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.

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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.

A book for Ouma Smuts

HJ Wolstenholme, Smuts’ Cambridge friend, wrote to him in April 1906 including a book he thought Mrs Smuts might enjoy – the Life of Mrs Lynn Linton. Unfortunately he didn’t say who the author was but he indicated he’d bought the book as a ‘cheap remainder’ it having been published a few years before.

My curiosity was piqued. Who was Mrs Linton that Wolstenholme was recommending Ouma read? Thanks to the digitisation of old books, below are some relevant links.

Mrs Lynn Linton: her life, letters and opinions by George Somes Layard (1901)
Chapter 5 in Literary Celebrities of the English Lake District by Frederick Sessions
My Literary Life by Elizabeth Lynn Linton

For a brief overview, read on:

Elizabeth Lynn Linton was born in 1822 and died in 1898. She was born and buried at Crosthwaithe, Keswick, the daughter of a vicar. She was one of 12 children, their mother having died when Elizbeth was five months old. Her oldest sibling, a brother, was 16 when she was born.

At the age of 23 she went to London where she joined the Morning Chronicle becoming the first woman employed by a newspaper to draw a salary. After two years she visited Italy and then lived in Paris working for another newspaper. She was known to Charles Dickens who introduced her to other literary figures of the day. She sold Gad’s Hill in Kent [now a museum] to Dickens, a place he had loved since childhood.

She married in 1858, the artist WJ Linton. He already had 6 children. They split soon after, she finding country life tedious and WJ not enjoying city life. He moved to the USA and she remained in London.

In 1873 she anonymously published the True History of Joshua Davidson, Communist. She claimed she was the closest friend Davidison had and felt the record needed to be put straight.

In 1898 at the age of 76, nearly blind, she died. During her life she wrote about 40 novels, and a range of articles including “Are good women characterless” and “Wild women: as politicians” (titles which caught my eye).

On religion, she wrote: “We are all, all, all His children, and He does not speak to us apart, but to us all in our own language, equally according to our age – that is our knowledge and civilization. To Him I live, and in Him I believe, but all the rest is dark” (Sessions, p55)

On feminism: “At all events, the phase of women’s rights has to be worked through to its ultimate. If found impracticable, delusive, subversive, in the working, it will have to be put down again. It is all a question of power, both in the getting and in the using.” (Ourselves in Sessions, p56)

And of her books, Frederick Sessions notes that the ‘topsy turveyest book that ever was written is Mrs Linton’s Christopher Kirkland (book) which her biographer takes as autobiographical although she swopped the genders of her characters.

There is clearly much more to this woman than meets the eye and one day I might have time to revisit her in more detail. But what is intriguing is that Wolstenholme believes that Issy Smuts will enjoy the book. There are some clear overlaps but also differences. Ouma was intelligent and educated at university which is where she met Smuts, Elizabeth had little formal education but was clearly an intelligent woman. Both ignored the fads of the day and both knew their mind. They were also supported by the men in their lives (Issie by Smuts and Elizabeth by her father and colleagues).

And her apparent anti-feminst stance makes me think of the other female author with a southern African connection: Doris Lessing. All three powerful individuals who in their own way have influenced the world we know today.

Von and Van – what’s in a name?

I’ve recently read two accounts of World War 1 in Africa – one a novel, Dust Clouds of War by John Wilcox and the other a memoir to be published in 2018. In both of these texts, the British Allied commander, South African Jaap (Jacob) van Deventer, has been referred to as Deventer. Both books are by British English authors who do not fully understand naming constructions.

I’m being a little harsh here – my dad had to correct me on the pronunciation of van Deventer’s name years ago. I used to call him “van de Venter” splitting his name in keeping with many other South African names: van der Merwe, van der Westhuizen etc. Put the “de” onto the “venter” and you have “Deventer” pronounced “dear-venter”. And I’ve been known to mis-pronounce other significant names too: Tighe (“Tie” for those wondering I used to call “Tigga”), Caligula (a little before my time, was pronounced “Ka-li-goo-la”) and of course Beit (should be “bite” rather than “bate”). These are easy mistakes for readers who haven’t hear the names pronounced.So, I suppose it is not surprising that authors apply what they know of one culture to another related one.

With German names, “von” is a title added to a name in much the same way “sir” is added to British names. It’s recognition and status. For the Afrikaans South African name, the “van” or “von” is part of the name translating to “of” or “from” and specifically being lower case “v” – van Deventer originates from the Dutch for someone from Deventer in Overijssel (Ancestry).

This means that when writing German names like von Lettow-Vorbeck the “von” can be safely dropped and we can talk about Lettow-Vorbeck, but we cannot do the same with van Deventer – it’s the equivalent of calling Smith, “ith”.

Another name Wilcox gets wrong in his account is Phillip Pretorius, Smuts’ lead scout. As many have done before, he incorrectly refers to Phillip as Piet. This is in the acknowledgements noting that Simon Fonthill’s escapades were based partly on Pretorius’ search for the Konigsberg. I’m also a little puzzled as to how men could have been involved in both the Boer War (11 Oct 1899 – 31 May 1902) and the Boxer Rebellion in China (2 Nov 1899 – 7 Sep 1901). There is a window between Sep 1901 and May 1902 but I’ve not come across anyone of note having moved between the theatres. (Please let me know if you know of anyone). Lettow-Vorbeck is often mistakenly said to have fought in both, but before he was posted to China, he was in the German War Office studying the actions of the Boer War to assist the German military.
Wilcox further makes the fundamental error of referring to the Smuts raiding into the Union of South Africa during the Boer War when he should be referring to Smuts’ raid into the Cape Colony. The Union of South Africa only came into being in 1910