South Africa Then, the United States Now, and the Meaning of Politics


There are of course many differences between South Africa and the United States, some of which struck me when I first came to the U.S. as a high school exchange student in the early 1970s. One of them – then – was the length of telephone cords. In the U.S. you could walk all over the ground floor of a house, telephone base in one hand, receiver in the other, as you talked, while in South Africa you would be more or less tethered to the wall where the single base (there was almost always only one telephone per household, if you could get one) was plugged in. Then there were light switches. In the U.S. you flick them up to turn on the lights, while in South Africa it is down. For many years, down seemed to me much more logical – and in a way it still does, though don’t ask me why.
On that first sojourn in the U.S., I found myself living, for a year, in Fremont, Nebraska. How I ended up there is a story all its own. Like everyone else, I wanted to be in New York or California, but found out later that my parents wanted me to stay with a Jewish family. There was one in Fremont (were there none in New York, I wondered?), so that is where I went. There I found other differences. I remember my surprise at seeing white janitors in the school, where such work in South Africa was always done by black men, who were frequently called boys. Moreover, these American janitors were treated with respect, like full and fully conscious human beings. Other differences were not so engaging. Early in my stay, I found myself playing ‘Mr Bojangles’ on a July 4th float saying ‘Re-Elect the President’ – despite my vociferous objections to the latter. The President was of course Richard Nixon, but in class on the day of the election we had a mock ballot, and I was one of three students to vote for McGovern. When I spoke to my English teacher of my fondness for Dostoevsky, she said she had never read ‘those Rooshians,’ and most of the community among whom I lived had never seen the East or West Coast, let alone been outside the country. Yet I learned a lot about middle America – not to condescend, about kind hearts if sometimes closed minds, about lost aspirations, football, and cheerleaders. I even played football, as the school’s and maybe the state’s only soccer-style kicker.
As for the country, the United States, it was in the midst of a vicious and draining war in Vietnam, and I met people whose lives had been directly imprinted. I myself, strange to say, was in the midst of military service in South Africa, to which I had been conscripted like all seventeen- and eighteen-year-old white males. Of course I had not wanted to go, but there seemed to be no alternative except prison or exile, neither of which seemed viable at the time. My year’s service had been broken up by the exchange program, and when I returned I had to go straight back into the army. To me, being there was an utterly absurd experience defined by incompetence, dullness, venality, and stupidity. I did my best to resist in various ways, going AWOL on weekends when I could (even from guard duty, for which the statutory penalty, we were told, was death by firing squad), insisting on remaining a private when they tried to put me on an officers’ training course, and adopting the soldier’s last recourse when other options fail, that of the most unconscious kind of sleep. Fortunately, I never had to fire a gun except at a shooting range – and even there we cheated, to bump up our scores. Nor was I involved in any overt acts of repression. But merely being in the apartheid army was a reality of lasting shame.
In later years I compared notes with someone who had been conscripted in similar fashion into the Yugoslavian army: his tales could have been mine, mine could have been his. It is partly because of that absurdity, but also because of the realities of my unwilling complicity in the maw of a sacrificial machine of power that I have an almost allergic reaction to the ritual worship of the military and military service in the United States which has now reached virtually sacramental proportions. I say this even as I admire the courage and dignity of the parents of Humayun Khan for the way in which they stood up to Donald Trump, restoring decency to a degraded discourse – a point to which I will return. If Trump fails to win the Presidency, the United States may well have been saved by a middle-aged, immigrant, Muslim couple.
Some differences are more significant than light switches.
In January 1989 my wife and I arrived in Amherst, Massachusetts, together with our older daughter, then not quite four years old. How we arrived there – here, in fact, for we are still here – is again a story on its own. Suffice to say that after two fellowships in the U.S., with a lengthy stint in Johannesburg in-between, we had decided to return to South Africa. It seemed, in some way, more real there, that we had more to contribute. Yet the post I applied for at the University of the Witwatersrand went to someone else, and at the same time I was offered a job at the University of Massachusetts. So we came here, landing in the midst of winter in Amherst, sweet serene Amherst, where at an appointed moment in the season of things, salamanders famously cross the road and human beings are on hand to protect them; there was a band called Salamander Crossing in honor of the annual event. People from South Africa wrote and asked, how do you like living in America? I have no idea, I would say. I’m not living in America, I’m in Amherst.
So it was, by some strange accident of timing, that just over a year after we came here we watched on our television screen as Nelson Mandela emerged from Victor Verster prison in South Africa, the unforeseen day that had seemed impossible to imagine, let alone witness. There he was, suited, gaunt, and angular, so unlike the last images we had seen of him; his fist was raised above his head, his complicated wife Winnie striding out by his side. And so it was that some months later Mandela himself came to visit the U.S., and appeared on a special edition of the noted broadcaster Ted Koppel’s Nightline program. It was an event I always remembered for one emblematic moment which seemed to symbolize the difference between the world I had come from and the one I now inhabited.
This was the way I remembered it. The program was a special town meeting edition of the Nightline series, in front of a New York audience, clearly adoring of Mandela. Koppel asked him some questions, as did others selected for the purpose, and in one form or another the issue arose of Mandela’s loyalties. On his travels, Mandela had been to see Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, he had spoken warmly of his support for Yasser Arafat of the PLO and President Fidel Castro of Cuba. In response, Ted Koppel challenged him. Surely, he said to Mandela, that was hardly the political thing to do. A more political individual would have been more circumspect, taken greater account of the sensitivities of power in fashioning his post-prison alliances. To which, I recalled, Mandela was bemused, and I did not have to search far in my mind for the reasons. What could it mean to call him non-political? He had lived the major part of his life through and because of his political commitment; he had served twenty-seven years in prison for that dedication. It was clear that he simply did not comprehend the question; to him, politics meant that form of commitment. In response, Koppel was equally befuddled: he could not comprehend Mandela’s incomprehension.
It was a moment of irreducible impasse, and that was its emblematic character. There was in every sense a chasm between South Africa and the United States, revolving around the very meaning of the word ‘politics.’ The version I knew aligned with Mandela’s: it concerned your entire outlook and philosophy as a human being, your intrinsic connection to and linkage with others, the inner and outward morality of your orientation. To Koppel, it was how you negotiated and jockeyed in the lanes of power. The moment absorbed me wholly, it sucked me in. In part I reveled in Mandela’s superiority; it was my way of claiming an affiliation to who he was and what he stood for, as well as the political traditions in which I had been schooled and to which I belonged. It was a way of holding onto my identity. That is how we formulate our memories, according to the inner gyroscopes of our orientations, our needs and perceptions as we absorb and then fix the moment. But was there not at the same time the beginning of a tug, an intimation of loss, the first cracks in the chasm of myself as I contemplated my own situation in the United States, wondering what I would lose if I stayed here? There was a certain wry, even colossal irony as I watched the program. The country I had left, always an outcast in the affairs of humankind, appeared to be showing the way, while the one in which I now lived might have no chance of ever catching up – precisely because of its power, because of its version of politics. I observed the encounter with the sense of a geographical split in my being.
Recently, because one can do such things, I went back to check the Nightline program, available, as everything is, on YouTube. Inevitably I found that my memory had not been wholly accurate, though the differences heightened the event in intriguing ways. I saw how Mandela responded to a right-wing white South African, his face and voice beamed in from afar, who, with all good wishes for Mandela’s health, pointed out that he and his kind wished to live separately in a part of South Africa reserved for them. ‘Aangename kennis, Koos Mandela replied. Ek hoop van harte dat eendag ek die geleentheid sal kry om met u te gesels‘ (‘I am pleased to know you, Koos. I sincerely hope that one day I will have the opportunity to speak with you’). Mandela then added for the benefit of the live audience, ‘I just wanted to demonstrate that I am bilingual.’ Of course he was much more than bilingual: English was already his second language. Here was Mandela the charmer, bright-eyed and ready to laugh, to speak with one of his opponents in his own language even as he was steely-eyed behind it all. Perhaps his version of politics had infused that other kind, or vice versa.
More telling was how Mandela responded first to Kenneth Adelman, and then to Henry Siegman. Adelman was a self-promoting political commentator and administrative functionary, later one of the leading proponents of George Bush’s Iraq War, who famously declared that it would be ‘a cakewalk’; he also compared Bush to Shakespeare’s Henry V. Siegman was Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress, and the two of them asked questions that seemed to follow in logical order. It was Adelman who pointed out the significance of Mandela’s praise for Gaddafi, Arafat, and Castro, and then asked whether these were Mandela’s models of human rights. To which Mandela responded that one of the mistakes political analysts make ‘is to think that their enemies should be our enemies.’ The three figures Adelman had mentioned, said Mandela, supported the anti-apartheid struggle, and they had done so not only rhetorically. ‘They are placing resources at our disposal for us to win the struggle. That is the position.’ Henry Siegman then followed up by suggesting ‘a certain degree of amorality’ in Mandela’s answer. Whatever Gaddafi or Castro did in their own countries in terms of human rights appeared to be irrelevant, so long as they supported the cause of the ANC. Was that what Mandela meant?
What followed was a long series of exchanges in which Mandela made various points. He explained that in the midst of the ANC’s liberation struggle it had no time to look into the internal affairs of other countries. As far as Arafat was concerned, ‘we identify with the PLO because, just like ourselves, they are fighting for the right of self-determination.’ Mandela had recently met Mr. Siegman and other Jewish leaders in Geneva, and reiterated now what he had told them then, that the ANC supported the right of Israel to exist as a state, legally, within secure borders. But secure borders did not mean the territories conquered from the Arab world; those had to be returned to the Arab people. He also took pains to point out that the ANC had Jews in its own organization, some in top positions; that Gaddafi had refused to allow the ANC to open an office in Libya for that reason, but that the ANC had been resolute until Gaddafi relented. ‘We are not prepared to be swayed by anybody,’ remarked Mandela. ‘We have an independent policy which we assert no matter with whom we discuss.’ It was after this that Koppel raised the question of Mandela’s ‘politics.’
As I watched the YouTube reprise of the encounter, it renewed the moment for me in various ways. There was the history of race and racial politics in South Africa to consider. Because I am Jewish, there was also the issue, both in South Africa and elsewhere, of how Jews have been involved both in and against struggles for freedom. There was the question of Israel, where precisely because of my South African experience, I am deeply critical of the politics of occupation, walls, and partition. On this last point Mandela was remarkably clear. He emphasized to Koppel the sympathies of the ANC for the struggle of Jews against persecution; he pointed to the lack of racism in Jewish communities; he spoke of Jewish lawyers who had taken on political trials in South Africa when few others would; of the fact that he had been trained as a lawyer by a Jewish firm when almost no others were prepared to accept blacks; again he observed that Jews held leading positions in the ANC. ‘But that does not mean to say that the enemies of Israel are our enemies. We refuse to take that position. You can call it being political or a moral question, but for anybody who changes his principles depending on whom he is dealing, that is not a man who can lead a nation.’
More recently, in yet a third revision of the Koppel moment, I have learned more about Libya under Gaddafi than I knew at the time. I have read Hisham Matar’s In The Country of Men, with its scenes of betrayal and a public execution, all through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. I have seen Diana Matar’s extraordinary photographs spurred by the abduction and disappearance of Hisham’s father in Libya, in a form she calls the photography of absence. No doubt Mandela knew at least some of what was going on there. And yet, the United States had itself collaborated with the apartheid government of South Africa; he knew that too, even as he listened to Ted Koppel ask him whether he understood how to be ‘political.’
In such a world, Mandela had his own guiding lines, and was prepared to state them consistently and openly. This was his politics after all. Mandela didn’t mind making you uncomfortable, even as he won you over. He had an extraordinary clarity and philosophical honesty, anchored by loyalty to his liberation movement.
Or should we have asked for more, even from him – a true understanding of what ‘liberation’ might mean not only in South Africa but in the world? Is that possible for anyone?
If the Koppel encounter registered a geographical split in my being, it has now become a split in time. Let me explain what I mean.
In the mid-1980s my wife and I were living in Johannesburg through what was a truly dark and ominous period. A rising climacteric of resistance to apartheid had been met with ever more brutal forms of state repression and violence, and there were two successive States of Emergency. Every day seemed to bring news of alarming and outrageous atrocities. This was the period of what Nadine Gordimer, following Antonio Gramsci, called the interregnum: ‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.’ We certainly lived through some of those symptoms. In our small house in the suburb of Brixton we hosted a friend’s husband who had been a political prisoner, and who was now hiding out from the police to avoid being arrested again. I can still picture him in our backyard, teaching our young daughter to stand up, hands flung in triumph above her head. At that time I held a fellowship at the University of the Witwatersrand, and there, in a daily recapitulation of colonial ritual, every morning at eleven we would go down to the history department for tea, brought in on a trolley by university servants. Sitting around the room, talk turned to the mayhem that surrounded us. Gallows humor, or its equivalent, prevailed. Someone drew attention to the fate of lobsters, who accommodate themselves to every rise in temperature in the lobster pot but the final one. That certainly felt like us. Would we adjust ourselves to every menacing change until at last there would be nothing left to register?
No one could foresee then how the decade would end, with the unbanning of the anti-apartheid movements, the release of the political prisoners and of Mandela himself, with the extraordinary settlement of 1994 and South Africa’s new constitution, which may be the most progressive in the world. What followed did not live up in any uncomplicated way to the spectacular promise of those early days. South Africa has been through AIDS denialism, astonishing levels of crime and violence, including sexual violence, and – to this day – seemingly unrepentant forms of corruption. To some extent that means there has been a convergence with patterns in the United States. In both countries there is a massive underclass living on the fringes. Under apartheid there was extended detention without trial – though it had a fixed term limit of 180 days, renewable; now in the U.S. we have Guantánamo Bay and apparently unlimited detention. When I arrived in Amherst after that strange decade in South Africa, I was amazed that Americans were unsurprised when the buildings they went to work in during the day were still standing when they left to go home. Now, as we know after September 11th, 2001, sometimes they aren’t.
But that is not the time shift I am talking about. Instead it has to do with the sensations I had during that decade of the 1980s in Johannesburg and those I have now in the U.S., mediated by the Koppel moment. I connect it not with light switches but with fingers. Under apartheid, we were always having fingers waved at us by political leaders, pre-eminently by B. J. Vorster (former Prime Minister, former Nazi sympathizer) and President P. W. Botha. They did it in almost exactly the same way, pointing their forefingers at us, warning of the communist peril, the total onslaught against South Africa, the consequences of nefarious resistance which, make no mistake, would be snuffed out. Now the fingers belong to a Presidential candidate in the U.S., and he waves them not so much at us, but at himself, his little fingers waving in the air. But it is what he stands for that makes me more alarmed, in truth, than I have been since that tea room at the university in Johannesburg around 1985. I studied history for a time, and I know how a deranged messianic individual once got himself elected only to suspend the machinery to which he owed his ascension and turn his country and much else into a wasteland. The animus then, as now, was against foreigners and deviants, the logic was of building walls and camps. There was no respect for the coherence of words or logic; truth could be manufactured at will; the law of non-contradiction did not apply. Derision, obscenity, self-aggrandizement, and contempt became the modus operandi of behavior. There was no restraint.
As I reflect on these things, my wife and I are still in Amherst, along with its salamanders and students. That small daughter of ours, who flung up her arms in triumph in the midst of a State of Emergency in Johannesburg, is now a professional classical musician living in New Orleans. Her younger sister has just completed a summer working as a translator in Paris, site of so much terrifying chaos in the past year. Here in the U.S. I am not saying Donald Trump will win the Presidency. I profoundly hope he will not. But I think back to that Koppel moment, and what I see is the crack in time. Can there be a link between that moment and this, and the principles of honesty and clarity we were able to glimpse, if ever so briefly or imperfectly? Or is there a different kind of link? We are living in an undoubtedly dangerous world governed by disequilibrium and imbalance, whose shifting configurations daily seem to defy coherence.
The truth is, there is no Mandela figure right now in the U.S., and quite possibly – because of the general degradation of the political and its meanings – in current circumstances there can’t be. In that respect, it is worth remembering that Mandela came out of a movement and its traditions as much as he became its iconic figure and expression. What we need is the creation of a more complete culture in which a Mandela might emerge, and that is up to us, not any single political figure. And so now the question remains. What version of politics will we be able to fashion? What kind of politics will we inherit? Will we simply adjust ourselves to each rising degree in temperature?
Stephen Clingman is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His biography, Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary, won the Alan Paton Award, South Africa’s premier prize for non-fiction, and his memoir, Birthmark, a book of divided vision in a divided South Africa, has just been published in the United States.

One thought on “South Africa Then, the United States Now, and the Meaning of Politics

  1. I’m also not living in Amerika, I’m living in Boulder, CO. I hope that U Mass is not being run by a former oil company executive.

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