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Friday, January 20, 2017


I cannot watch the televised coverage of the Inauguration, so this afternoon my wife and I will go to the movies and see Hidden Figures.  Then I will return home, print out my boarding passes for tomorrow’s flights, make dinner, and return to my crossword puzzle book.  This morning, however, I should like to spend a little time writing about my first visit to South Africa, thirty years ago.  I have written about this experience here before, but it bears repeating.  I learned a lesson that speaks directly to what we face from 12:01 p.m. today.

A word of background, for those of you who are unfamiliar with South Africa’s apartheid past.  When the National Party took control in 1948, it passed a series of laws designed to separate the different racial groupings, as they conceived them, both legally and spatially, a program rationalized by a pretentious pseudo-philosophical rationale claiming roots in the theories of, Edmund Husserl, of all people.  The African linguistic groups, eleven or so in number, were consigned to “homelands” ruled by puppet governments.  The mixed-race Afrikaans speaking Coulereds of the Western Cape and the Indian or Asian populations of Natal Province were relocated into so-called townships established outside the White cities.  The theory was that each race would live autonomously, but of course that was impossible, because most of the work, and all of the physical labor, required by the economy was performed by non-Whites, who had to live close enough to the mines and factories to show up for work each day.  In addition, the household servants had to be available for dawn to dusk service to their White masters and mistresses.  So Black townships came into existence, such as the SOuthWEstTOwnship near Johannesburg, Soweto. 

Many of the men who worked in the mines had been relocated with their families to the Homelands, far from their work sites, so single-sex hostels were built near the mine pits, where for months on end those men lucky enough to get the dangerous, exhausting, dirty jobs lived, separated from their families.  But even all of these living arrangements were inadequate for the 80% and more of the population that was non-White, so large, ramshackle squatters’ camps, or “locations,” sprang up on unused land, filled with corrugated tin hovels and serviced, fitfully, by electricity stolen by dangerous, illegal exposed lines tapping into power mains.

When I arrived at Jan Smuts Airport in the Spring of 1986, to spend five weeks teaching the thought of Marx to White undergraduates at the English-language Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, I was driven to the city along broad, impressive six-lane highways, arriving in Melville, a tree-lined, elegant suburb of the city, where I would stay.

In the following weeks, I taught at the University, went to dinner in lovely restaurants, and chatted with academics who all seemed to read New German Critique and The New Left Review.  I felt completely at home intellectually and culturally, and also racially, though I would not have been so crude as to say that.  The National Party had arranged things so that Whites could enjoy the labor of the non-White population without actually seeing the people providing it.  There were no “inner city ghettoes” that they might drive through or past on the way from one academic gathering to another.  Five-sixths of the population had been made invisible to the other sixth.  

To be sure, on the drive in from the airport, I had passed stretches hidden from view by fences, but if one did not already know that behind the fences were sprawling shack settlements, there were no signposts or other indications.  And a trip to Soweto, which I arranged for myself one evening, was an expedition.  When I traveled to Cape Town to speak at the University of Cape Town, I stayed with a philosopher friend in his lovely house in the suburb of Oranjezicht, just under Table Mountain.  My closest friend, Sheila Tyeku, stayed with her relatives in Khayetlitsha, a township southeast of the city.

What is the point of this extended stroll down memory lane?  It is this:  Only in movies or history books is fascism front and center, all nicely labeled so that one cannot miss it.  If one happens not to be inclined to express opinions that the State forbids, it is quite easy to go through the day imagining that one is free, and that the protestors fitfully observed from your car window are simply malcontents or young people feeling their oats.  And if you are not a member of a sub-population targeted for suppression or elimination, you can live an easy, comfortable life.  You may even find that the trains run on time.

We are entering a dangerous time.  The media will present it as normal, amusing, gossipy, suitable for light commentary.  Do not be fooled.  Fascism can be quite attractive to those not made the object of its repressions.  Most of us go from one year to the next without having need of the Rule of Law.

Right now, today, is the time to start resisting.

1 comment:

s. wallerstein said...

One important thing that you point out about South Africa is that among white intellectuals there was quite a lot of freedom to discuss ideas.

The Orwell 1984 model of control, that everyone has to love Big Brother and express the same ideas, is no longer in fashion among authoritarian rulers.

Even in Chile under Pinochet there were leftwing think-tanks (they were not allowed to teach in the universities), opposition media, and a whole scene of opposition coffee-houses and folk-singers and poets. On the other hand, leaders of radical mass movements could get their throat cuts or disappear into the night.

So too I doubt that Trump will decree that everyone march the goose-step down 5th Avenue or that school-children chant "Hail Trump" every morning. Radical ideas, as long as they do not stir up mass rebellion, will be tolerated, although those who express them will be duly noted by the FBI. Life will go on fairly normally for those who don't "make trouble" and even for those who "make trouble", but within certain set venues to be defined.