Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Passage of Time

A long time ago, in 1970 to be exact, I left South Africa to study at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.  At the time it was the only university in the world that offered even a few courses in my field of interest – how computers could improve teaching and learning.  The timing was good.  I had just completed my B. Sc. In Johannesburg and I was beginning to feel the pressures of the Special Branch of the South African Police for my anti-apartheid activities.  I had done nothing drastic – just speaking, writing, and organizing.  And nothing drastic had yet happened to me, but my phone was tapped; I had been followed; I had been confronted and intimidated; and I had been arrested for being in a march in Johannesburg protesting the fact that more and more people were being arrested and held without charges being brought.
I felt I had three options:  stay and continue my activities with a growing likelihood of joining those that the government punished without recourse to the courts; stay and stop my activities; or leave.  I chose the latter, partly because Illinois was where I wanted to continue my studies and partly because neither of the first two options was palatable.
But my heart was in South Africa.
So I continued to read fiction and non-fiction from my homeland.  One of my favourite writers was André Brink who, with writers like Breyten Breytenbach, started using fiction written in Afrikaans to challenge the government’s apartheid policies.  His early books included Looking on Darkness, An Instant in the WindRumours of Rain, and A Dry White Season.  His 1973 novel Kennis van die Aand (Knowledge of the night) was the first Afrikaans book to be banned by the South African government.  I empathized strongly with these books because they highlighted the anomalies, contradictions, and inequities of apartheid. 
In the early 70s, I also found a new South African writer, James McClure, and read his first novel – a detective story – called Steam Pig.  It had been very well received, winning the UK Crime Writers Association’s 1971 Gold Dagger Award.  I found it coarse, typifying the blatant racism in South Africa.  Steam Pig and the other seven books in the series feature an Afrikaans detective, Lieutenant Tromp Kramer, and a black (Zulu) Detective Sergeant, Mickey Zondi.  They work in a small town, Trekkersburg, in what was then the province of Natal.
Throughout the series, Blacks are referred to as “kaffirs” or “munts” or “wogs”.  And the Whites, while enjoying the fruits of bountiful and almost free labour, are always complaining of how badly educated and lazy the Blacks are. 
I finished Steam Pig and decided not to read McClure again.  He was a typical white South African, I thought.  And his characters were stereotypes of the various groups in South Africa.
Somewhere in the 1990s I relented and read another Kramer and Zondi mystery, Snake.  Again I found the book rough, although I enjoyed the story.  Again the racial epithets turned me off.
In preparation for a panel on Forgotten Authors at Crimefest in Bristol in May I am reading all of the Kramer and Zondi series.  And I am enjoying them enormously.  And I have been trying to figure out why my opinion has changed.
First, my recent incursion into the world of mystery writing has made me much more sensitive to issues of plot and story development.  On both counts McClure does a wonderful job.  The plots are clever and believable, and they unfold in a way that makes sense to the reader.  Kramer and Zondi make mistakes as one would expect, and they have hunches and insights that are credible. 
Second, I now think that one of the strengths of the books is the depiction of apartheid South Africa.  I don’t know what McClure’s politics were (he died in 2006), but he saw apartheid as it was – biased, cruel, and inhumane – and accurately depicted the roughness of South African life, particularly for the Blacks.  I could now argue that the clarity of his vision may have opened people’s eyes to what was going on.
Third, the relationship between the Afrikaner Kramer and the Zulu Zondi reminds me of many Black/White relationships of the time – respectful (within limits), cordial, and friendly.  This excerpt is from Snake:
            “What are you Mickey Zondi?”
            “I’m a superstitious kaffir,” said Zondi, breaking into a wide grin.  “And you, boss, are wiser than the elephant.”
            “Ach! I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, hey?  But I can tell you one thing: I don’t suffer the same way from the blind spots of my people.  Not in my work, anyway”
Despite the ravages of apartheid, it may be these long-term working relationships between Blacks and Whites and the fact that many White and Black kids grew up together – at least until they reach school age – that made the 1994 transition to democracy so peaceful.
And fourth, McClure’s characters are so well drawn, not only in their characterization of stereotypes, but also the all too common foibles these stereotypes have.
In the 1960’s, Swaziland – a neighbouring, independent country – was a popular destination for South Africans wanting to take relief from the restrictions of apartheid.  Gambling was allowed, movies banned in South Africa were screened, and inter-racial dating was allowed.  I remember once going there to spend a weekend at a casino.  In front of me at the border post was an Afrikaans farmer with two Blacks in the back of his pick-up truck.  When the immigration official asked him how many people were in his vehicle, the farmer replied, “Me, and two kaffirs.”
Hmm, I thought, how typical.
A few minutes later I was through the border and driving to the Royal Swazi Spa, when I saw the farmer again.  He had dumped his two “kaffirs” and was now picking up a Black prostitute, maybe two, at the side of the road.
Again I thought, how typical.
I have also just finished McClure’s stand-alone, Rogue Eagle (1976), which won the 1976 CWA Silver Dagger Award.  In today’s terms, it would be labeled an international thriller.  It is an insightful novel about far rightwing Afrikaners beginning to find the apartheid government becoming too liberal – after all the President, John Balthazar Vorster, was beginning to talk to kaffirs north of South Africa’s borders.  It is a great read, both for its tension, but also for a rare look at another side of what was happening in South Africa at the time.
I am so pleased I have gone back and read and reread McClure’s works.  I’ve not only enjoyed them, but it has given me cause to reflect on how my own perspectives have changed.  I now realize that people had a go at apartheid in very different ways, and that direct confrontation was not the only way that made a difference.
McClure was born in South Africa in 1939 and left for the UK in 1965.  He worked as a journalist for the Scottish Daily Mail, the Oxford Mail, and the Oxford Times.  He died in Oxfordshire in June 2006.
Stan - Thursday

PS.  I wonder whether McClure's book would avoid being banned in schools in the USA today, given the derogatory terms he uses for Blacks.


  1. Stan - I think McClure's books would be banned and, in the current climate, I think they must be.

    The political and cultural atmosphere in the United States is propelled by hate and all that hate is aimed at the duly elected president of this country. A member of Congress called the president a liar during a nationally televised speech before both houses of Congress. Before the speech ended, the congressman's campaign funds were enriched by a few million dollars.

    There is a resurgence of racial hatred that is worse than it was before the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960's. It has been projected that by 2050, whites will no longer be the majority group in the United States. The majority will be Hispanic, another darker skinned group. White men, poor and affluent, educated and uneducated, young and old, look at the man sitting in the Oval Office and are forced to face the reality that the times have changed; and they are infuriated that their dominance has been overcome by the times. The battle cry is "Give me back my country" and the country they want is the one that existed before 1960,before Obama was born.

    There was a piece in the news today about a high ranking officer who is likely to be court-martialed because he refuses to deploy to Afghanistan. He is a medical doctor, an educated man. He refuses to obey his orders because they are signed by the Commander-in-Chief and he argues that since Obama was not born in the United States, his presidency is illegitimate. The birthers and the crowd that insist that Obama is a Muslim do so to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the country. Racism is alive and well.

    The night Obama was elected, when we knew that he really was the next president of the United States, people cried. In part, it was with joy, but largely it was because, I think, that his election proved that we were better as a nation than we thought we were. That night something powerful and good happened. The moment was short-lived. Obama is the lightening rod, attracting all those who can't believe that it is a black man who is the most powerful man in the world. And so they hate him. He is brilliant, eloquent, charismatic, a deliberate thinker, an inspired and inspiring speaker, and the face of the future. Because he is all of those things, the most hateful word in the English vocabulary is being used again. We can't afford to legitimize that language in anyway.


  2. Hi Stan - I loved your post, for someone who has not experienced apartheit and only recall it from sporiadic new reports in the media at the time it was being overturned, it seems really bizarre, not to mention cruel and unjust. People are an amazing bunch, we have evolved so fast in mind and so slowly in soul.

  3. Yes, yes, yes, Stan.

    It's amazing to me how books I enjoyed 40 or 50 years ago now sound sexist or racist now. John D. McDonald's Travis McGee, or Arthur Upfield's Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, for instance.

    And how much we can learn about today and ourselves from going back into our own and other people's past.

  4. Yrsa - "... we have evolved so fast in mind and so slowly in soul." You have put it perfectly.