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Charl-Pierre Naudé

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Will someone train the frog choir please?

The implied equation of apartheid to the Nazi extermination of Jews by a law professor at the University of Cape Town recently was utterly shabby, highly dangerous to a safe future, and really embarrassing.

It just once more highlighted one of the more shameful aspects of our current public discourse. And that is the inflationary use of moral outrage to win quick points.

A few years ago, newspaper editor Jon Qwelane on numerous occasions compared apartheid directly to the extinction of Jews. To my knowledge nobody ever corrected him on this. It was, you see, still “early days” for the “new South Africa”. We were still allowing one another our fantasies.

And now the chickens are coming home to roost.

I want to mention another, related example of inflationary language which amounts to myth. Like Julius Malema, thousands of people believe the ANC’s military wing won the military struggle against apartheid. The truth is that they lost the war fairly and squarely at all given junctures during the struggle (as pointed out by Rian Malan recently in the press and on PolitcsWeb).

Back to my main example. The equation of apartheid to the mass extinction of Jews is a gross insult to the suffering of Jewish people. And, more relevantly, it denies the actual nature of the evil that apartheid was. To gloss over this actual nature, amounts to putting this country at risk of a repetition of exactly the kind of suffering that apartheid constituted.

We should not hesitate to expose the unbridled myths that are so prevalent in our populist-driven politics nowadays. Resorting to such myths to bolster an argument has short-term currency. But in the long term we will all pay the price.

Apartheid was indeed a crime against humanity and is rightly classified as such by some international law agencies. It was (in its effects) an ontological and structural crime against “the other” on an intensive and very organised scale. That is what it was. It certainly was not a deliberate physical extermination such as the Nazi’s did with the Jewish people.

In fact, the documented experience of apartheid’s victims in many ways resemble the experiences of people under Communism in eastern Europe – the very place where the vision of many a current ANC leader was shaped.

And this fact is alarming.

Yes, a number of the very ones who are now wanting to reshape South Africa have had their vision for doing so shaped in a system that structurally and effectively resembles the one they had fought against!

This is where the concept “National Democratic Revolution” becomes problematic.

If apartheid was mass extinction, where does the very large choir of moral indignant come from? Should they not also be in the grave? Has Germany got a monument for every single fallen one, as is in the offing here? Then there would be no place for any German left.

I am not saying we should not be thankful, as a society, that we have the names of fallen ones. We should. I am saying let us honour that grace with distinction, not with hot air.

Survivors of populations who in actual fact had experienced real physical extinction, often cannot talk about it. This I recently experienced firsthand in Algeria. Apart from the Congo, Algeria probably had the cruelest colonial struggle of all African countries (cruelest wars aside).

It was genocide. And if you try to speak to anyone about it there, it’s like nobody can remember! It is (in the words of the writer Breyten Breytenbach) a form of “practised amnesia”. And this fact is beyond heartrending.

In South Africa? Not just does “everybody remember”, they talk. And by God, how do they talk. Even those who were not yet born at the time have their place in the choir. Especially them. And then there are the parrots, the ones who echo everything without thinking twice. Call this the parrot wing of the Indignation Choir.

Now compare this to the situation of the voice-bereft ones of Africa’s real genocides, and you cannot avoid the impression that a kind of smug, hyperbolic contempt for historical truth too often governs moral indignation in South Africa.

The morally indignant have come to sound like a frog chorus. And would someone care to provide these “genocide” wannabes with some singing lessons, please?

For Pete’s sake. Or shall I rather say, for Tutu’s sake?

Apartheid had its propaganda, no question. It was deep and utterly encompassing (more so, I believe, than in Nazi Germany, because we were a rudimentary and far-flung country). But never were those myths so uncritical and pervasive as the ones under the ANC in current times. They were wrong, but rooted. Rooted in something. Something more substantial than sloganeering.

There are reasons for our current mythmaking malaise. Public spokespeople in these postmodern times are no longer governed by the injunctions of either faith or science. Their lodestar is the advertisement. These “copy writers” of the new history don’t even believe their own nonsense! What is important to them, is that other people believe it.

Another reason why mythmaking is so prevalent and goes so unchecked, is that the struggle against apartheid was chiefly won by “advertisement”. (Sure, good on ads, one might say.) Not by the gun and not by the bona fide struggle. It was international perception that destroyed apartheid. Now put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr (or Ms) Mythmaker.

However, the main reason why apartheid’s real nature is so often denied (and at his height a treacherous and devious enough form of oppression it was) – why apartheid is so often portrayed as a different genus of oppression than it really was – is much more sinister.

Consider again: Apartheid was structural violence, systematic extermination of cultural identities, institutionalised attrition, extensive centralised planning with a bogus “democratic” face to it, erosion of normal rights under the guise of emergency planning, suppression of free speech and state-forced emigration, among other things.

Now tell me, does this not sound somewhat like aspects of our present government’s way of governing? Has the structure of what apartheid really was, its genus, in fact really been rejected, as it should?

First published in Afrikaans in Beeld

Annelie Botes: Petty indignation will not defeat racism

(Translation of an article published in Beeld, 30/12/2010, “‘n Huilresies van die heiliges”)

Allow me to kick up a puff – now that the storm is dying down around this writer who was stripped of her SALA (South African Literary Awards) prize and R30 000 worth of prize money for allegedly making racist statements in the press.

I have just reread the maligned words of Annelie Botes in which she says she does “not like black people” because she “does not understand them”.

The shocking thing about the whole affair is not so much Botes’ (ill considered) statements. It is the curious vehemence of the moral indignation that followed her utterance. Because, quite frankly, if you neatly situate what she said within the context of South Africa today, there was precious little racism in anything she had said.

There is a disingenuousness that has taken hold of moral indignation in this country and it poses a far greater threat to moral coexistence between races and people, to reflective moral judgement and to moral maturity in general, than any racism. This trend, I believe, has grown in the shadow of a confused state who has tethered the idea of political morality so narrowly to its own overblown ego, that our political morality runs the risk of losing any trace of universality.

And I ask, is that not a greater danger than some nominal racism?

The wilful lack of any attempt to gauge the most probable meaning of Botes’ utterances, while the plaintiffs – voices aligned to the state, sundry fellow writers; black and white – secretly know exactly what she meant, is simply loathsome. Every John and bobtail sanctimoniously lined up for the Big Race of Righteous Tears.

No trace here of righteous magnanimity, that mark of the true moral indignation. Ever heard of Jesus and the good race? “Father forgive them …”? Ever heard of Desmond Tutu? There are other iconic examples from every culture.

Would a press release by SALA in firm but questioning language not have been more appropriate in calling the rash Botes to liability? In that way SALA might have afforded themselves the opportunity to make doubly sure of their case.

The unavoidable conclusion of it all is that the ideal of non-racialism in our country has lost its greatness. And that comes as no surprise.

What Botes also said was that she does not like “black people” because she is “scared of them”.

I don’t deny that a dangerous level of racism at present exists, not least among whites.

But at the same time, surely people know that terms such as “blacks” and “whites” in this country are often used as shorthand for completely other meanings? The race category is commonly and unconsciously used as code for other, much heavier felt differences, such as culture and class, in the commoner’s language. (And Botes did prove herself a commoner in the clumsiness of her utterance.)

Put differently: If the ANC state can use a term like “black people” as shorthand for “true South Africans” and for “the disenfranchised”, is it so unexpected that someone like Botes would do the same in reference to criminals?

Of course dangerous criminals are not only black! But, in Botes’ subjective, very partial, very human little world – maybe they are?

Indeed it is a repugnant habit (as Botes so well illustrated) to use race terms in reference to implied groupings that have nothing to do with race – such as class, conviction, political affiliation, categories of social degeneration, and so forth. But what has the ANC-led state – the patron of the SALA awards – itself done to change this habit? Preciously little; in fact, it has remobilised it!

Let us look at the broader picture of how the petulant and smallminded nature of prevailing moral indignation is eating away at our moral, and aestethic, good judgement.

The relationship between achievement and reward has become unrecognisably skewed. Reward does not follow achievement, as it should; it follows “correct” achievements: There is a direct link between illiterate company directors who earn millions for doing absolutely nothing, and stripping a good book of a prize for reasons that are not inherent to the awarding. Typical of our identity politics, achievement willy-nilly ends up being equated to the identity of the achiever, not the achievement itself.

Furthermore, good art has for some time now in our country, often enough, been equated to good convictions. This must be the one single reason why literary mediocrity sometimes assumes such an inflated idea of own its merit.

A book might promote understanding, healing and edification among races – even in supreme ways – without the writer himself necessarily having non-racial opinions. A good example is the American Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner. The world of literature abounds with similar moral discrepancies.

A good book provides a three-dimentional experience that supercedes any, and all, convictions. That is the sense of books.

Which brings us to truthfulness. Ah, truthfulness. It is an indispensable aesthetic and moral quality, inherent to the best artistic expression. With a single stroke, the SALA awards have proved themselves completely lacking in this quality themselves. You cannot award that which you yourself so patently belie.

It is a pity, because SALA does very good work, potentially at least. But not while they are so obviously ideologically blinkered.

sien jy die hemelliggame

sien jy die hemelliggame

A bilingual book of poetry of mine has just appeared in the Netherlands in a limited edition of 500 or 600. It’s called sien jy die hemelliggame.

The cover of the volume is above. My own copies have just reached me and the book is really very beautiful. It contains Afrikaans poems and their translations into Dutch as well as drawings by myself.

Interested readers can order the book by email from:

Centrum voor Beeldende Kunsten Zeeland
email info@cbkzeeland.nl

On poetry, neurosis and the revolution that got posted: interview with New Coin

New Coin, Vol 43 no 2This interview with Alan Finlay first appeared in New Coin Vol 43, No 2, December 2007.

My sole intention in what I said was to stir debate, or better, to engender critical – lateralminded – thought. Not reproach. We, Alan and myself, challenged assumptions – and by implication, some well-meaning people in the literary sphere, who have nothing other than good intentions. But alas, we also know what roads are paved with those. “Good intentions” is South Africa’s middle name – and always was …
» read more

Poem and its translation

Myself and Gabeba Baderoon were part of an interactive, bi-national project between South Africa and Belgium, in which Belgian writers and South Africans translated one another’s work, among other exercises. The project was kindly sponsored by the Belgian Ministry of Culture.

Here is a poem I wrote, followed by Gabeba’s translation:

Die slaper en die stad

               Antwerpen, 2006

Die slaper sluit sy oë
dig soos deksels oor konstruksiegate –
en droom
diep,
van die netwerk van tonnels onder die stad
wat in dae van ouds
soos die waterweë was. » read more

Against the light launch pics and review

Charl-Pierre NaudéHere are some snaps from my book launch last week, interspersed with a review of the book from Gus Ferguson, that originally appeared (in Afrikaans translation) in Boeke-Insig.

Against the light is the English version of In die geheim van die dag.

Review of Against the light
Charl-Pierre Naudé is a local and internationally renowned Afrikaans poet. His debut collection, Die nomadiese oomblik, won the 1997 Ingrid Jonker Prize and his 2nd, In die geheim van die dag, won the Poetry Protea and the MNet Prizes for Afrikaans poetry in 2005.

» read more

Invite to the Launch of Against the Light

Against the Light Book LaunchHi friends,

You’re invited to help me launch Against the Light, my new book of English poems, on Wednesday 10 October in Melville.

Click the flyer for all the details (or just see below) – and click here for two poems from the book.

Should be great fun – hope to see you there!

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Welcome to the CPN Blog

Charl-Pierre NaudéWelkom by my blog, almal. Dis ‘n vreugde om met julle te sit in my virtuele voorkamer. Pasop vir die trappie.

Two poems from Against the Light, my first collection of poems in English, out now from Protea Boekhuis:

Two thieves

That was the day I lost everything that was mine.
Cleaned out, ransacked, completely unexpected.
By two strangers, a young woman and a little girl.
» read more