part-time musings

Tag: South Africa

Celebrating St Patrick’s Day by Blowing S**t Up. A Book Review.

One thing Charles Van Onselen’s Masked Raiders: Irish Bandrity in Southern Africa, 1880-1899 makes clear is that the South African fondness for blowing shit up has been around for a while.  Today it’s ATM machines, in the nineteenth century it was safes.  And the ‘big men’ of the Irish brigands he writes about strike one as being nineteenth century equivalents of the Italian/Russian/Czech/Israeli ‘mafia bosses’ that plague South Africa today.

Postal Coaches - The 19C Equivalent of Cash-In-Transit Vans

One of the many things I like about Van Onselen’s book is that it injects some much-needed historical perspective into discussions on crime in South Africa.  There has always been a roguish, dangerous side to South African society that has ruined lives, and made others, and that the state has struggled to get to grips with. What’s changed is the nature of the rogues.  Why is this? I don’t know, I’m not a criminologist. Just let me make my sweeping generalizations and get on with reviewing the book.

Van Onselen’s book is right on trend by rocking the Steampunk meme with an edgy mix of dynamite, guns, pugilism, highwaymen, and grimy proto-industrialism.  And it’s readable too with characters like ‘one-armed’ Jack McLaughlin, the hard-drinking boxer, George ‘Stevo’ Stevenson, and the part-time prostitute and bandit love interest, Sarah Fredericks.  Also making an unexpected appearance are some prominent Fenians, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood whose sojourn in southern Africa is a reminder of the extent to which European diasporic entanglements stretched readily across the Empire.

Van Onselen steps outside the usual boundaries of dry academic writing to give us action-filled paragraphs like this:

From close range he fired a bullet into Stevenson’s chest. His victim fell backwards onto the bed… Fredericks screamed, mortified by the sight of her lover lying wounded on their bed. Turning on her, McLaughlin growled, ‘Shut up, you cow, or you will get one too.’ When her screaming persisted, he fired a second shot in her direction. It missed.

Remarkably composed, McLaughin turned on his heel and strode towards the exit. In the passageway, revolver in hand, he encountered some men who had been attracted by the commotion. ‘All right boys, I will not harm you,’ he reassured them before making his way through the beer hall and out onto the street, all the while followed by a small but growing posse of customers shouting, ‘Stop him!’

Politicians try constantly to reinvent South Africa’s past, but books like Van Onselen’s remind us that we should embrace our past as being much messier, more dangerous, more industrial , and more inter-connected across racial, ethnic and national boundaries than the sanitised ‘nation building’ versions politicians both past and present would like us to believe in. It’s a reminder to keep rocking the spirit of our ancestors and keep metaphorically blowing s**t up – in particular s**t narratives, prejudices and forgettings.


Bantu education

During commemorations recently for the thirty-third anniversary of Steve Biko’s death, someone I know was surprised to read that Steve Biko’s middle name was ‘Bantu’.  Why surprised?  Well, linguists and historians will tell you that ‘Bantu’ is simply a noun base for ‘person’ or ‘man’ in several of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Nguni languages.  So it’s possible that Steve Biko’s parents had wanted to underline his identity as an African man by choosing the name Bantu. So far, so uncontroversial.

Except that in the South African context, the word Bantu acquired some hugely unpleasant overtones in the 1960s to 1980s.  As Saunders and Southey explain:

The term ‘Bantu’ replaced ‘Native’ in official government usage during the 1960s and 1970s, and was despised by Africans chiefly because of its association with apartheid and inferior treatment. (Christopher Saunders & Nicholas Southey, A Dictionary of South African History).

The term ‘Bantu’ was applied to some awful things, including: Bantu Education – the intentionally substandard education system designed to keep Africans ‘under educated’; and Bantustans – the semi-autonomous quasi-states designed to deny black South Africans rights as citizens in South Africa proper.  So the word Bantu became very much associated with the apartheid government, and Steve Biko’s middle name is therefore equally rooted in the positive, affirming declarations of the Black Consciousness Movement, and battered by the slings and arrows of apartheid-era discourse.

But just to show you how language can sometimes resist being bent to the will of even pervasive bureaucracies, let me explain my own childhood understanding of the word Bantu. My four-year old self was not particularly politically-conscious, but I did know that the pale green vans and the crowded administrative offices that my beloved nanny was so anxious to avoid were run by people colloquially called ‘Bantu Control’. Control wasn’t really a word I understood or possibly could even say properly, so these hulking policemen and stone-faced men in grey suits came to be known to me as Bantu.  I’m not sure if my nanny approved, but she never corrected me and so for years the words Bantu and policeman were interchangeable in my mind. I sort of like this thought, that this apartheid word which they tried to impose on others became the word which defined them, if only to me.

Macmillan Global English Guest Blog

Macmillan Dictionaries Global English website is featuring South African English for the month of June and last week the first of my guest blogs for them entitled ‘South African English is the eish’ appeared. You can check it out here.

defining development

I had an interesting exchange today with Sentletse and MvelaseP on what defines a developing country.  The context was a broader discussion on how terms like Third World and developing country seem pejorative, suggesting an idea of linear ‘progress’ through which nations need to move before being regarded as First World or developed.

There was a fair amount of discussion over whether China is a developed country or not after I made the point that changes in the nature of the global economy in the last thirty years have sapped terms like developing country of their meaning because countries that have formerly been defined as developing, such as China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, are by many economic indicators doing pretty well.  Sentletse produced some interesting stats on China – e.g. China’s public debt to GDP is only around 18% and unemployment is 4.3%, both figures much lower than many developed countries.

Anyway, I began searching around for definitions of developing country, expecting I’d find a cast-iron definition that would offer us some major insights.  But it’s not as clear-cut as you might have thought.

Even the United Nations Statistical Division says ‘There is no established convention for the designation of developed and developing countries or areas in the United Nations system’. (Footnote c, Composition of Macro Geographical (Continental) Regions, April 2010).  The document, however, describes what it calls ‘common practice’ by which

Japan in Asia, Canada and the United States in northern America, Australia and New Zealand in Oceania, and Europe are considered developed regions or areas. In international trade statistics, the Southern African Customs Union is also treated as a developed region and Israel as a developed country; countries emerging from the former Yugoslavia are treated as developing countries; and countries of eastern Europe and of the Commonwealth of Independent States (code 172) in Europe are not included under either developed or developing regions. (Ibid.)

Developed and Developing Countries (Source

The IMF draws distinctions between Emerging and Developing Economies and Advanced Economies.  And the World Bank uses four classifications for countriesLow Income, Lower Middle Income, Upper Middle Income, and High Income countries.  This system defines countries by Gross National Income per Capita. (US$975 is low; US$11,906 is high).  Other terms that are commonly used are Newly Industrialized Countries and Big Emerging Markets.

According to these definitions, South Africa is classified as a developed country, an Upper Middle Income country, Newly Industrialized country, and a Big Emerging Market.  I can’t work out whether it’s a Third World country or not because definitions vary so much.

So there was no cast-iron definition to illuminate our discussion, only the realization on my part that countries are defined, or define themselves, differently according to the context. Probably because that’s so useful.