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.

Review: Memoirs of the Boer War by Jan Smuts

I set myself the challenge ot read through Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel’s 7 volume Selections from the Smuts’ Papers. So far, I’ve completed volume 1. As a specialist of WW1, I thought it would be interesting to see what documents and thoughts he’d written prior to the 1914-1918 war and to see how his younger days influenced his later…

What I didn’t expect to find though was a draft memoir of his Boer War experiences. Part V of volume 1 is the start of what was to be a book but which was never finished due to his getting more involved in politics from 1904. These almost 130 pages tell Smuts’s story from the Fall of Pretoria [*] June 1900 through to the start of The Potchefstoom Campaign in early 1901.

[* you can see some of the pages on Google books (the first page is 536)]

This is not a military account, I wouldn’t expect anything like that from Smuts; it is rather a personal reflection on how he saw the war (and no doubt how he wanted the public to see the war – compare this with his reports to the War Office which were published in the Gazettes in 1916 and 1917). Tucked within these pages, and the earlier part dealing with his correspondence during the Boer War, are insights into his views on military strategy and how these were received by others. For those with the patience to tackle military strategy, this should provide some good material for understanding (or confusing) what he did during the East Africa campaign. I couldn’t help but be struck by his comments about organisation and his take on small forces being chased by a force much larger than the numbers they were chasing.

Interspersed are accounts of meeting with his wife, how he got letters through to her and other family members on occasion, humour, and frustration. He explains the Boer take on fighting (or rather retreating) and their fear of being captured – one group being found reciting prayers aloud in the hope that they would not be mistaken for fighters. And to top it all we get some history lessons from Smuts – not least the significance of Dingaan’s Day (Day of the Covenant and now Day of Reconciliation) and the Great Trek – all in the context of the Anglo-Boer War. It was the day after 16 December 1899, a day of solemn reflection and rejoicing in the progress of the war, that things started to go awry. Smuts gives credit where it is due – I was surprised at the number of British officers he commented on: favourably. Another striking point was his regular references to Kitchener allowing the Boers to cross the lines to meet with fellow Boers or get messages to Europe where President Kruger was in exile. Surely, if one is at war, you don’t rely on the favour of the enemy to let you communicate with your own side which is positioned on the other side of the enemy? It clearly was a war with a difference…

It’s not the most gripping and exciting of reads, if I’m honest, but it is a worthwhile read for those interested in understanding Smuts’s behaviour and actions during the East Africa campaign of 1916-1917.

Is this the reason Boers and Australians (white) love their country so much?

I return to Jan Smuts commenting on a piece written by Olive Schreiner in answer to the above question. Well, rather, it was reading the following which gave rise to the question. The reference for the quotes below is Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers vol 1, pp117-9.

She points out very truly that while the English Colonist, even he who settled in this country as far back as 1820, still continues to think fondly of, and feel sympathetically of his parents, and the great race to which he belongs, the Boer has become of the soil, soily; he has cut himself completely adrift from Europe and his progenitors, and their traditions and ideals over there; he has come to look upon South Africa, not merely as the land of his birth, but also as the source of all that is most dear and hallowed in his memory, as the object of his tenderest sympathies and aspirations. Why is the Boer in this respect so different, not only from his English fellow colonist, but also all the previous recorded types of colonist? The writer [Schreiner] points to the following facts as furning some explanation of this obscure and difficult subject. In the first place, the original population of the Colony consisted almost solely of males of very mixed nationalities; and the wives which the Company sent out for them were orphans from the philanthropic institutions of the mother country. They had no hallowed and enduring memories to cherish of the land of their birth, no parents’ homes to think of, with their thousand little trifling details which yet influence the hearts and thoughts of generations; this country was the first glimpse of ‘Good Hope’ which they ever had. No wonder, therefore, that they and their offspring cherished no sentimental regard for the mother country…’

Schreiner explains that the French refugees ‘did not bring any pleasant memories from their mother country’ as they were

‘separated from the bulk of the French population by great differences of religious belief and social aims, persecuted by their Government, and goaded by a nameless tyranny to rebellion and exile, they taught their children to love the land of refuge which providence had marked out for them, and themselves tried to forget the harsh stepmother of France.’

To this, Smuts counteracts using the letters by Bernardin de St Pierre who visited the Cape in 1771, in which he noted that ‘the one thing which struck him’ about the Dutch and the French colonists ‘was their strong sentimental attachment to the mother countries. He says the French always cried when the name of France was mentioned.’

Finally, a common language – Afrikaans – was a binding factor for the Boers.

One’s experiences clearly influences the way one sees and reacts to places. I couldn’t help but think of the views of the children/young people in Purple Hibiscus which I finished not long after reading Smuts’s commentary on Schreiner. The different responses to the worlds the children found themselves in can only be reminsicent of what the Boers and, I assume Australians as well as others, must have and continue to experience. The refugees of yesteryear are no different to those of today.