new rule?

Perhaps the way out lies in a healthy distinction between creativity and education. The most striking transition from the old to the new South Africa is that all those people who until recently had to remain in the background, the majority who existed barely perceptible on the periphery of light, fit only to be removable undesirables or to be driven into jail, can now step out of the shadows onto the national stage. They are replacing the masters, becoming actors, ringing the changes in equations of power. Their aspirations will now get priority attention. Nobody can dispute the necessity for a redistribution of resources and privileges. They are the ones who must now gain admittance to the opportunities and the possibilities of culture.

But all of that is education and facilities. The theme song to keep in mind is quite simply social justice: how, with the accelerating tempo of change, to bring about the fine and dynamic equilibrium between programs of upliftment and old-fashioned competence—and avoid the scornful quota system of “affirmative action.” It is to be trusted that a pedagogical approach will not lead to the masochistic confusion of art and sociology and ethnography, or to the hypocritical leveling of arts and crafts advocated by faint hearts and breastbeaters.

Inescapably social justice is the first law of the land. But the consciousness of a cultural identity is a shared experience as well, a group feeling. There’s nothing reprehensible about being simultaneously Afrikaner and South African and African, for instance. The sharpened awareness and required adaptability are indeed among the remarkable challenges of our environment. Surely the creative tension between the conjugating and the centrifugal, between centralism and regionalism, between a binding nationality and variform languages and customs, must be beneficial to unity.

But also: finally the creative act is an individual and universal experience, and for that we need free spaces—other permutations of dynamic harmony, of criticism and apostasy and anarchy. The disciplines, the problems, and to a certain degree even the themes and motives of creativity—of interpretation and of shaping, of self-knowledge and self-destruction and making of the other—have everywhere and always been the same. And always and everywhere these activities were considered socially and economically to be a luxury, even a burden upon society. Yet ever since man started looking at himself, creativeness became the buried breathing of the community, the option we have of talking to darkness, a road of rhythmed self-discovery, the whittling of god, the murmured adjuration of sun and of moon, the bone belief that we live from death to death, from nowhere to nothing, but that we body forth this knowing in an exploration of life.

Let us not be bothered by the displaying of the old foxes of the Academy or younger political commissars with swaggering tails: when the pot boils it is only normal that froth shall rise. But we shall have to stand fast against the organizers’ “wish for madness,” as Lionel Abrahams admonishes us in a recent issue of Leadership magazine. He says:

They have called into being several “structures” to look after culture, and produced innumerable plans, proposals and educated prophecies all apparently resting on a presupposition that activities like the making of poetry, fiction, plays, sculptures, paintings and music are governed by the outcome of theoretical debates and communal decisions, instead of being essentially matters of choice and discovery by individual artists.

For the qualities of this country must still be enumerated. Especially under the somber wing of our century, now when a lowering heaven makes the trees heavier. When fog dissipates we must yet go down to the sea. We have to listen to the mountain’s concealed stories and decipher the footprints of those who went before, who vanished leaving only traces of their secret codes encapsulating the euphoria and the terror of exorcism, of feeling the horn of night, they who chose not to be petrified by the power that destroys in order to preserve the shame of ruling. Because we still have to undo power, not through some counterforce, but in the conscious and unconscious flow of tolerance and harmony. Beast, human, god—with failings and with fears, but knowing too that we have dreamed ourselves, as free agents of transformation, we have to learn again and again how light espouses the hollows of darkness, how the blade of silence enters the heart to become words. And the big laugh, as Nietzsche suggested, as a lyrical vision of the real, is perhaps the only line given to us to establish equity between the void, the great beyond, and our here-and-now.

After the Election: A Postscriptum for the Time Being

There is a heady sense of elation in the air. The center has fallen apart and the new core is not yet clearly defined. We have the sense of being in a moment of historical acceleration. Perhaps it is an illusion.

This is not really an election, but rather a national exercise with two functions:

  1. To finish off Apartheid, if only symbolically—because the structures and attitudes of inequality will survive for some time still.
  2. To inculcate a basic practice of democracy by involving all of the people in one bonding action of civil responsibility. A precarious, probably provisional, recognition of shared nationhood was felt. Maybe a sigh of relief, or hope.

The population showed themselves magnificently keen to exercise their right to participate by voting. The authorities, ill-prepared, were swamped. In fact, it has become very clear that the political establishment, of what-ever ideological stripe, is not deserving of the South African people. The bombing seems to have stopped. But there is still a lot of violence in the air. The results will not be known for quite a few days, and will surely be contested. No two revolutions resemble each other. When the dust settles, and when the profile of the new power hegemony is affirmed, it will become necessary, I believe, to clearly delineate the critical role to be played by artists and intellectuals in defining a strong civil society. We shall have to look without blinkers (and without blinking) at the political and social realities we inherit.

We shall have to learn how thought is forged in action; that we are condemned to continue inventing ourselves; that we cannot escape worrying the essential bone of one-ness made up of a richness of differences. This central dialectic will decide our articulation of power and our drawing of borders. Which the writers will transgress…

April 28, 1994

This Issue

May 26, 1994