This piece appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2014
I’ve just returned from the Eastern Cape, from dirt roads that dwindle into two spur tracks and then just impressions in the grass, around clefts in mountains that open into sublime valleys, each with a few foregone sandstone farmhouses, with stoeps and overgrown gardens and subsiding kraals. Among the dilapidation, one can still see the farmstead and the footpaths of work that took place within it. And for me, I imagine I can still see the places where lovers pressed into each other, by the leaking dam with the cool moss, in that outbuilding whose thick, warped glass slants light through the motes. And there, far by the river, where willows hang and a spinney makes a yonic circle of silver and green. On an autumn blanket. Definitely there.
Just beyond the house, the windpumps of a previous generation lean and miss rusty pieces. The voice of these metal creatures is the thing most gone. Not only their own whirring murmurs but the sounds they roused from unliveable plains: flapping crops, yapping dogs and watered furrows.
Every two or three valleys produce an abandoned little church. These have mottled walls like the pages of a very old book and spires sticking out like a bookmark. There are long rows of stone fence posts too, hewn from god knows what quarry, transported in god knows what vehicle over vast rises of blazing veld. It brings a pleasing order to the scene. You can see ancient fields and camps. It speaks of Mesopotamian knowledge of things like crop rotation and breeding herds and irrigation; of steady betterment, made possible by handy objects like wheels and pliers.
The history of the white man’s settlement in South Africa, how much emptiness he encountered, how many chiefs he hoodwinked, how many he charmed, allied with, plundered and conquered, and the proportion of each activity that produced his spread up into valleys like this, is debatable. Right now, the academic (that is also to say, liberal) consensus is that he was almost entirely a bloodthirsty rogue and unremittingly supremacist in his attitudes and conduct.
Whatever the case, I am looking at what these trekking white men laid out and I find that it is also my way of living in a valley like this one I see, on my own earth, in my own time on it. There certainly are other ways a valley like this could be inhabited. It could be a bustling ethnic scene like the prints you buy at airports. But I find I don’t like experiencing the casual squalor of a profusion of huts and thin dogs and chafed horses, and men on their haunches drinking from a shared pot and the slow and tragic overgrazing of the unimproving commons, and much (but not all) else in the “native” style. I also know what I do like. I like views, even if in ruin, of the imagination, pride, grimacing work, canniness, thrift, jealousy, sharp-shooting, bull-voiced cowing and laying out, before government subsidies and cheap labour, of these farmsteads so aloof.
Indeed, I am laying out my own patch of valley pretty much as those of my stock have done before. I am amazed by my foray into the turgid comradeship of klipgooiery (stone-throwing) against ‘my people’. But I recognise also that I effectively purchased my present reactionary stances and tastes. It’s like a lover of Wagner, listening at full blast, as he sheltered Jews during the War. What’s more, I realise that klipgooiery and the South African constitutional order it produced, bought my people further time in the blue-craned valleys they love. The treaty favoured us.
And so I must have the guts to defend the economy that allows such an aesthetic to exist, even if only in abandoned folds of mountain and stream. An economy based on a certain amount of exclusion of the merely needy and the merely many, incapable of – or unmoved to – raise these square buildings up to eyes like mine. I must invest in a politics where mere superiority in numbers and urgency of need does not define the distribution of social good. In point, good land in good valleys does not simply go to the most needy but to those who are able to “have it well”.
In having it well, I am not naïve about the subjectivity of my position, nor the incursions of others whose eyes survey things differently and consider me to be the ever-present “dexterous marauder”, not them. I recognise these women and men as worthy adversaries. That is the liberating thing about the present political language released in our country by the new freedom fighters. In their politics, a chunk of the Black poor have jettisoned claims to an overarching national identity. They have consequently freed all settlers too from having to cast their possessiveness in “objective” legal and civic terms. Those cords of simunye are slashed. The 11th frontier war is on, not by spear or cavalry, mind you, and neither are the Boers all white, nor the Blacks all poor, but nevertheless two sanguinary groups line up to renew an ancient squabble.
It is not all exclusion and privilege. This valley economy has a broad anti-capitalist theme. The mere locking up of a title deed or money in the bank is not the final word on possession. There is a place for conquest (and resistance) still, but conquest to what purpose, to produce what kind of scene, what kind of lay of the land?
And so I stand, on the most temporary ledge, with Kaganof and Mngxitama (authors of A Place of Blackness) so that an ill-bred Grey College, my-dad-is-an-advocate-with-10000-hectares scion, who scares passing kwedins on his quadbike, deserves a Christmas thumping from a roused Xhosa. And, I stand with Mr Soga, the gainful black farmer, with the neat lands, and the concertina, against the louts who break bottles in the road because they will never own a bakkie or make music, and together we get someone to inform on them and someone else to terrify them into good behaviour, for some time at least, they are not from here anyway.
With Mr Soga I know I stand with a man who can look at all that is strong and orderly in his fences, and “who feels that his doing so adds to his pleasure.”
I spent some time with Tannie Hettie and her unmarried son of 68, Simeon. Her granddad settled here in the 1870s. He built a house on Torven, a prized and now isolated farm. Torven had yellowwood ceilings, sandstone blocks he hammered wedges into himself and transported by wagon, lead oxen, Bladiyi Ful and Rooius. In 2002, a land speculator bought Torven from under the family, from a swaksinninge uncle, gutted the house, carted beams away and then sold the farm, on the inside track, to the government at a premium for land redistribution. Ten years on, there are only two huts there now, the tractor and pipes are sold and the only crop is pensions, unless you also count children, sent down to a gogo to bring up on grants.
The point is that the enduring violence of white settlement is essentially the imposition, jointly, of an economy and an aesthetic. (I would like to believe that an ethics is universal and just as universally over-ridden by power in all societies). Anyone wishing to undo the economic effect of whiteness in South Africa is confronted with globalisation, the dearth of alternative economies and the death of the autarchy as a viable political base of operations. So, in the end, change becomes a game of aesthetics, names of streets being a good example, but also all the palace intrigues. Mbeki was replaced by someone who had another feel to him, their policies and class projects exactly the same.
As for land, even its redistribution will only meaningfully be a question of aesthetics. Squatter camps will arise between farm stalls, with big black or white agribusinesses unaffected. The Angry Men’s talk of nationalisation does not originate in honest principle. Overwhelmingly not. It is a generational overture from the ranks of the vanquished and excluded, feeling restored and betrayed, who wish to trade their demographic capacity for overrun for the entry of their commanders to the state. It’s thus classic democracy.
But this is the trouble with unmonied democracy. Squatter camps are not sandstone homesteads. Nor do lifelong idlers, no matter how indignant they are at the enforced sufferings of this condition, have the industry to reap their own fruits. They sprawl into elaborately worked valleys. And they sprawl not in search of arable land but in search of Boers. Boers, black or white, whose outer encampments they may join, to labour or otherwise partake of spilt wealth.
Now that’s a theme for ethnography. Mfenguism. Settlements around Cape Province towns, filled not by displaced or defeated tribesmen forced into menial labour but rather collections of camp-followers, summoned from ethnic wars afar to scavenge for a living, because a living is endemically difficult in Africa, white man or not. And if history is a guide, the real bulwark or reserve army against the Angry Men will be black workers, those who can get more from the Boers than they can hope for going to war under heedless chiefs.
Which, all of it, would make calculating the cost of the appeasement of these Angry Men and the decent reward of our Mfengu regiments nothing less than a matter of survival. Soon constitutional Kei Rivers will be crossed. And rivers run through valleys.
I think of the gogo at Torven. Last time I saw her, she was bent double on the road, fiddling with a broken thong used to keep the infant in the blanket on her back. She refused the lift I offered. I think of those fighting idlers who would prefer the joint ruin of all, if there is to be no equality in their lifetime. And I wonder whether the flailing windpump, neither repaired nor torn down, or the needlessly squalid shack or smashed bottle in the road may not in fact be, at some level, a desired symbol, a flag of a sort of coming, stubborn Pyrrhic victory.