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Khanya blog has moved

20 March 2020


This blog has moved

In future I will be blogging at:

Notes from underground
This is because since February 2020 WordPress has become extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible to use. For details see here: Notes from underground: Reviving an old blog because WordPress is broken.

I originally started blogging at WordPress because the Blogger editor was broken. Now it has been fixed, and WordPress is broken. If the people at WordPress ever get around to fix I may return to blogging here.

Fortunately the existing posts can still be read, so I will still refer to them from time to time, and links to them from other sites should still work.

Back in the USSR

2 February 2020

I’ve just finished reading two books on Russia, well, actually the old USSR, set 30 years apart — one in the 1960s, and the other in the 1990s when the USSR was falling apart.

One was Journey into Russia by Laurens van der Post, and the other was The Golden Horde by Sheila Paine.I read them together because I wanted to get a picture of how life in Russia had changed from when it was under Bolshevik rule, and immediately afterwards. I myself visited Russia in the 1990s, roughly at the same time as Sheila Paine, but didn’t travel more than 100 km from Moscow, and wanted to learn what other parts of the country were like, in part as background for a book I am writing, a sequel to my children’s novel Of wheels and witches, and partly because I enjoy reading travel books.

Journey into Russia and The Golden Horde are both travel books written by foreigners, from a British point of view. Laurens van der Post was originally South African, but had become thoroughly Anglicised by the time he wrote this book, though he uses his African background to compare Russian and Western culture as he experienced them.

Laurens van der Post wrote at the height of the Cold War, when media propaganda in the West tended to present the USSR in the worst possible light. “Even more than these cartoon inaccuracies what alarmed me on my travels were the factors of impersonalization and dehumanization in the pictures countries painted for themselves of other nations.”

So one of his purposes was to get behind the dehumanising Cold War rhetoric and to present Russians as human beings rather than as collective abstractions.

I could understand possibly that a nation might be tempted to bomb a country which it regarded as filled with dire monsters. But I firmly believed the temptation could be resisted the moment it saw the potential enemy as people like itself.

How well does van der Post succeed in this aim?

In his travels he tries to find out what what makes Russians tick, and he concludes that Russians have a collective mentality that differs from Western individualism. Bolshevism does not on its own account for this, and it goes back a lot further in Russian history, The institution of the collective farm, so common in Russia in the 1960s, can be traced back to the pre-Marxist tradition of the Mir.

That he approaches Russians from the point of view of Western individualism also shapes his perception of them, and I think this is over-simplified; back in the 1930s Stalin forced collectivisation on peasants who strongly resisted it, and one result was that millions died of starvation.

Van der Post concludes from this that Russians, like the African societies he grew up among in South are primitive, in contrast to the civilised societies of the West. “The Russians are naturally a communal people because they are basically a primitive people; and primitive man is naturally collective.”

But van der Post himself acknowledges that his view is over-simplified, when he says,

As a working oversimplification I would suggest that the primitive is a condition of life wherein the instinctive, subjective and collective values tend to predominate; the civilized condition of life is where the rational, objective and individual take command. Throughout history the two have been at one another’s throats because it appears that the value of one depends on the rejection of the other and this Jacob and Esau theme has been played out between the nations and cultures of the world with the reconciliation of the brothers not yet in sight.

Sixty years ago such terminology was common, but now it has generally changed. What van der Post calls “civilized” we now refer to as modern, and what he called “primitive” we are more likely to refer to as “premodern”. Postmodernity allows us to have a different perspective. But around the time that van der Post was preparing his book for publication I was reading, and strongly influenced by, two books that seemed to be making a similar point, The primal vision and The secular city. There’s more about them at Christianity, paganism and literature (synchroblog) | Notes from underground.

Where I think van der Post’s thesis breaks down is that Bolshevism was essentially a modern project. The Bolsheviks sought to modernise Russia, and complete what Peter the Great had started.

Sheila Paine, in The Golden Horde seems to be looking for the primitive of thousands of years earlier. Her book, however, is far more confusing than van der Post’s. Perhaps that’s because it’s more instinctive and subjective. One gathers that she is travelling the former USSR just after it broke up looking for triangular embroidered amulets with three pendants. She never explains why she is looking for them, perhaps because she wrote an earlier book on the topic and assumes that all her readers have read that one too.

As a travel book I thought it was pretty good, with some lyrical descriptions of places she visited, and giving a good impression of post-Soviet Russia and Central Asia. But while the descriptive bits of scenery are good, the narrative bits are poor and confusing.

One example of the confusing narratives is that in four or five widely separated parts of the book (when she is in different places), she tells of being mugged and beaten. It is not clear where or when this mugging took place, or indeed if it was one incident or several.

She gives a rather confused and garbled picture of Orthodox Christianity, which Sheila Paine seems to have made little effort to understand more than superficially. On two occasions she joins  groups of Orthodox pilgrims on boat trips along rivers, and attends Holy Weeks services on a Greek island, but her accounts of those are very garbled indeed.

Her description of her own search for amulets is the most garbled and confusing of all.She develops theories about  the embroidery and amulets she is looking for, and then abandons them, but doesn’t explain why she abandoned them, perhaps because she had failed to explain why she adopted them in the first place, or even what they were. At one point she compares central Asian embroidery with Bulgarian embroidery, assuming that the reader is familiar with Bulgarian embroidery and therefore will know exactly what she is talking about.

Laurens van der Post also attended Orthodox services, in the far more restrictive period when Krushchev was in power, but even though, like Sheila Paine, he was an outsider at a time when accurate information was much harder to come by, he seems to have had a better understanding of what he was seeing. Sheila Paine went on two boat trips, each lasting several days, in the company of Orthodox pilgrims. Laurens van der Post attended a few services in big cities, in the company of an (atheist) translator employed by Intourist, the official Soviet government tourist agency. Yet he manages to look  beneath the surface of events his guide dismisses as rubbish:

The Russians made their conversion to Christianity a sublimation of their finest primitive qualities. The emphasis was on the collective values of religion, on the unifying aspects, the capacity of “bringing together” of Christianity. The Russian word for church of “Sobor” which in the first place means “gathering”, and “Sobornost” (“togetherness”) is one of the most meaningful of all Russian words and the quintessence of what the church tried to promote. It served a vivid primitive instinctive sense of communion in men not only with one another but also mystical participation with all life.

Laurens van der Post has a point; Russia never went through the three key events of modernity — the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In that sense it was premodern, and van der Post saw Russians through the eyes of Western modernity. But sixty years later we can see things in a different, and perhaps postmodern perspective, seeing both van der Post and the contemporary Russians through postmodern spectacles. Doing that enables us to make a distinction between “communal” on the one hand, and “collective” on the other.  Communalism, “sobornost”, is essentially premodern, a communion of persons. “Collective” on the other hand, is modern, and implies an undifferentiated mass.

Van der Post recognised  this to some extent when he wrote:

It was no good pretending that these people did not feel cheated. The revolution had worked a confidence trick on them all. They had revolted in order to have the land to themselves. But no sooner was the revolution consolidated than a far more inflexible landlord, the State, had taken it away from them again in the name of collectivization. And, judging by the show pieces I saw, there were few farmers in charge of farms. Party secretaries, accountants and factory foremen were the types one usually found in positions of command.

I suspect that in the old premodern communal farms of the Mir the ones in charge were farmers. In the new modern collective farms of the Bolsheviks those in charge were not farmers but bureaucrats. And that is why the peasants resisted Stalin’s forced collectivisation.

And perhaps we can see much the same development in the “State-owned Enterprises” (SOEs) in South Africa. The old Electricity Supply Commission (ESC, Escom) was run by electrical engineers; the new SOEs are run by bureaucrats. The essence of modernity is a world run by and for MBAs.


Christopher Tolkien, Curator of Middle-earth, Has Died, and a Letter from His Father

20 January 2020

Many words have been written about the death of Christopher Tolkien, and I don’t feel like adding to them. I just draw your attention to these.

A Pilgrim in Narnia

Tolkien Society Photo of Christopher TolkienAs last evening tilted towards nighttime in my part of the world, my social media feeds began filling with the news that Christopher Tolkien had died. The last living Inkling, Christopher John Reuel Tolkien (21 Nov 1924 to 15 Jan 2020), may well have been merely an interesting historical note, a minor scholar or writer always overshadowed by his father, J.R.R. Tolkien. And while it is true that his father was the subcreative genius of a vast, sweeping legendarium associated with the bestselling Lord of the Rings, Christopher Tolkien grew to become the literary curator of that world.

For this gift to us, the lovers of Middle-earth and fans of Tolkien’s linguistically rooted mythic worlds, we are ever grateful. Whereas many estates would have been content to leave the bulk of the author’s “unfinished tales” incomplete, Christopher Tolkien left behind a world of medieval scholarship to prepare…

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Another man’s war

1 January 2020

Another Man's War: The Story of a Burma Boy in Britain's Forgotten ArmyAnother Man’s War: The Story of a Burma Boy in Britain’s Forgotten Army by Barnaby Phillips
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It doesn’t look like much from the description. It’s the story of an old soldier from the Second World War. So many books have been written about the Second World War — do we need another one, written so long afterwards? The protagonist of this story was not a famous general, or a fighter pilot ace, just an ordinary private from a West African Regiment. Yet I found it a profoundly moving and illuminating story.

Isaac Fadoyebo was born in a small town in Western Nigeria. He was recruited by the British Army, trained as a medical orderly and sent to Burma to be part of the Allied push to retake it from the Japanese. He was wounded in the only real action he saw, and much of the story is taken up with the account of his almost miraculous survival. He returned to Nigeria after the war at the age of 19, and became a civil servant.

Barnaby Phillips has done a superb job of researching Isaac Fadoyebo’s life, and the lives of those who touched his and tells his story in such a way that one learns an enormous amount about the history of Nigeria and of Burma, and of the nature of war itself.

One of the things that struck me was that Isaac Fadeyebo joined the army at the age of 17, as my father-in-law did. We once persuaded my father-in-law to tell his war stories, but he was always reluctant to do so. He joined the army, was captured at Tobruk, was in a POW camp in Italy, from which he escaped and returned home. Another private, another continent, same war.

But where the story of Isaac Fadoyebo illuminated this for me was in the enormous amount of time and resources all this took. Fadoyebo was trained for a year, then despatched by ship to Bombay, travelled by train to Calcutta, and then by ship again across the Bay of Bengal to Burma. All this effort to assemble an army and get it to the right place before a shot had ever been fired.

Isaac Fadoyebo’s unit was there to be just behind the front lines to provide first aid to wounded soldiers before they could be evacuated. Fadoyebo was wounded, and a lot of his colleagues killed, before they ever helped a single wounded combatant. From the point of view of army accountants the entire effort must count as a huge waste of time and money and resources.

But the story of people like Isaac needs to be told, and Barnaby Phillips tells it very well indeed.

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From Beats to hippies: the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

30 December 2019

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I probably should have read this book 50 years ago. I’ve known the title for a long time, but I never saw the book before this month. I had read a couple of Tom Wolfe‘s novels, and from the blurbs in those I had become aware that he was the author of this book too, so I pictured it as being like them, a fictional novel about fictional characters. I was rather surprised, then,  to see that it was actually a documentary about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, whom I had known had played a role in the rise of the hippies, though precisely what role I did not realise until I read this book.

This may or may not be the actual Prankster bus. In most accounts the name on the front of the actual bus was “Furthur”, not “Further”.

So, having read it, I think I should have read it 50 years ago. I knew vaguely that Kesey and the Merry Pranksters had toured around North America in a brightly painted bus, but that was about it. I’d read one of Ken Kesey’s novels, but not been particularly impressed. I had known that the hippies of the 1960s were a more colourful outgrowth of the Beats of the 1940s and 1950s, but had not realised how deeply Neal Cassady was involved in the Merry Pranksters (he drove the bus), even though I had read biographies of him. So it tied up a few links of literary and cultural history for me, and filled in my knowledge of some gaps in the transition.

I was introduced to the Beat Generation and its literature by an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection, in 1960, when he read a paper on Pilgrims of the Absolute at a student conference. He guided my reading over the next few years on paths very different from those approved by my university lecturers in English literature.

When I became aware of the emergence of hippies in 1967, the connection seemed obvious, but there was a missing link, which this book supplies. In parts its language seems old-fashioned, more appropriate to the Beats of the 1950s  than to the hip[pies of the 1960s. This passage, for example, shows both the difference and the transition. One noticeable difference was that the hippie movement was largely white.

All of a sudden the Negroes are out of the hip scene, except for a couple of pushers like Superspade and a couple of characters like Gaylord and Heavy. The explanation around Haight-Ashbury is that Negroes don’t take to LSD. The big thing with spades on the hip scene has always been the quality known as cool. And LSD freaking well blows the whole lead shield known as cool, like it brings you right out front, hang-ups and all. Also the spades don’t get much of a kick out of the nostalgia for the mud that all the white middle-class kids that are coming to Haight-Ashbury like: piling into pads and living freaking basic…

So one of the differences was that the Beats were cool and the hippies were hot. And one could say that the Beats were black and white, and the hippies were full colour.

But there is also a danger that this book can give a distorted picture of the hippie era. There was much more to it than LSD, though that was the  main aspect that Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were involved in. Some aspects of it were dealt with in 1968 in Retrospect, which dealt mainly with the student power movements of that year, and made no mention at all of flower power.

There was a brief mention in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test of countercultural Christianity, but it mainly involved “square hip” Unitarians, rather than the kind of countercultural Christianity that would lead to the Punx to Monks and Death to the World movements.

I also noticed some interesting parallels with my own experience. At almost exactly the same time that Ken Kesey snuck across the US border into Mexico, for fear that he would be arrested for possession of marijuana, I snuck across the South African border into UDI Rhodesia, and from there to the UK, for fear that i might be banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. Maybe I’ll write about that some day.

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Time travelling historian gets stuck in the past

20 December 2019

Doomsday BookDoomsday Book by Connie Willis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn’t expecting much from this book when I took it out of the library — just wanting to make sure i had something light to read when the library is closed over the Christmas holidays. But I was very pleasantly surprised, and found I couldn’t put it down.

The plot is a common trope in science fiction — time-travelling historian goes back to the past to see what happened there and gets more than they bargained for. But in this case it grabs the reader’s attention, and evokes sympathy for the characters, or some of them, anyway.

The year is 2054 and Kivrin, a history student at Oxford, gets permission to travel back to the 14th century to see what life was really like then. Things go wrong, however, and the technician handling the transfer is taken ill and cannot explain the problem. It’s the Christmas vac, so all the other technicians who could deal with it are on holiday, and interdepartmental academic rivalries don’t help. So the history student is in danger of being stranded 700 years away from home.

I might have given it five stars, but there are a few flaws. The pace flags a bit in the middle, and it could probably have been made about a hundred pages shorter without losing anything. There is also a strange mixture of British and American usage and spelling. Perhaps the author intended this to represent the way English had developed by 2054, but much of it feels more like 1954.

A lot of the visions of future technology are rather inaccurate. It was published in 1992, when car phones, if not cell phones, were becoming common, yet the author doesn’t foresee them being used 60 years later. Personal computers and email were also becoming pretty common, especially in universities, by 1992, but people in Oxford in 2054 were spending a lot of time looking for public telephones.

It could have done with a good editor who could spot the inconsistencies of vocabulary and spelling, and tightened up the narrative, especially in the middle where it tended to get bogged down.

But there is an interesting evocation of 14th-century English village life, and in many ways it seemed rather familiar. The parish priest is like many village priests and catechists I’ve met in rural Africa — not very well educated, but faithful in performing his duties and in his care for his flock. And in a sense, he is the real hero of the story. And perhaps that is why I liked this story so much. It is people like him who have kept the Christian faith alive for 2000 years, and it is people like him who will keep it alive for the next 2000 years. We neglect and despise them at our peril.

I remember once visiting a couple of Anglican priests in Limpopo province about 35 years ago (it was then called the Northern Transvaal, or Venda and Gazankulu. There was one old priest, Matthew Nemakhavani, who was half blind, and another, Fr Willie Maluleke, who could not travel round his parish because his donkeys had died in the  drought. I suspect that their parishes and their ministries were not all that much different from those of the priest in this story, and one could probably find something very similar in 18th century-Greece, 16th-century Russia, 12th-century Ethiopia and 10th-century Germany.


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Missiological musings inspired by Die Derde Oorlog teen Mapoch

12 December 2019

Die Derde Oorlog teen MapochDie Derde Oorlog teen Mapoch by Hans Pienaar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Last year at our monthly literary coffee klatsch this book — the title, translated, means The Third War against Mapoch — was mentioned (see Postfiction/Truth? Literary Coffee Klatsch | Khanya), but I didn’t think much more about it until I found a copy in our local library. It turned out to be an amazing and eye-opening book, from which I learnt a great deal, facts both trivial and important.

Among other things I learnt how the town of Roossenekal got its name — two heroes of the first Anglo-Boer War, named Roos and Senekal, on different occasions stuck their heads into caves where members of the Ndzundza (Mapoch) tribe were hiding during the Second War against Mapoch, and had them blown off by snipers within.

I learnt how peach brandy came to be called mampoer — the Second War against Mapoch in 1883 was when the government of the South African Republic (ZAR) made war on the Ndzundza people whom they accused of harbouring a murderer, Mampuru, who had killed his brother and rival ruler of the Bapedi. The ZAR army was made up mainly of mercenaries who had been promised that they could have the land of the Ndzundza people once they had been conquered. They didn’t want (or know how to) farm the land, they were mostly speculators. So when they took over the land, which was planted with peach trees, the only thing they could think of to do with the peaches was make brandy, which they named “Mampoer” after Mampuru.

That story also indicates how the book can help to explain the background to the vexed land question in South Africa today, which is partly about how competent black farmers were dispossessed, sometimes violently as in this case, by incompetent white ones.

The Third War against Mapoch took place a century after the second one, in the 1980s. For all that time the Ndzundza people had no land at all. Their fate was to become landless labourers on land they had previously owned and farmed. Other tribes had “reserves” and “locations” but the Ndzundza people had nothing. When the apartheid government decided to establish the KwaNdebele “homeland” there was therefore a rush, mainly of the landless farm labourers, and its population grew rapidly.

The South African government wanted KwaNdebele to be “independent”, which would mean that most of the people would lose their rather tenuous right to work in South African cities. So the “war” was between the puppet parliament of KwaNdebele and the South African security forces on the one hand, and the tribal leaders of the Ndzundza clan and the people of KwaNdebele on the other.

Hans Pienaar has documented this, and its historical background, extremely well. As I said, I learned a great many things from it. It is not a formal history, and so, rather to my regret, it lacks some things I wish it had — footnotes, an index, and a bibliography. Pienaar explains this in his acknowledgements section, where he refers to his main sources. He says:

This book does not pretend to be a scholarly investigation. It is rather a journalistic report, and not even that, because it includes my own interpretations of a set of facts derived from a wide historical investigation. My own personal experiences were often more important to me than the striving for objectivity (my translation).

It is thus a mixture of many different kinds of book. Chapters of sober history are interspersed with biographies of some of the main characters in the story, and others with information about Pienaar’s own experiences in gathering the material.

So, for example, he not only gives the content of his interviews with Brigadier Lerm, who was in charge of the police in KwaNdebele at the height of the war, and whose main aim at the time was to suppress any opposition to KwaNdebele independence; he also describes the atmosphere of the interviews, right down to a description of the furniture and ornaments in Lerm’s house.

So the book is three genres in one, and in my view that adds to its value and gives the reader a fuller picture. If you want to understand Afrikaner nationalism, and how the ideology of apartheid developed, and how apartheid still affects South Africa today, read it. It’s an excellent account of all this. I’d still like to have had an index and footnotes, though.

In the spirit of Pienaar’s writing, I will also add to my review on GoodReads. There I wrote a more or less straightforward review, but the book is also mingled with my own experiences. I became personally involved in KwaNdebele for at least part of the time, and in reading it I found the story Pienaar was telling was interwoven with my own experiences.

At the end of 1982 I was appointed Director of Mission and Evangelism for the Anglican Diocese of Pretoria, and at one church meeting the Revd David Aphane, who was then Rector of the parish of Mamelodi West, reported on the growth of KwaNdebele. He had tried to hold services for the Anglicans there, but it was growing so fast and in so many directions that he could not cope, since he was also responsible for a large urban parish.

We arranged for David Aphane to lead the diocesan mission committee on a tour of KwaNdebele, which took place on 6 September 1984, and he took us on a long trip which covered several rapidly growing settlements — Ekangala near Bronkhorstspruit, Elandsdoorn near Dennilton, Siyabuswa and Boekenhouthoek. By then it was getting dark, so we could not see Kwaggafontein and Tweefontein, but we counted 320 Putco buses bringing commuters back from working in Pretoria, 90km from Kwaggafontein and 120km from Siyabuswa/Valschfontein.

We developed a plan for church planting in KwaNdebele, which involved bringing the Revd Alphaeus Ndebele from Swaziland, who was a talented evangelist, and working to raise up local ministries in each of the settlements, using the principles of the Anglican missiologist Roland Allen. It was a rather ambitious plan, and it failed, partly because some people in the Diocese of Pretoria did not understand the Roland Allen method, and partly because the Third War against Mapoch was gaining momentum and many of the local communities were in chaos.

Eventually I wrote my masters dissertation in missiology on The iViyo loFakazi bakaKristu and the Anglican mission in KwaNdebele but at the time I wrote it I was not aware of Pienaar’s book, which would have been enormously useful as a source.

One of the first things we did in starting the mission was to conduct community surveys. What kind of people lived in those places. We gathered volunteers from several Anglican parishes in Pretoria, gave them a crash training course, and went to Ekangala one Saturday. We sent out 75 teams of three people. Each team had at least one male and one female, one black and one white. In South Africa in 1985 it was rare for people in a place like Ekangala to be visited by a mixed group of people, but the principle there is that when predictability is low, the impact is high; when predictability is high, the impact is low.

The 75 teams visited 100 homes that Saturday afternoon. We found that most of the families were young couples who had previously been living with their parents on the East Rand (another long commute). They belonged to 50 different denominations, none of which had a church in Ekangala, Only two families had a member working in nearby Ekandustria, the showpiece of apartheid “border industries”. The reason? The wages paid in the factories in Ekandustria were less than the rents in Ekangala. The people who worked in Ekandustria commuted an equally long distance from Kwaggafontein and points north.

Alphaeus Ndebele started holding services in his house at Ekangala, and soon had a large and lively congregation.

So Pienaar’s book didn’t only give me a better understanding of South African history, it gave me a better understanding of my own history.