Evolving language

I’m sure you know a few people who are very pedantic about the English language – the only right English being that spoken in England and the antithesis being American. However, those of us from the old colonies and dominions know that our English is just as valid and has evolved and become enriched through the other languages in our environments. Jewish friends in the UK are often surprised at the range of Yiddish words which feature in South African English (Yiddish poet Frankel Fram; SA literature). And then we have that wonderful language spoken on the mines but which never fully developed – Fanagalo. (song by Thys giving a basic flavour of the language, and for those looking for something a bit more serious as an example, I was surprised to find the Story of Jesus according to Luke all in Fanagalo.)

I’m a great one for coming up with new words. One of my favourite is ‘stoven’ – a combination of ‘stove’ and ‘oven’. I fell into the word accidently when we were having our kitchen refurbished and in talking to the builders got myself so confused as to which item I was referring that it seemed easiest to combine the words. Ten years later, we still refer to the stoven. More recently, I’ve discovered the word ‘niblings‘ to refer collectively to nieces and nephews. Again, it’s a new word yet to move into common usage and I hope it does. This makes me realise I’m quite lazy, happy to find short cuts, which remain meaningful – text speak is completely out in my book.

It’s unlikely that any words I come up with will end up in the Oxford, Collins or other reputable dictionaries in the same way that Roald Dahl has had words acknowledged. I’m not sure how many of these six words I’ll be using regularly. I think I’m more likely to use transvaalitis, perhaps tweaking its meaning slightly as I do like the image it conveys.

The evolution of language is important. It allows us to reflect our time and societies more effectively. Micro-nation, a term made popular by Wangari Maathai in The Challenge for Africa to describe the various ethnic groups found in Africa today.

Another significant term to come out of Africa, from an earlier time is holism. This was one of Jan Smuts’ contributions to philosophy. The word, originating from the Greek, was brought to prominence by Smuts in his book Holism and Evolution. Smuts developed on Darwin’s theory explaining how everything is interconnected. Many rejected Smuts’ theory at the time, taking this to be against Christian beliefs. In doing so, they ignore Smuts’ deep spirituality – it all fits together, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. In fact, it transcends Christianity to be all encompassing, irrespective of belief. (Nature’s Holism; Callie Joubert)

Finally, I think we need to start reclaiming certain words for their original and varied meaning rather than having their use narrowly restricted. Words such as gay and aid(e) immediately come to mind. Then there are those words which are acceptable in some communities but not in others – rubber vs eraser, pants vs trousers – while others have different meanings: now, just now and now now. This post might also be of assistance for someone trying to understand South African English. And then of course, there’s always Jeremy Taylor’s Ag pleez daddy (not quite politically correct today, but definitely reflective of its time).

 

 

Transvaalitis – how do we overcome?

You’d be forgiven thinking this was a new disease – medical disease that is. Trying to find some clear background to the term has proven quite a challenge – Yahoo doesn’t want to know it (really) and Google gives a few book references. As soon as you add ‘origin’ or ‘meaning’ to your search you get results such as ‘Transvaal. It is…’ – not very helpful for someone like me trying to find an author who has tried to engage with the term and not just repeat what everyone else has said before.

I came across the term reading Richard Holmes’ chapter ‘The last hurrah: cavalry on the Western Front, August-September 1914’ in Facing Armageddon The First World War Experienced edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter Liddel (1996, 2003) p281 – this book had been recommended by Jennie Upton some time back and it’s taken me about three years to get to where I have: it’s not a book to take on the tube or in handluggage due to its length (900 pages) so has to wait for opportune moments to be read at home. Having said that, it’s a worthwhile read (most of it so far) as it opens up insights into aspects of the war few have considered before. For a non-Western Front student like myself, this is rather refreshing. There’s not a great amount on the African campaigns, but it’s definitely worth seeing how other small groups and minorities compare. It’s a great attempt at breaking the myths.

Back to Transvaalitis. It’s best to quote from p281 after some context. Holmes is talking about infantry assaults on ‘others in a position which favoured defence’ looking back to what was learned from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870s.

‘From the 1880s till the outbreak of war infantry theorists grappled with this problem. Many concluded that the answer was to weld men together just as tightly as in the past, throwing them into battle shoulder to shoulder to the sound of drum and bugle. This would result in appaling losses in the short term – but it would at least produce a decision, not sterile butchery. And it would avoid what one caustic French officer described a ‘acute Transvaalitis‘ – paralysis by fire.

Even the British army, which had, after all, studied the epidemology of Transvaalitis at some collective cost, concluded in Infantry Training 1914 that ‘The object of infantry in the attack is … to get to close quarters as quickly as possible.’ Once there, the commander on the spot was to judge when superiority of fire had been achieved and then order the assault. And now, believe it or not, I quote.

‘The commander who decides to order the assault will order the charge to be sounded, the cal will at once be taken up by all buglers, and all neighbouring units will join in the charge as quickly as possible. During the assault the men will cheer, bugles will be sounded, and pipes played.’

This looks to me no different in principle to the infantry tactics in vogue when the line was red rather than khaki.

The reference given for Transvaalitis is ‘General Langlois, founder of the Revue militaire generale, quoted in Joseph C Arnold ‘French tactical Doctrine 1870-1914’, Military Affairs vol 42 no 2 (April 1978).

I assume one will have to get into Langlois’ writings in French to see what and why he came up with the term as Holmes and a few other authors who have used the term don’t go much further than noting ‘paralysis’ or an ‘abnormal dread of losses on the battlefield‘.

The Australian Light Horse Study Centre website has the following:

Theorists and practitioners were unsure whether firepower favoured attack or defence. The Polish banker, Jan Bloch, author of the perceptive Future War, declared that it simply ruled out frontal attack, and British experience in South Africa seemed to prove that Bloch was right: both British and French infantry regulations were modified to reflect the reality of the fire-swept battlefield. But it was not that simple. The weight of military opinion believed that wars were won by offensive action, and it followed that an army which allowed itself to be paralysed by firepower –‘acute transvaalitis‘ – could not expect to win. Moreover, as Colonel Charles Ardant du Picq had acutely observed even before the Franco-Prussian War, on the new battlefield `cohesion is no longer ensured by mutual observation’. What would happen if these loose, flexible formations met the enemy’s fire? Officers would be unable to lead effectively, and soldiers’ courage would not be buttressed by the close physical proximity of comrades. Men – short-term conscripts, most of them – would go to ground and not get up again; impulsion would be gone and stalemate would result.

Simon Anglim in his KCL Dept of War Studies seminar notes, has

Howard: Commanders were unquestionably obtuse about the lessons of the wars of 1861-1905. The French had abandoned mass assaults in the 1870s, but then, under what he sees as the malign influence of du Picq, in 1894 returned to “elbow to elbow” assaults accompanied by bugles and drums. Foch, in a lecture of 1900, advocated the use of the bayonet to achieve victory, rooted in a faith in aggression, elan vital, Furia Frachese, etc. Yet, in 1904, they returned to the use of loose skirmish lines, against the wishes of certain generals, who spoke of Transvaalitis. The Russo-Japanese War was misread universally – true, the Japanese had carried Russian positions with the bayonet, but only through suffering horrendous casualties. Yet, the bayonet, and morale, were the lessons drawn; the German du Picq was Bernhardi, who saw the new tactics as a sign of national spiritual weakness. Joffre, the French chief of staff from 1911, oversaw the publication of a new set of regulations for handling large formations in1911, which emphasised the offensive. In England, Sir Ian Hamilton wrote of war as a clash of wills in which attack was the best form of defence, while FN Maude claimed that casualty conservation might weaken an army’s resolve. By comparison, Haig emerges as not so much “stupid” as a coldly ruthless pragmatist, occasionally prone to over confidence (qv. his views onthe Royal Artillery)

I assume (not a wise thing to do, but needs must) therefore that Tranvaalitis was a term derived from the British response to the Boer defence (a rather strong term some might think) of the Zuid Afrikanse Republiek (ZAR) or Paul Kruger’s Transvaal during the Anglo-Boer War on 1899-1902. Did this arise from Tommy’s reluctance to move forward unsure of where Boer snipers were hiding? The Boers had a reputation for being crack shots – whether this reputation was well-grounded in fact or not, the point is their reputation was enough to stop a larger force in its tracks. Overcoming the fear instilled by this reputation would have been challenging for any commander until there was a complete rethink and break in traditional approaches to the fight: the blockade and concentration camp system that was then introduced by Lords Roberts and Kitchener.

Interestingly, these lessons do not appear to have been learnt by the high commands in exploring options for future wars. Men fell back on what they were comfortable with and what they’d been taught. Those who tried to break the mould were sidelined and ostracised. As in many cases, the victor wrote the history and men like Haig and Kitchener who did try to do things differently whilst keeping their men alive, were maligned and labelled along wiht the majority. Perhaps Smuts’ encircling movements in East Africa was part of his attempt to avoid Transvaalitis…

Today, we still struggle to think outside the box and find innovative, non-violent solutions (where possible) to many problems. We all suffer from Trasvaalitis – paralysis of fire – in some way.

And I couldn’t help but wonder if Langlois came up with the term after seeing this little fellow: the Transvaal fat-tailed scorpion aka parabuthus transvaalicus. It would definitely stop me in my tracks, and that’s without knowing about its firepower.

Sheep

This arrived in my inbox this morning as I was trying to decide what to share. It reminded me of our trip through Calvinia, a few years back now, when we discovered they have an annual sheep counting competition as part of the Hantam festival. Here’s what happened in 2011 (in English) for those interested. This could be a bit of a challenge for those suffering from insomnia if there are such limited opportunities to ‘count sheep’. There are some opportunities in Australia too by the looks of things and New Zealand have taken Counting Sheep to new levels – a little more accessible in this format.

I rather like sheep, along with cows, pigs, camels, elephants and warthogs (not necessarily in that order). And this week, two South African-made sheep made it into our garden. They’d been waiting in-doors for the English summer. (For anyone interested, they don’t know how many breeds of sheep there are anymore – too much interbreeding?). I first developed a liking for sheep back in 1995 when I first visited the UK and noticed that the sheep in England had longer faces than those in SA. (I shall resist the temptation of expanding on long and fat faces in the current political climate of both countries). I recall Geography lessons at school where we were taught about fat-tailed Merino sheep living in the Karoo (ie the Calvinia area). I think we covered sheep farming as often in Geography as we did ‘die Groot Trek’ (Great Trek) and the Boer War in History. For some reason, I took a liking to the sheep whilst reluctantly developing an interest in the last two subjects because of their implications in a post-Union SA.

Sheep were not indiginous to South Africa and for those looking to expand their knowledge on this front, the famous Farmer’s Weekly has just the article. This year marks the 200th anniversary of successful merino farming in SA, although the sheep were first introduced in 1789. For those mining in Kimberly, getting lamb was relatively straightforward in the days before supermarkets and freezers. However, it was a bit more of a challenge on the Tranvaal gold fields, until cold storage was developed (article 1, 2). Sir David Graaff played an important role in developing storage facilities, both by rail and on the sea.

And for those who love eating lamb, perhaps Iceland requires a visit – it’s the main red meat on that island.

 

Review: Katrina – crossing the colour line

Katrina was released in 1969 in South Africa and is now available on DVD and Youtube. It was directed by Jans Rautenbach (interview in Afrikaans; Abraham) and starred Jill Kirkland who was also sang the theme song. The rest of the cast included Katinka Heyns, Don Leonard, Cobus Rossouw, Joe Stewardson and Carel Trichardt.

Looking back, it is incredible to think that this film was even made and shown in South Africa in 1969 given the storyline.  It tells of an Anglican priest, newly arrived, who falls in love with Catherine Winters. As their relationship develops so it becomes apparent that Catherine is also Katrina September, a Coloured woman who is light enough in skin colour to pass for white. This revelation has significant consequences for all involved, not least Catherine’s son Paul who returns to South Africa as a qualified doctor wanting to work in a deprived Coloured area.

This was a brave film to make given that Hendrik Verwoerd had only been assassinated three years previously and BJ Voster was Prime Minister. Although the latter was slightly more lenient in his approach to Apartheid, his notoriaty as Minister for Justice was well-known. One wonders what the establishment’s reaction would have been had they actually seen the film – would they have found a different way to classify people, in particular the Coloured community? What I also find incredible is that Jans originates from Boksburg, my home town, which was notorious for its ultra conservative approach to Apartheid. (There was clearly something in the water as a number of cultural activists hail from Boksburg.)

The implications of the colour line and how it was applied hit full-force in this movie. It’s one thing to read about it in books and to use one’s imagination, but to see it depicted on the screen is something else. All credit to the director and cast. What strikes home though, and is really sad, is how fickle human nature is, despite all intentions of doing otherwise. This is a film of real human emotion, getting to the core of identity and cultural cohesion. It’s not difficult to see how, on a wider scale, nationalism has an attraction causing division and heartache by forcing people apart and to conform especially in communities where people have started to break down the barriers.

What is striking is that in 2017 a film made in a specific context in a specific country in 1969 has so much resonance for the world we live in today. The colour divide issue was not (and is not) unique to South Africa as a recent Guardian article reminds us. Sad to say, colour and cultural divisions still impact on our lives despite all the progress we’ve supposedly made. Perhaps if enough people watch Katrina and work to overcome the fickleness of man(kind), we might create a better world for all. (Yes, I am an idealist at heart, but as a sociologist whose name I can’t remember used to say – strive for perfection even though you know you won’t achieve it fully).

Other films by Jans Rautenbach:

Jannie Totsiens (with English subtitles) (1971)

Pappa Lap (1971)

Ongewensde Vreemdelinge (with English subtitles) (1974)

Eendag op ‘n reendag (1975)

Blink Stefans (1981)

Broer Matie (1984)

 

 

 

Things we take for granted

A recent trip to Rwanda again brought to light how we take things for granted.

Rwanda, as I’ve said before is a place too good to be true and long may it last. There are problems as with any country and still scars from the genocide 23 years ago with people still needing to be reintegrated into communities as they are released from prison etc. Where are the Nelson Mandela’s of the world practising forgiveness when you need them most? I can’t help but think too, of the importance of handshakes in building relations. In Africa, we have a three-hold shake symbolising solidarity (although others exist too), but a Muslim friend recently explained to me that the shaking of hands – ie the passing of hands against each other briefly folding fingers around is in effect a way of offering forgiveness for past misdemeanours – purposeful or not. What a lovely thought and another friend – Christian – shared with me his thoughts: simply writing For-I-give.

In Rwanda, I’m hesitant to say I’m involved in the aid industry, but truth be told, I am. I cringe knowing what I know about most aid agencies and hope the work I do is true to my principles and beliefs. I was horrified to hear a friend tell me he’s applying for two jobs – both with aid agencies – one British, one Australian – as they are offering double his Rwandan salary for similar work he is currently doing for a semi-state company. How can any country develop self-sustainability when market prices are so inflated? In addition, there is talk of putting a tax on second-hand clothing – a staple supply. The reason? To protect or encourage the local clothing industry. Surely the answer is to find ways to reduce the cost of locally made items and basic materials such as kitengi (cloth)?

Whilst all of this was happening/being spoken about in Kigali, a short drive away in one of the neighbouring rural areas of the capital, the schools don’t have electricity, the pupils are crammed 5 to a desk which should take 3, the teachers young and mostly enthusiastic, are unable to teach their subject English as they can barely speak it themselves. These classrooms are better equipped and built than many I saw in Tanzania, but are still a huge way off from what we take from granted in Britain, South Africa and elsewhere. The staffroom consists of a concrete floor and everyone sitting around huge big tables with chunky wooden chairs. No clock on the wall – a standard basic in every classroom or training room in England.

A flashing light caught my attention – a teacher was taking photos on his phone. Further investigation revealed that of the 9 or so teachers in the school who do double shifts of teaching (7.20am-11.30am; 1pm-5pm), 3 have smart phones. Rwanda is a classic case of the technological divide. So much can be done online and throughout Kigali Wi-Fi is generally present, however, not all are able to access it. This is not only the case in Rwanda, the same can be found in Tanzania, Malawi and many other African counries.

Not too far out of town, one gets the ‘untarmac’ roads letting you know you’re in the countryside. It’s quite surprising how close to town these areas really are. Managing these in ‘normal’ times is one thing, but I shudder thinking how people do so in the downpours we had whilst I was there. Even those travelling on tarmac found it treacherous. One can’t take the sun for granted on a daily basis, even in March, but at least the sun does shine more frequently in Africa than in Britain.

Practise what you preach or Do as I say…?

My significant other recently told me, in answer to a question, that I have a tendency to overreact. This, I know I do when I’m stretched and overworked (all my own doing of course) and in all honesty, overreaction has been the order of the day for the past few months. But as with those annoyingly wonderful ruts in the road, finding a way out of it has taken some creative manoeuvring, not least a change in perspective.

This was reinforced recently on a semi-planned visit to the one of my regular haunts and a place to really get me overreacting. We’ve had a love-hate relationship since I first started researching there twenty years ago. The pedantic non-user-friendly manuscript ordering rules and myself came to a functional working arrangement years ago, thank goodness, so what still irks me every time I visit? The inconsistencies around security. And it’s not just at the B that I suffer this irksome practice.

I’ve no issue with being checked when I enter a building but please, do it properly if you’re serious about it nor not at all. Don’t waste my time by making me take my bag off my back, open it for you to just glance in it and tell me to go through and then when I question the action tell me it’s for my safety. Usually, I end up in a little altercation with the poor security guard on duty who is just ‘doing as he’s been told to do’. But on my last visit, I happened to be there on a day they were trialling a new system (couldn’t see anything different other than more men in suits around, but hey-ho), so happened to raise the point with the guard checking my bag telling him about the need for him to do a thorough check of my bag if the B was serious about my security. He thought I had a good point to make and would take it up with his manager standing behind him. On my more recent visit, arriving at 9.44 in the rain, the queue was wound round the side under cover to past the Conference Centre. Entering the building, I calmly said to the guard (the same one I had previously encountered), ‘I hope you’re going to do a proper search today’ and proceeded to open all the zips on my bag whilst apologising for insisting despite there being a queue. To his credit, he acknowledged the queue and thanked me for insisting and assisting him to do a thorough search of my bag. For the first time in ages, I’ve managed to get into the B without my blood pressure rising or overreacting. I wondered how many others insist on having their bags searched properly?

The significance of this more pleasant encounter was that when Social Sciences couldn’t find the publication I’d ordered, I was in a much better frame of mind to deal with it – an African adventure approach was what the doctor had ordered on this occasion (I don’t usually visit Social Sciences, but this is where you find Session Papers), it worked. It turned out the person serving me was new on the counter usually being in another reading room so together we both learnt something about the room. Sad to say, the document all this was over didn’t contain what I’d hoped it would. At least I can tick it off the list.

Back to practising though… it’s the inconsistencies that annoy me most. Not the policy providing it is based on common sense and this I think is where we go wrong today. The tickbox dictates how we practise as do our traditions. How are we to create a world where people are people and respect each other for being people irrespective of their beliefs if we don’t compromise? As an historian, looking back, I distinguish between ethnic groups and micro-nations to explain the interactions and consequences of the past, but looking forward and being in the present, we’re all people bringing our rich heritage with us.

Recently, a group I’m involved with invited another group to join us – we had slightly different practises and in getting the two groups together, compromise had to be made. However, at the final preparation meeting which I couldn’t attend, some dogmatic thoughts dominated and the compromise solution was done away with. For me, as I explained to someone afterwards, it was as though I’d invited a vegetarian to dinner and purposefully fed them meat. The group having professed to be open, turned out to be as closed as other groups in terms of accommodating peoples of different beliefs. I probably did overreact to this situation but thankfully before taking any action sought the wisdom of others. It’s still got me thinking though about practising what we preach and how we get there when people are coming from such different starting points. (cf review Tim Butcher).

Practising what one preaches has its challenges as Jan Smuts discovered during his command in East Africa. Not one to sit still at headquarters behind the lines, he pushed forward sleeping out in the open with the men, reconnoitring himself much to the horror of his British staff and concern of his South African staff. But, putting himself in this position, he won the respect and admiration of the rank and file. One can’t say the same about the officers though. The downside of Smuts being ‘on the ground’ meant he often missed the big picture and the strategic overview, didn’t pay enough attention to supply lines as he was coping or wasn’t aware of the real situation. It was also one of the reasons he didn’t tackle the black-white issue in South Africa. He couldn’t find a way to bridge the gap between his personal beliefs and where mass white thinking was at the time. On this issue he took the political expediency of trying to stay in power in order to reduce the impact but that had its own consequences, not least his historical reputation.

It’s not always easy to practise what one preaches as the circumstances dictate otherwise, but knowing where to draw the line and being flexible enough to deal with it will go a long way to making life a little more pleasant for those on the receiving end of my overreaction and hopefully me personally. My current behaviour-changing challenge is to deal with inconsistencies more cheerfully. It paid off at the B, perhaps it will elsewhere too.

On death and remembrance: more unsung heroes

I went to a white British funeral the Friday of the same week as the centenary of the sinking of the Mendi. It was for a remarkable man, a person I only knew for about two years. The emotions caught me unawares – from the moment the piper started warming up (whilst I was doing some other bits in the area). How and why?

Here in the church was a body in the coffin, once at the front of the church, the ashes of his wife carefully wrapped in a scarlet velvet cloth were gently placed on top. After nearly two years the couple were together again. I’d been to Jean’s funeral too. And I couldn’t help but think of others in the congregation who were looking forward to the day when they too would join their partner in rest and peace.

On Thursday, I was paging through the records of York Hospital which had treated men suffering from various ailments as a result of the Peninsular Wars – letters of what happened to the effects of those who died were stapled to returns.

Wednesday afternoon was spent with the student Historical Society of Warwick University, talking about cross-cultural research around World War 1 Africa. A focus being on how different cultures remember their past and how we record it – traditional Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries and Indian Cremation memorials for those of recognised faiths and unmarked mass graves for the others. I’ve often spoken of my encounter with the Masai women at the foot of Salaita Hill who couldn’t understand why white people keep coming to this dusty hill and walk up it. Their remembrance takes place telling stories around the fire. And then my other African friends who believe that a person still lives (a little bit in everyone) until the last person who knew them dies.

Tuesday was remembering the Mendi dead, all those labourers (of all colours) who survived and others who crossed the seas to serve elsewhere during the Great War. And in particular, thinking of the family members of those closely linked with the Mendi, praying the day would not be used for political gain but to truly honour the sacrifice all made in different ways. This had been preceded by my writing and recording an oral history piece for Diversity House on Lifting the Mendi Shroud.

And not to be left out, the previous Friday remembering those who struggled with the conditions and challenges presented by flight, aeroplanes and falling bombs, with a diversion afterwards to the Biafran War and whether childhood recollections could be valid. While on the Thursday I’d been proofreading a piece of work on military chaplains.

There are so many ways of dealing with death and remembrance – and on the note of chaplains, they have a special role to play irrespective of their religious or cultural background as seen in the Chaplain War Diaries of East Africa (WO 95/5308). A moving account or two appears in David Mannall’s Battle of the Lomba. Death at the best of times is difficult to deal with and one can perhaps become immune. However, when it’s a friend or person who departs this earth before their time due to age or violence, it can only be a challenge for these people of faith who give the rest of us succour. They are the unsung and oft-forgotten heroes in all the commemoration events.

What always catches me and one of the reasons I like to go to funerals and memorial services of people I’ve known where I can, is what you discover. I can’t think of one service I’ve been to where I haven’t learnt something extraordinary. This latest funeral revealed that Jim and his wife had not been allowed to marry in a church because they were ‘mixed-race’ – two different Scottish Christian denominations. That was in 1950’s Scotland and not what one generally thinks of as ‘mixed marriage’. At least it was not quite as draconian as the Mixed Marriages Act in South Africa which banned people of different ethnic backgrounds marrying. Digging a bit brought this interesting article to light which suggests that South Africa was not too far removed from what was happening elsewhere. It’s reassuring to know that there were people like Jim who rose above the mass beliefs of the day and fought for equality in their own way.

And today, Saturday, typing this post, I heard about another friend in his eighties who suddenly departed this earth – as Ken had been a professional singer I’m sure the angelic choir has already been enriched with the addition of another baritone.

To all religious men and women, then and now, who cross so many boundaries to bring peace and comfort to the families, friends and comrades of those departed – thank you. Your silent work is recognised.