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08 June 2012

“Waar’s jou password?”

The end of racial apartheid in South Africa made no difference
to marine communities. The Atlantic Ocean is still just as firmly segregated
from the Indian Ocean as ever.
The reintroduction of apartheid into South Africa is a subject which ought to be on all the sub-continent’s rapidly multiplying lips. This, at least, was the thought that struck me reading a piece in yesterday’s Guardian on the complaints J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer—two Nobel Prize-wining South African novelists—have been making about what might be called the Group Information Act, which will shortly be on the statute book in their country.
     Of course, there is in fact no Act with that name. I made it up. The measure is called the Protection of State Information Bill. As far as I can see from the article, and from listening to a BBC Radio 4 programme on the same subject a fortnight ago, the new Act will enable the government imprison journalists they don’t like for periods of up to 25 years. The excuse will be that they have “possessed, leaked or published” a commodity called “state secrets”. The allegation being made is that the new law is designed to protect corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. I have no idea whether that is the aim. But it will certainly be the result.
     However, my complaint is not with the South African government and its totalitarian tendencies, which seem to me normal for politicians anywhere in the world who do not have to worry about an unpredictable electorate. Rather, my complaint is about the arguments against this repressive statute being advanced by Professor Coetzee and Ms Gordimer.
     I have never met the former, though a friend of mine who used to be an English lecturer in the University of Cape Town when he was the Professor there knew him and did not like what he knew. My own experience is confined to his books, which I find unreadably depressing, except the sole work of non-fiction of his which I have read, a literary history of Southern Africa called White Writing. This, I thought, was very interesting, though of course depressing in a different, factual way.
     As far as Ms Gordimer is concerned, I did once meet her, very briefly, when she came to talk about literature to the students at Wits University, where I was an indolent under-graduate, dividing my days between being a part-time anti-apartheid betooger (protester) and a keen mid-week golfer. She struck me as a perfectly nice woman, but no closer to Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy in terms of insight into la condition humaine—as I would now see it—than I am, or Professor “Sad Sack” Coetzee is. I know that misery sells but, hey! come on, get a life! At least the climate in South Africa is wonderful!
     Having declared my interest, I will now say that I agree with every complaint they have about this sinister new Bill. However, their comments seem to me to miss the central point, which is that this is the beginning of a new, updated form of apartheid as we will all increasingly experience it in the twenty-first century. The world is moving forward, and South Africa with it.
     When I lived in the country, in the 1960s and early 70s, the lion kings who wanted to control it for their own benefit made sure they controlled the land. Their primary tool was the Group Areas Act which mandated different parts of the country as the places of residence for different racial groups. Naturally the whites, who were the basic support group of the lion kings of the day, got the best land. In those days land was the key to power.
     Today information is the key to power, and the way for the lion kings of the country to get control over the country’s resources for their own benefit is to introduce what might be called “information apartheid”. This means making sure that only the lion kings and their support group have access to the really crucial—i.e. “state”—information, a category they of course define. True, this support group is defined bureaucratically and politically rather than racially. But the underlying goal of primary resource expropriation results in an equally deep division of the population into those who are privileged and those who are not.
     The result will be that anyone who gets access to information that the big smells want to keep private for their own purposes, whether patriotic or squalid, will be as harshly dealt with as any black was who found himself in the wrong part of the country without the right kind of Pass in the days of apartheid. In fact, the penalties proposed seem even heavier that those under the Group Areas Act, but that is a detail. The principle, which our two Nobel Prize winners seem not to have noticed, is exactly the same: Pass/password: what’s the difference?
     Hendrick Verwoerd, the Prime Minister in the late 1950s and early 1960s, used to justify apartheid by saying “good fences make good neighbours”. His modern equivalents might, in the same spirit of homely human reality, observe that what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you. Both are true. But both are not the point. For J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer to complain, as they do in the Guardian piece, that South Africa is going back to “censorship” is wholly inadequate. Censorship is an essentially defensive activity, and there is nothing defensive about modern information management. The real point is that the country is going back to apartheid, only instead of a racial apartheid, there will now be information apartheid—from colour bar to knowledge bar. Hence the Group Information Act.

All of which bad news brings me onto the good news I wanted to write about, which was the wonderful South African Film Festival that was staged here in Moscow a few weeks ago, and which I trailed in this blog on 14 May. It was every bit as good as I expected, even though I only had time to go to two of the screenings (and the wine ran out at the opening night reception!).
     First, I saw a film called White Weddings, which I gather is on general release and might be available to people who know how to get hold of DVDs these days, which I do not. I will not spoil it for those who manage to find it except to say that it is not, as some might expect, about “Whites”. In fact, the only white things in the film were the eyes, the teeth, the lines on the road and the bride’s dress—oh, and a daffy English girl from “oop North” who added a weird form of sanity to the plot. Oh, and a crazy white burgher from some long-forgotten dorp in the Eastern Cape who turned out to be a feral Minister, and who saved the day in the end when…. I will not go on.
     The whole impression created was of a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-mobile phone society, inhabited by people who have never heard of Nadine Gordimer, much less the good Professor Sad Sack, and who do not care a fig if they are kept in the dark about whatever monkey-business the Minister of Money is getting up to. Just as in the dark days of white rule, ordinary people are colonial subjects in their own land.
The white sands of the dark continent
     The other film I saw, Otelo Burning, was nearer the political knuckle. It even included a rather unpleasant “necklacing” of a young boy falsely accused of being an informer on a group of ANC anti-apartheid activists. The theme, though, was surfing and the background one of the poor suburbs of Durban in the last days of apartheid when the whites controlled not only the land but also the sea you could swim, or surf, in. For those in search of “mood”, the film had the unexpected advantage of being entirely in Zulu, which, like a Dostoyevsky novel with its dark, evocative otherness, allowed the Gordimer in one to feel obscurely “in touch” with the dark heart of the sub-continent without quite knowing what was being said.
     The effect, in Moscow at any rate, was reinforced by the fact that the sub-titles, which were in English, were (a) hard to see because they were almost off the bottom of the screen, and (b) not easy to follow for any Russian present who was unable to read at native-user speed—which I suspect was most of the audience. But the Director, Sara Blecher, said in a short speech after the showing how much she loved the Zulu language, though she did have the grace to admit that she did not speak it.
     But if Zulu was a challenge in Otelo Burning, White Wedding went further, being in Zulu, Afrikaans, Xhosa and English, depending on who was speaking. This is a knowledge bar of a different sort from that objected to by the average Nobel Prize-winning novelist. Perhaps it explains why, even though the South African government is putting a lot of money into the country’s film industry, it has had little success in the world market. The international demand for films in Zulu and Xhosa is surely limited. This seems to me a shame, because the country is so interesting, the people such fun and the talent at all levels so various and colourful that it all deserves more than ghettoisation by means of a self-imposed knowledge bar operating through anti-mainstream language selection.
     If this is affirmative action, I say, give me affirmative indolence!

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