Turning fifty in 2006: some notes on South Africa and South-East Asia

On the last day of my half-century in October 2006 I got up before sunrise in Pretoria and joined an excursion to the Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa’s Northwest Province. Our minibus cruised west across the scrubby drylands, past the Magaliesberg range, where vast irrigation machines pump precious water onto the crops. Turning northwards, we passed a series of giant platinum mines surrounded by slag heaps and the miserable corrugated iron huts of the townships where the mine workers live. From the window it was hard to see any signs of the “new” South Africa in these communities; on the contrary the desolate surroundings of the mines invoked many memories of the “anti-apartheid years” in the 1970s and 1980s.

In particular I remember listening to a speech by Julius Nyerere, then president of Tanzania, in Oxford in 1976, arguing for sanctions and for support to the “frontline states” and the African National Congress (ANC) in the struggle against apartheid. At St. Catherine’s College, where I studied in the 1970s, there was a scholarship scheme to enable a few black South African students to study in Oxford. My parents were active in the anti-apartheid movement and were “blacklisted” (sic) by supporters of Ian Smith’s white Rhodesia after the unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) in 1965. As a kid I can remember my mother examining tins of fruit in the supermarket to make sure that she boycotted South African goods. There was also a nasty family squabble when one of my cousins decided to visit the country at the end of the 1980s.

By accident, in curious and distant ways, South Africa has provided some of the background stories to my life. In 1980, just after meeting Lene on the Aegean coast in Turkey, I travelled to southern Hungary for a “youth solidarity camp” with the ANC. At that time many people considered that ”commies” manipulated the anti-apartheid movement during the cold war conflicts that had torn southern Africa apart. We probably were being used and the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 proved that we had been thoroughly deluded, at least in so far as the achievements of “existing socialism” in Eastern Europe were concerned. But in our revolutionary zeal we were far removed from the desperation in southern Africa associated with the secret operations by the South African defence forces and the Cubans in Angola, not to mention the brutal ravaging by the Renamo guerrillas fighting against the Frelimo government in Mozambique. For a brief period in London in the early 1980s I lodged in a house with a group of exiled South African conscientious objectors who had refused to fight in the dirty wars in the region. Over twenty-five years later, it is easy to forget the images that filtered to Europe from the hot zones of the cold war.

Inspired by these thoughts I’d like to tell a couple more stories. Born in the year of the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising (1956), events that marked the onset of Arab nationalism and the first signs that communism in Eastern Europe was built on very shaky foundations, I have been lucky to have had numerous opportunities to observe the long march of progress as well as the many setbacks. Exploring the theme of violence and the limits of non-violent action – discussed at length by the ANC in South Africa in the early 1960s – is part of my purpose. But my main concern is the way in which the truth has been distorted as the world descends into deluded mumbo jumbo, divisive hatred and massive repression in the name of a war against terror.

A useful source of ideas are the books by Mark Kurlanksy, who observed that in the post-1945 era, marked by Auschwitz and Hiroshima, kids grew up “in a world transformed by horrors.” In his study of 1968 (“the year that rocked the world”), he successfully captures the strangeness of the 1960s. I can remember the powerful effect of the nervous voices on the radio during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when I was 6 years old and found out that we might all be blown to eternity at any minute. Even more bizarre were the after dinner TV images of soldiers blundering through the streets of Hué during the Tet offensive; interviewed by reporters ducking behind walls as shells and bullets flew overhead. The Vietnam war was a constant backdrop to our otherwise comfortable lives at the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s. We watched both the fighting and the anti-war marches on the nine o’clock news. The demonstrators chanted Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, while somewhere in California Country Joe was singing:  “One, two, three/What are we fighting for?/Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn/Next stop is Vietnam.”

Leapfrogging through the final decades of a “short history of the twentieth century” (from 1914 to 1991), Eric Hobsbawn (1994: 237-8) wrote:

“Though the most obvious face of the cold war was military confrontation and an ever-more frenetic nuclear arms race in the West, this was not its major impact. The nuclear arms were not used. Nuclear powers engaged in three major wars (but not against each other). Shaken by the communist victory in China, the US and its allies (disguised as the United Nations), intervened in Korea in 1950 to prevent the communist regime in the North of that divided country from spreading to the South. The result was a draw. They did so again with the same object in Vietnam and lost. The USSR withdrew in 1988 after eight years of providing military support for a friendly government in Afghanistan against American-backed and Pakistan-supplied guerrillas. In short, the expensive high-technology hardware of superpower competition proved indecisive. The constant threat of war produced international peace movements, essentially directed against nuclear arms, which from time to time became mass movements in parts of Europe and were regarded by the Cold War crusaders as secret weapons of the communists. The movements for nuclear disarmament were not decisive either, although a specific anti-war movement, that of young Americans against being conscripted for the Vietnam war (1965-75) proved more effective.”

We know who won the war in Vietnam. But why did over 50,000 Americans and an estimated over two million Vietnamese perish in the years between 1965 and 1975? Historians argue that the failure to stop the reunification of the country was predictable; those who had studied “la longue durée” in South-east Asia knew that the French colonial adventure would end in failure, as would US intervention to prop up a South Vietnamese puppet government. But how can we forget the cost in wasted lives, not to mention the pity of it! As Wilfred Owen wrote from the Western Front in 1917, soldiers could always be found to confirm “the old lie: Dulce et decorum est, Pro patria mori.” (It is a sweet and beautiful thing, to die for one’s country).

In 1993, eighteen years after the end of the Indochinese wars, I visited the region for the first time. Like many others, my interest in South-east Asia had faded quickly in the second half of the 1970s; though I was vaguely aware of the mass murders that emerged in reports from Cambodia after the Vietnamese invasion at the end of 1978. But three weeks in Cambodia in 1993 turned my views of conflict and development upside down. It was a shock to discover the extent of destruction since the 1970s, both of the landscapes and the people. Everybody had a story to tell about how they had survived the violence, the refugee camps, exile, oppression and fear.

The most striking thing was the effect on “social capital”, on human relations and inter-relations. An endless stream of denouncements and executions, as well as the ebb and flow of the guerrilla struggles and the elimination of everyday life – everything from pagodas to the calendar had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge – had apparently left people without any sense of belonging and without community. I particularly remember a conversation with an American UNICEF representative who was responsible for re-constructing not only the schools but also the entire education system. She told me that her assignment was like planning for life on Mars.

Intellectuals, Buddhist monks and anyone who spoke foreign languages were particularly targeted during the brief but murderous reign of Pol Pot (1975-78). David Chandler’s (1992) study of “Brother Number One”, as the clandestine communist rebels called Pol Pot, gives a flavour of the evil and an explanation of why the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia went so far off the rails. His main thesis is that Pol Pot and his cronies were inspired by the fanatical and utopian, but extremely violent, variety of communism that Stalin introduced in the 1930s (the “red terror”) and then Mao perfected in the 1960s (the “cultural revolution”). The addition of intense nationalism and intense secrecy ensured the creation of the ultimate nightmare, where even children learned to denounce their parents. I was shown around Cambodia in 1993 by a survivor of the massacres and forced labour brigades, who reckoned that the only reason the Khmer Rouge cadres had not beaten him to death during interrogation in his village was that his wife had not yet given birth to their son. There was nobody to contradict his supposed lies!

Gradually life has been re-introduced in Cambodia; together with elections, export processing zones and HIV/AIDS. But many did not welcome the Vietnamese overthrow of Pol Pot and his gang at the end of 1978. Like numerous countries, mostly in Africa, Cambodia suffered during the 1980s from the side effects of the cold war – the proxy battles fought between the US and the USSR in a range of other “theatres”, with countless unknown bodies piled up as “collateral damage.” For over twelve years, from 1979 to 1993, the refugee camps along the Thai border, policed by the dangerous thugs of the Khmer Rouge and their allies, hosted the government of Cambodia in the variety recognised by the United Nations. The Vietnamese occupying forces had installed and were propping up another communist government in Phnom Penh, whose legitimacy was automatically tainted by association with the well organised soldiers who had defeated the mighty United States only a few years before. Vietnam became an outcast in the club of nations, backed only by the declining power and resources of the Eastern Bloc. Cambodians were the victims of this extraordinary hypocrisy.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Vietnamese were left to their own devices, which ultimately turned out in their favour. The “doi moi” (renovation) reforms introduced in the mid-1980s appear to have laid the foundations for a booming economy. Although the communist party (with 2 million members) is still running the show, the people are free to produce, consume and invest. The market has been combined with socialism… At the same time the misery and tribulations of the “American war” are fading from memory, although there is still a strong sense of national pride at having fought for independence and won!

Do we feed on lies as Harold Pinter argued in his 2005 Nobel lecture? Certainly it often seems as if simple truths are lost in a maze of confusion, conflict and corruption. But distortions seem to be the way of the world. It is sometimes hard to face the truth when the upshot may be to back down, retreat, to admit mistakes or whatever. Sadly, fanatical beliefs, dogma and the urge to impose “our truth and light” on heretics appear to be constants of human behaviour.

The greater challenges of development, in terms of efforts to improve living standards, ensure sustainable use of natural resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level which prevents overheating of the planet and so on, are ignored by politicians whose obsession with war knows no bounds. As Martin Meredith (2005) has discovered in the case of South Africa the scale of the problems is daunting. In a survey of progress since majority rule replaced apartheid in 1994, he draws attention to recent statistical reports indicating that:

”Fewer than 7 per cent of school leavers could expect to find a job in the formal economy. In some rural areas the unemployment rate was as high as 95 percent; sometimes a dozen people survived on one old-age pension. Out of a population of 45 million, more than 3 million lived in squatter camps or informal settlements, many enduring abject poverty, with little or no sanitation, clean water or power and no visible means of support. […] Indeed, during the first ten years of democracy, the gap between the rich and poor grew wider. It no longer marked the boundary between white and black as it had done during the apartheid years. For, by 2004, blacks constituted 10 per cent of the top fifth of earners; more than 700,000 were employed in professional or managerial positions. In all more than 7 million South Africans earned a regular wage in the formal economy. The rest, however, faced a precarious existence.” (Meredith, 2005: 674-675).

Similar data could be put together for a vast number of other locations around the globe. But there isn’t space and time to tell all the stories. So I’ll leave South Africa, relieved to escape from the millions of people living precariously, to come home.

As a teenager I enjoyed, if that is the right word, the melancholy atmosphere of T.S. Eliot’s poems, including the Wasteland and particularly the Four Quartets (1944). In Burnt Norton, he wrote:

”Go, go, go said the bird: human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.”

In the fourth quartet, Little Gidding, he disclosed:

”the gifts reserved for age/To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort/ First, the cold friction of expiring sense/Without enchantment, offering no promise/But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit/As body and soul begin to fall asunder/Second, the conscious impotence of rage/At human folly, the laceration/Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.”

This was heavy, searing stuff from which I don’t seem to have recovered…

Somewhat to my surprise, Kathrine my daughter, recently choose to write about hopelessness and the “gifts reserved for age” as described by J.M. Coetzee in his 1999 novel Disgrace. This bleak story, set in South Africa in the years of post-apartheid desperation, deals with the downfall of a Cape Town professor after a sexual harassment scandal and a violent attack on him and his daughter. In his thoughts on “liquid fear” in the 21st Century, Zygmunt Baumann (2006) claims that death is the “original fear” and that numerous strategies have been developed to “tame and domesticate” death, to shift it to the sphere of memory rather than in a future uncertain… Meanwhile, the Iraq Body Count (.org) reports that over 50,000 civilians have been killed since the coalition of the willing invaded the country in March 2003. Can we muster more than impotent rage?

The village on the Danish island of Sjælland where I live was founded by Vikings sometime in the 9th century and first mentioned in the archives for the year 1272. From the small hill near our house I can look out at the world beyond. It might be better to look inwards, towards the calm surroundings of this rural setting. But I’m as restless as the rest of my generation. Nevertheless, the permanence of the village is a reminder that despite all the fluctuations and hustle and bustle, some things stay more or less the same, timeless, beyond birth and death. On the other hand, even the village is not that old. It was built on the rolling crest of a glacial moraine; the earth beneath our house was probably dumped during an icy “retreat” around 25,000 years ago.

In Hanoi, in May and June 2006, I stayed just around the corner from the national geological museum. But as often seems to be the case during such “quick and dirty” assignments to exotic tropical locations, there was no time to stop by at the museum to study the specimens and appreciate the earth’s deeper timescale. However, in South Africa on the day before my 50th birthday, I was happy to have the opportunity to gaze at the beautiful hills in the Pilanesberg Park, where the volcanic outcrops were formed by an eruption dated to around 1.2 million years ago.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s