Life is complicated

I broke my rule the other day and responded to a hot topic article – within minutes I had someone suggest I look at a current news programme. I haven’t and I won’t – the point of my reply was that exploitation is not only a colour or colonial ‘thing’, it often is economic-based and human nature (greed).

I understand the plea for land redistribution and reclaiming. It’s gone on in many countries over many years and not always successfully. Restitution for past wrongs (who determines the wrong?) should be made but this needs to be balanced with the current situation too where often the current inhabitants are oblivious to what happened in the past. If only we’d learn from what has one on before.

Not long ago, I was sent a video of someone complaining about Stella McCartney appropriating traditional African material for her 2017 range. To be honest, I think there are at least two issues here which have become confused and amalgamated. I have no issue with Stella using African material – what a compliment. My wardrobe is a mix of traditional African and European materials and have often questioned black African friends who value their African roots why in England they don’t wear their African outfits. ‘I don’t feel comfortable’ is often the answer or ‘I wear them on special occasions’. The main issue I see with Stella McCartney’s range is the price – but again, it’s economics, and a matter of taste – theere is no way I would wear a combination as she has put together, and I’ve been known for doing some obscure fashion things myself.

I wonder what we’re really complaining about? Reasons of colour and colonisation seem to be very easy labels to attribute to things we don’t like these days.

I can hear someone say, ‘you’re white so it’s easy for you to make such a statement’ – Yes, I’m white, but I’m also African (despite what many in Europe, incl Britain, and America may say) and a minority – in both countries I call ‘home’. And in both, I face challenges for similar reasons – being white, African and colonial (that is being from a colony – shorthand inclusion for dominion too – vs living in a previously colonising territory). My experience has been – take away the colour (incl African) and the colonial issue and underneath will be a range of similarities and invariably another reason or three for the difference being expressed through currently politically correct labels. Only getting down to the real issue will we be able to ‘fix’ the problem. (And yes, sometimes once you’ve done this, it may be an issue of colour – linked with ignorance?).

Related to this has been what I’ve seen as divisive discussion about Winnie Mandela following her death. Personally, I distinguish between two Winnies – the early political activist and the later politician. I admire the early Winnie who gave confidence and hope to so many, but I cannot agree with what she did later in life – possibly a response to thinking she had to compete with Nelson for the limelight. Irrespective, I can’t help but recall the plea made by Margaret Thatcher’s family after her death – remember she was somebody’s wife, mother and daughter. Let them grieve the person they knew and loved.

The morning I was inspired to write this blog, another parallel link with current events and the complexity of life came to light. In 1908, Jan SMuts was being taken to task for trying to repatriate Indians (Asiatics as they were called then) who had been resident in the Transvaal for years. Volume 2 of his published papers, by Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel, contains numerous pages on this topc and the outcry of those in England and the Cape around what he was trying to do. The biggest outcry though seemed to be around his wanting to fingerprint all the Indians, and not just their thumb but all ten fingers, the latter being regarded as necessity for criminal cases and the former for civil cases.

This brings me back to where I started. It’s all complex and more than colour and colonialism. What the solution is to greater equality is, I don’t know, but I’m sure we’d get a lot closer to one which would satisfy all sides if we took time to understand the real issues underpinning the predicament and worked to solve these – treating all with respect and humanity.

The morning I typed this blog, a quote by Jesse Jackson speaking at Wits at some point caught my eye.

‘After 24 years of freedom, Black’s are freer, Whites are richer’

But who, is happier and more content?

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Mankind – the common denominator

You may have picked up that I was involved in the production of The Unknown Fallen, a book about Allied Muslim involvement in World War 1. It’s been a fascinating journey, almost 17 years in the making so far with the book being one of the more recent markers along the way. I should clarify, my involvement with the book has only been a year or so, my journey getting to know other faith groups started about 17 years ago when I was teaching recently arrived young Muslim Palestinian men in an inner-London college trying to make sense of what had happened to their family existence in Jerusalem. Their questions only fuelled a curious mind already questioning how religion, in particular, Christianity, had been used to uphold the idea of Apartheid.

Listening to the recording of Yusuf Chambers and Dr Bilal Philips discussing The Unknown Fallen I had to smile towards the end when the two discussants commented that the conceptualiser of The Unknown Fallen had been guided by Allah to undertake the task. You call him Allah, I call him God, others call him Jehovah, HaShem, the God of Thunder, Creator – they’re all a cultural title for a force we cannot explain. And those of us with a deep-rooted faith know how things fell into place to ensure our involvement to produce this incredible book and to learn from each other.

Whilst the interview on The Unknown Fallen is naturally Muslim-oriented – talking about a book which concerns a part of Muslim history, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities with other religious and cultural groups whose involvement in the conflict is also struggling to be heard.

Many of these cultural groups feature in The Unknown Fallen. Broadly speaking, the African, Chinese and Russian spring to mind. As Dr Bilal Philips tells us today we tend to hear more about British/French or German Muslims, not Muslim Germans/French or British. This goes for so many other groups too – where the man-made community or nation the person is residing in expects preference in the identity stakes. As all the major religions teach us, respect and love for fellow mankind will ensure a more harmoneous co-existence. These divisions have become more apparent over the centenary years of the war – memorials are being put up for individual groups which have been forgotten or ignored to date. On one level, I fully understand this – it’s a visual representation and a way to ensure longer remembrance, however, it’s also divisive – where do we stop? At company or platoon level?

What struck me from the interview is how many different ways people are continuing to discover how their families and communities were involved or impacted by the war. Today the media has a big role to play, particularly in raising African awareness as noticed over the four years of the centenary of the conflict. And with this will come more desire for memorials and outward manifestations to show remembrance – a situation that could lead to further conflict as one group determines to be bigger and better (whatever that might be) than the next.

My journey continues, and as part of this, it strikes me that it’s time we start to recognise the one common denominator in all this remembrance and study of war. Humankind. With this in mind, shouldn’t we have an all-inclusive reminder? Not the poppy which is exclusive, but something as simple and all-encompassing as the minute or two’s silence we spare at times of remembrance whether on 11 November, 4 August, 19 September, 21 February, at a funeral or memorial service. So far, in my quest – a Dove: accepted by all religions and present in all countries except for the driest parts of the Sahara Desert, Antarctica and the Arctic.

In line with the message of The Unknown Fallen: Brothers/Sisters in Arms, Together we Stand – all faiths, all cultures, one people.

The Fear of Equality

It’s common knowledge that South African Native Labour Corps men who served in France during World War 1 were kept separated behind barbed wire fences and were not allowed to fraternise with the local populations. The men had to be supervised and controlled by white South African men who had experience of managing black labour in South Africa.

This scenario is often used to prove white South Africa’s racial tendencies.

Recently, I came across the following description:

Among other regulations, smoking was prohibited on duty and in public places. Alcohol was forbidden – except when prescribed ‘for medicinal purposes’ – and no member of the Corps was allowed even to enter an establishment which sold it. All letters were read by administrators, while a stringent system of chaperoning existed … The barbed wire fences around the camps served to keep the women in as well as the men out.

Yes, you read women, not black South African Native Labour Corps. Women, white, also denied the vote at the time were being treated in a similar way to black South African men.

The quote comes from “The Forgotten Army of Women: The Overseas Service of Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps with the British Forces 1917-1921” by Diana Shaw in Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experienced edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter H Liddle.

Isn’t it interesting how we shut off that which frightens us? We don’t want to engage with what we don’t know or fear.

Writing this I was reminded of an incident a good few years back now when I was still in almost full-time education. The BNP in the UK were looking as though they were going to do quite well in the general election and I was horrified at how colleges and others refused to invite BNP representatives to their institutions to be questioned by the students. It was acceptable to have the Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green candidate visit and be challenged but not the group most feared. Ostensibly this was to ‘protect the students’, but what it did was increase curiosity and, at least, verbal support for the party – everything education leaders were trying to avoid.

Similarly, my initial intention as an historian was to study communism as, at school we’d been told this was what Apartheid was against. Communism was bad and our boys had to fight it. This made Nelson Mandela and others all terrorists. Other factors got in the way of my specialism, but I still hold a sideline interest in all things communist.

Today, as in years past, we continue to put people into camps until we’re sure about them – the Boer women and children, refugees, asylum seekers. Cross-dressers and others suffering from physical and mental differences get put in asylums or care centres, those who don’t follow our rules are put in prison… and yet others seem to languish because we’re too afraid to let them out having discovered they weren’t a threat to begin with.

Hiding people away and shutting them off from the mainstream doesn’t seem to me the best way of dealing with difference. Somehow we must find ways to engage – as the men working alongside the Women’s Auxilary Service and the SANLC found, we have more in common than not and together made working for a common goal more easily achievable.

Every time I experience new cultures and meet others who travel in the same way, it reinforces the need to cross barriers and engage. Understanding the ‘other’ leads (more often than not) to respect and a greater sense of community.

Holding Thumbs

Recently I sent two people messages saying I would ‘hold thumbs’ for them. Both people came back asking if the phrase was South African and if it meant the same as ‘crossing fingers’. The short answer is yes, the two phrases mean the same – good luck.

This got me wondering how the term came into being. It’s also used in Dutch – Duim vashou and German ich druecke dir die Daumen and even Czech držet palce. According to Marty 89 the origin of the term is pagan: apparently demons dwelt in thumbs, so holding them in your hand meant they couldn’t do any wrong.  It also seems to be a Polish phrase

I wonder if this has something to do with the phrase my grandmother often used: ‘idle hands are devil’s hands.’

In some traditions, passing a cemetery requires one to hold their thumbs inside their fist to safeguard parents. And there are a whole lot of other things to do if you’re superstitious.

Thumbs feature quite a bit in phrases used by South African English:

  • Twiddle your thumbs – when bored
  • Thumb a lift – put your thumb up when hitch-hiking to ask a car to stop and pick you up. This was used often during the Apatheid years when conscription was in place. Our troepies would often hitch a lift to get home on leave or back to camp (safe ride campaign).
  • Thumbs up – for thanks, well done, good, approval
  • Thumbs down – the opposite of thumbs up.
  • Two thumbs side-ways – a family derivative of thumbs up – but even more so, ie Excellent!
  • All fingers and thumbs – clumsy
  • Under the thumb – be controlled by someone
  • Stick out like a sore thumb – obvious
  • Rule of thumb – accepted practice/way of doing something

The African proverb of you can’t tie a knot without a thumb led to a list of how valuable the thumb is.

 

Pegasus wrecks

This post was inspired, not by the ship which was sunk in Zanzibar Harbour in 1914, but by an aeroplane in Antartica. The latter occurred in 1970, 56 years and nearly 1 month after the former. The former resulted in casualties and deaths, surprisingly the 80 crew on board the plane survived.

The former was HMS Pegasus, one of three cruisers responsible for the security of the African coast from Zanzibar to St Helena via Cape Town at the outbreak of World War 1. Having had to go into harbour for repairs during September 1914, the German Konigsberg took the opportunity to sneak out of its hide-away in the Rufigi Delta to sink the boat. It was the Konigsberg‘s last raid before eventually being put out of action following attacks by the monitors Severn and Mersey. For the full story on PegasusKevin Patience has the lowdown.

Both the guns of the Pegasus (6) and the Konigsberg (10) went on to do battle on land during the remainder of the war.

In addition to the wrecks of vessels called Pegasus, it appears there are various items which cause wrecks also called Pegasus:

A Singapore Lightweight Howitzer
William Powell Pegasus Shot Gun

And there was one Pegasus ship which didn’t end up a wreck having served through the French Revolutionary Wars – she was sold in 1816.

The times they are a changing…

Walking back from the SANDF Doc Centre in its last years in Visagie Street, Pretoria (it’s now in Irene – at the end of the road joining onto Pierre van Ryneveld at Nellmapius Drive) to Pretoria General Station on my first day back in Pretoria after a year, I couldn’t help ponder over all the warnings I’d been receiving about walking in Pretoria Central.

When I was a student in Pretoria (early 1990s), we used to walk the streets until quite late without a problem. Now, as on my previous trip, I was being warned against it. As usual this got me thinking – everyone who was warning me, except for the very last person, was white. I therefore tested out my views of walking the streets with a few people of colour and was told to ‘continue walking as though you own the place’.

The next day I set out as usual but on this occasion paid close attention to the car drivers travelling along the roads I walked – I was by now quite used to being the only white person on the pavements, but hadn’t really thought about the drivers. The blunt thought struck me: where have all the white folk gone? It was almost the complete reverse of my student days.

Pretoria used to heave with whites, now they are almost non-existent. My thoughts immediately equated this with the days gone by and the Bantustans – what do we call the still predominantly white enclaves behind huge walls, fences, prected by alarms and security guards?

Thankfully pure white enclaves are rare, Oranje being the most (in)famous. The traditionally white areas are becoming more diverse and although many white South Africans still tend to avoid the CBDs (Central Business Districts) for reasons of ‘safety’, they have far more character and warmth than the clinical streets of my youth.

Later in the week (2015), I accompanied my mother to the Whitney Houston show at the then Civic Theatre (now Mandela Theatre in the Joburg Theatre complex) where I’d last been a year before with my sister for Elvis (they both do first aid duty for the theatre). Again, the contrast between these two visits was remarkable, so refreshing – the Civic has clearly got its line-up right, presenting a programme which appeals to all the different cultural groups. How wonderful it was to see a previously ‘whites only’ theatre packed with ‘mocha skin’ [as per the star of the show] enthusiasts of all ages. And to top it off, it was a South African, Belinda Davids performing the tribute to Whitney (and much better in my humble opinion).

The perception of South Africa as being dangerous persists – I’ve written about this before and it’s interesting typing up this blog piece I wrote a few years back but didn’t get to post then as to how my views haven’t changed. I feel safer now than I did in the 80s and early 90s in Johannesburg and as with all cities, one has to remain vigilent.

The other complaint I often hear is that the country has deteriorated, it is no longer what it used to be. Well, no, it isn’t and neither should it be the same country. Wasn’t that the point of overthrowing apartheid? Has the country deteriorated? In some cases, yes (and we won’t go into the corruption of politicians and others here) and there is still a lot of work to do politically and economically. But in other ways, the country hasn’t deteriorated. It is on the cultural and social fronts that the country has undergone its most radical transformation and in humble opinion – for the best.

I typed this as the ANC leadership has changed and we wait to see what transpires – the implications are huge but I hope and pray that the social and cultural progress which has been made to date influences and impacts positively on the economic and political. And I can’t but help remember the words Winnie Mandela uttered back in the early 1990s – the new South Africa will ‘accommodate everybody’ (1:18:00).

PS: In 2017 I drove into Pretoria to visit the National Archives – too far too walk from the station – but I arrived from Johannesburg rather than Boksburg and duly got myself lost! Many of the street names have changed. Whilst at the National Archive the young reading room assistant tried to explain to a white woman how to get to the courts where she would likely find the info she was needing. To the relief of both, and my amusement, he, a Tswana (we’d had a very enlightening conversation about Swahili earlier), gave up on the new street names and reverted to the old. It was just too confusing. Perhaps the next generation not knowing of the old names will find it easier.

 

Letter to a soldier’s daughter

I write this (22/2/18) to a soldier’s daughter, 12 years old. Her dad is facing a death penalty verdict on 23 February 2018. I write because I know her, but this could be for so many others, sons as well.

No matter what, remember your dad loves you and always will. Make no mistake about it. He was so proud of you the day you and I met – 2014 – the first time I met him too. I only saw him once after that – a month or so before he was taken in 2016. We met by chance in Addis airport, he on his way to Juba to participate in peace talks, I on my way home from Rwanda. He was looking forward to a time he could get home to see you again. But as we know, to date that hasn’t happened yet and might not.

Mom and Gran have probably not told you much but you know something is going on – the tension is palpable. Anger, fear, frustration, worry, interspersed with moments of hope and determination dominate. You don’t know where you stand or what you’ve done. You’ve done nothing. The adults around you are all trying to protect you – because you are you!

Their emotions are directed at the situation they face, one created by your dad and his belief in doing what he believes is right. He is a professional soldier and from where I sit, they are a special breed of person. No matter how much they feel for an individual, there seems to be a higher calling – to make the world they know a slightly better place and to do so they fight those trying to suppress others.

A good soldier is trained not to get killed but he knows there is always the risk. Officers who care are often found in the front lines seeing and encouraging rather than staying in safety behind the lines. Often they survive. But when politics gets involved, the game changes and the rules of warfare are ignored. I am reminded of Lord Kitchener who did all he could to prevent Africa being caught up in World War 1 – only to be overridden by the politicians. The same with American Vinegar Joe Stilwell in Burma in World War 2. It happens to the best. Little short of miracles can stop the wheels of politics.

From my studies of war – soldiers and statesmen – the best transcend nationalist ideals. They cross cultures, religions and most stereotypes. Invariably they are men of great faith – not necessarily a traditional one, but a faith formed through their encounters with so many others. They are humanitarians. They don’t set out to kill but will if they have to. They are by no means saints – they are human and have failings, particularly when judged by the acceptable norms of society.

Don’t be angry for too long. Remember the good times and later try to understand why your dad did what he did and does.

In life, one comes across people who make an impact. Your dad is one of those. He transcended the world he grew up in – the comments by men who served under him in so many places is testimony to this. Through his latest work as a soldier, he has been more of a humanitarian than what one would have anticipated.

The work he has put into his book on the South African forces in World War 1 – to be published in 2018, demonstrates his attention to detail and thoroughness. It kept him going in the tough times, no doubt because it gave him a link with home. In achieving this task, he has not been alone. Your mum has been a solid rock supporting both of you and herself as well as taking all the photos required. No soldier can achieve what they do without a solid support network behind the scenes – one they often take for granted.

As we wait tomorrow’s verdict and pray for a miracle, remember dad loves you, and his actions, although not obvious, have been to make your world a little better in the one way he knows.

To you and all the victims of conflict – keep strong. Focus on moving forward in faith and with a positive energy. But never forget.