President Zuma and Group Identity

There’s been some controversy over a painting (“The Spear”) of the current SA President, Jacob Zuma. Zuma, amongst other things, has been known for his philandering ways. This modern polygamist has also been charged with rape. So, some rather irreverent soul depicted Zuma in a Leninesque pose, but with his genitals hanging out. What I’ve been finding interesting, and frustrating, has been the furor over the painting.

As an American, I might find the painting crude and roll my eyes at it. I might raise the question of whether it is an appropriate way of representing the office of President. But I would grant to the artist freedom of expression and consider the painting as critical of the individual himself.

That’s not how it’s been taken by many groups in SA. Here’s an opinion article I came across today: http://mg.co.za/article/2012-06-12-simphiwe-dana-on-the-sarah-baartmanisation-of-the-black-body. The article is well-written, but I find myself frustrated by how the criticism of an individual automatically becomes ridicule of a group. I’ve seen other pieces take the same tack. The painting is seen as not just demeaning to Zuma, but to his party (the African National Congress, ANC) and to blacks in general.

This is a difficult issue for me to work through. As an American individualist (and a white male who has never had to worry about being an oppressed group), I find the controversy ridiculous. Zuma is worthy of ridicule on this point. Nothing more is meant. The artist is not making a statement about black people, and to see it as such is simply being hypersensitive. To play the “racial stereotype” card is not to encourage appropriate sensitivity in the issue; it is to silence the opposition, to shut down discourse (not to mention focusing attentions on manufactured racial problems; isn’t doing something about jobs and education in black communities a better use of time?). Such censorship is its own sort of power play. And from what I’ve seen in other articles and comments, much criticism of any leader in SA gets met with the same charges of racism or disloyalty (and to be fair, the disloyalty claim goes as much for the previous Nationalist Afrikaner government as the present ANC one). How can leaders be be held accountable when one can’t speak out against them?

However, that is only one side of the issue. As much as I find the emphasis on group loyalty frustrating, I also lament the fact that there is little sense of the public good in discussions of American politics. Might that not be the flip side of the individualism I espouse? Loyalty to a group beyond immediate problems enables a group to carry out long-term goals; something lost in our soundbyte society which always wants the economy fixed now, within a single presidential term. And whether or not I sense any sort of racial statement being made in the painting, a large group of people do, who have had experiences that I have never had nor ever will have. Also, it’s not like Americans are any less group-oriented; we just don’t like to admit it as much. We come up with all sorts of nice reasons for “our” view, but this often seems to be after choosing our side rather than before.

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News Flash

I’m trying to get caught up on current events in SA. Reading books is great and all (and I’ve started up another one I’ll talk about sometime: My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan), but most end either before the fall of apartheid or shortly thereafter. So I’ll try to post some news stories that I find in order to give a better view of what SA is like now. Here are the first couple:

Kuzwayo and Everyday Life

(Continued from here.)

Ellen Kuzwayo writes about the status of South African black women in her book Call Me Woman through her autobiography. She was born into a farm which had been in her family for a hundred years and which was taken away through apartheid laws. She got a divorce due to horrible spousal abuse when divorce was still highly uncommon. She was a social worker in Soweto, which is where the blacks of Johannesburg were shoved off to. It’s an interesting counterpoint to Mandela’s autobiography – not just because it is the memoir of a woman, but because it presents a more everyday sort of courage.

You see, when Mandela talks about going to prison, or getting banned (in which one would be limited to seeing one guest at a time and would have to apply for permission to travel), it sounds so glamorous. Here is the great freedom fighter struggling for his cause! But Kuzwayo talks about her son getting banned for the sin of helping improve literacy among black students. Her son was not doing anything groundbreaking, and did not go on to be a “great person.” He did not break his banning orders to run an underground organization, but out of psychological stress and loneliness.

The people she helps are the average people living in the slums. When she travels, she is not seeking military assistance, but is helping set up business opportunities for village women to sell the clothing they make. She goes to jail herself as part of a local group trying to deal with the aftermath of the 1976 student uprising (in brief: students were required to be taught in Afrikaans, a language most of them did not know; the students protested; police shot students; there was a riot since people don’t like being shot at.). The humbleness of the jail environment comes through more clearly as she is not using elaborate communication systems to work out strikes and impromptu classes amongst the prisoners. Not that Mandela overstates his prison conditions, but it’s hard to imagine how dreary and dirty they were when he talks about what he was doing in the midst of them.

So Ellen Kuzwayo’s book may not be quite as well-written as Mandela’s smoothly flowing autobiography, and it doesn’t have the satisfaction of a happily ever after ending (it was written in the 80s, before apartheid was over, and indeed before some of the most violent struggles had begun). But it provides a nice look at what life was like on the ground in South Africa during the apartheid era while also praising the often overlooked courage and intelligence of South African women during her time.

Mandela and Violence

Time for the book reviews I’ve been promising. I finally finished Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. It’s quite a good book. Go out and read it if you haven’t. It’s a history of apartheid in South Africa in autobiography form, from a guy who’s had an interesting enough life to read like a novel.

I think of the quote “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them” in relation to Mandela. He falls into all three camps, and this is what makes him interesting to me. He worked hard to become the person he was, but also found himself in the midst of events that forced themselves upon him. He is human enough to be relatable, but great enough to be inspiring. As I’ve mentioned before, he is not shy about admitting his brasher, immature views which he had to outgrow. He is the soul of courtesy and modesty in praising all of those who helped him along his way, and genuinely distraught over the toll the freedom struggle took on his own family. Plus, I mean, he was born into a chieftain’s family and was groomed to be the advisor to the Thembu chief, and one of his daughters married the prince of Swaziland. That makes for fun reading.

One of the issues that comes up throughout Long Walk to Freedom is the use of violence in the struggle for freedom. Mandela supported as much non-violence as possible to accomplish goals. However, what does one do when one is peacefully protesting for a couple decades, and the government only cracks down harder? It was at that point that Mandela started the military group Umkhonto we Sizwe – both to step up the pressure on the government, and to channel the growing frustration of his people into something organized. He figured that disciplined acts of sabotage, aimed at destroying resources instead of people, would be better than letting unfocused angry people run rampant. While Mandela would fully agree that one should pursue peace as much as possible, at what point does one have to use violence? When does one use a little violence in order to preserve the overall peace, a peace which might be shattered if one does not act?

I’ll write about Ellen Kuzwayo’s book Call Me Woman later, but I’ll try to keep this post to a readable size for now.

Festina Lente

I’m in the last month before heading out. The last few days have started hammering home that I really am leaving. I moved away from Milwaukee back home to Detroit. I’m already starting to miss my Milwaukee peeps. That, and having numerous cafes and bars and things to do within a short bike ride from my place. I figure that I probably need this time away from the city to adjust to what life will be like in PC.

I also have set up travel plans for the next step. I’ll be flying to Atlanta on 10 July, taking a red-eye flight before my orientation. Tickets are booked and everything.

So what should I do in the meantime, especially since there’s not a whole lot to do around here? I’m putting together my list:

  • Learn some solo dances. Specifically, the Tranky Doo; maybe the Big Apple too, revisit Thriller, practice my moonwalk, etc. I figure that I’ll have plenty of time to bust a move while living in an SA village.
  • Reading lists, as usual. I’m part-way through multiple books, which I intend to remedy. I found one book on peer education concerning HIV/AIDS in South Africa (Changing the Course of AIDS) to read as well. And I’m studying Economics in order to start preparing for the Foreign Services exam. So I might get through one or two of these before heading over, perhaps?
  • Eat food. Mexican food especially, since it seems to be pretty scarce in SA. And Cuban food too, since my sister-in-law is currently living here with us – might as well take advantage of that.
  • Teach my rabbit that these cats he’ll be living with for the rest of his life are not to be chased.
  • Listen to isiZulu dialogues while going on bike rides down Hines Drive.
  • At some point, most likely a couple days before departure, plan a packing list. Also take care of piddly details like student loan deferments, cancellation of car insurance for a car I no longer have, etc.

Apartheid, Reprise

I had written about apartheid before here. But history lessons always need qualification. I had painted the picture as basically Afrikaners versus blacks. Which is not entirely untrue; it works as a coarse-grain picture. But human beings of course are much more complex than just their races and communities, so I’m going to muddy the waters a bit.

First, not all blacks were immediately against apartheid. Mandela writes about his nephew (who was older than Mandela, and whom Mandela considered as his mentor). The nephew actually saw the government policies as beneficial, allowing different areas to have their own government. Mandela tried in vain to convince him otherwise.

But the reverse is also true. Not only were some whites involved in the struggle against apartheid, but some prominent Afrikaners aligned themselves with the blacks (I feel like I should note here that the terms “white” and “black” are official usage in talking about South Africa and do not carry any negative baggage such as one sometimes finds in American politics.) The grandson of the main architect of apartheid actually became an official member of the ANC (African National Congress), the party which Mandela worked through and which is predominantly black. (More here.) The newspaper Vrye Weekblad was an Afrikaans newspaper that took on apartheid.

So the point here is that, yes, apartheid was bad, and that it largely put whites in power to the exclusion of blacks, but at the same time that it would be again to get into racist modes of thinking to assume that people would be confined into one political group or another by their race.