Even the Dead

Jeremy Cronin reports of corrupt apartheid-era games; questioning our (in)ability to remember the politricks of the past that shape South Africa’s present

 

Walter Benjamin:

‘There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a form of Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.’

Every week I read the back page of Martin Creamer’s Engineering News. It features profiles of business leaders. Last week it was the turn of:

…………………………………………………..

‘Full name: Joggie Heuser
Position: Chief Executive of Soekor
Date and place of birth: May 1938; Bloemfontein
Education: Kroonstad High, 1955; B Comm, Pretoria 1960
Value of assets under your control: More than R1-billion
Hope for the future: For all South Africans to bury the past unconditionally.’

…………………………………………………..

It’s Johannesburg 1996. It’s FW de Klerk. He’s addressing a breakfast meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce.

It’s in the same week of another week of the Eugene de Kock trial. Tortures, Third Force hit squads, mutilated bodies.

And it’s the same story in the same week of another week of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In this same week, then, De Klerk is telling the American Chamber of Commerce: ‘Nowhere else in Africa will you find a country in which five large domestic banking conglomerates hold the savings of the population. In no other African country will you find such a developed insurance industry.’

And De Klerk smiles, the practised smile of the practised speaker, to signal ‘joke coming up.’

‘People talk a lot about a Third Force,’ De Klerk says with a twinkle in his eye. ‘But in South Africa, the real Third Force is the private sector.’
Unquote.

…………………………………………………..

That was in May.

In June, the Financial Mail, in its ‘Did You Hear?’ column, has another little joke — and I quote: ‘Scheduled SABC2 coverage of the Truth Commission was dropped on Sunday and replaced with a programme called Circus on TV. Did anyone notice the difference?’ (Snigger). Unquote.

These civilised sneers allow themselves to slip out on the fun pages of the financial press, or at breakfast meetings, or up there on the 20th storey, in the corridors, where they feel safe and among themselves.

…………………………………………………..

I am not sure what poetry is. I am not sure what the aesthetic is. Perhaps the aesthetic should be defined in opposition to anaesthetic.

Art is the struggle to stay awake.

Which makes amnesia the true target and proper subject of poetry.

Amnesia, we are told, exists across two axes — the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic — as a similarity disorder, or as a contiguity disorder.

Amnesia is when General Geldenhuys tells us the apartheid armies were never defeated at Cuito Cuanavale.

To prove his point, the general in his memoirs superimposes a diagram of a rugby field on to a map of southern Angola. Here is one set of poles, up here at Cuito. And here are the other poles, down here on a line that runs through Jamba, Sloma, all the way into Zambia.

With a rugby field tilted south-east like this it’s clear, when General Geldenhuys was pushed due south all the way down to and over the Namibian border — that wasn’t part of the game, it was off the field.

The variant of amnesia is easily diagnosed in this case.

Severe paradigmatic amnesia.

The general believes it was rugby he was playing.

…………………………………………………..

But it was golf, and it was amnesia,

when the Little Maestro, Gary Player, acknowledged his British Open victory, saying South Africa’s sporting achievements are impressive indeed considering ‘we have only three million people.’

…………………………………………………..

It wasn’t rugby.
……..It was golf.
……………And it isn’t, above all,
……..a whole new ball-game now

Because past dispossession still pays the dispossessor
……..in compound interest

Apartheid still declares
an annual dividend

Soekor retains 1 billion rands assets
……..whose origins have been buried
……..unconditionally.

…………………………………………………..

It’s syntagmatic amnesia (container for contained) when the official journal of my organisation, the African National Congress, salutes the inauguration of President Mandela with a cover, ‘Free At Last!’, and whooossssh, 6 Impala jets flying over the Union Buildings. ‘Free At Last!’, it proclaims, forgetting to ask — who pilots the planes?

…….. And were they playing rugby in southern Angola?

It’s amnesia when the SATV launches itself into the new South Africa and lands

…….. in Las Vegas
……………. (ongoing, chronic, paradigmatic amnesia).

Amnesia is the fate of the 46 who were killed in Johannesburg
…….. but not
…………….outside of Shell House
……..on the day of the so-called Shell House Massacre

Amnesia declares a minister innocent of apartheid-era corruption because she was

declared innocent by an apartheid-era commission

Amnesia appoints another commission, the Lethe Commission, Limbo Commission, Nirvana Commission, Justice van deFerred Commission

Amnesia prevails when we claim we have returned to the family of nations

……..forgetting to ask:
……………. who is we?
……..forgetting to wonder:
……………. WHAT family?

Amnesia classifies Third World Countries as ‘developing’
(structurally adjusted amnesia)

CNN is globalised amnesia

The Gulf War — lobotomised amnesia

Santa Barbara, the Bold and the Beautiful, Restless Years — the milk of amnesia

Amnesia embraces the global reality of 23 million per annum
dead
of hunger and hunger related disease

That’s a daily average equivalent, in fatalities, of one Hiroshima

……..Buried each day
……………. Under the cloud of amnesia

When Chris Hani was alive the newspapers described him as a populist war-monger

When Chris Hani was assassinated the newspapers declared him a man of peace

……..(pandemic, editorial amnesia)

There is upwardly mobile amnesia
……..Affirmative action amnesia
……………. Black economic empowerment, the world owes me one,
Dr
……………. Motlana, give me a slice of it amnesia

(syntagmatic amnesia — an elite for the whole)

There is winning nation amnesia
…….. it puts in Olympic Bids

…….. it summits Everest and forgets to name all but one
…….. of the Sherpas who carried us up.

Winning nation amnesia implies
…….. some win, many lose

And where does that leave Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia,
Angola, Lesotho and Swaziland?

And where does that leave us
…….. in any sustainable future?

Beware, amnesia has no cut-off date

Beware, right now amnesia is sneering at us

Up there on the 20th floor, listen over cocktails, the civilised sniggers on the pages of the Financial Mail

After all we’re a normal society now, except, perhaps, for the unions and the violence.

Apartheid was all the fault of those bearded chaps who like to dress up in khaki uniforms.
……..(I mean, who else benefited?)

No need to stand before Archbishop Tutu pleading forgiveness.

Heavens no

After all, who needs AMNESTY

…….. when there’s

blue-chip, just the ticket, deregulated, liberalised, privatised, free market, god-given, just to please yer, property claused, heck I worked for it all — I earned it, affirmative actioned — not me, now in stock, just the product, your station, people of the south, felicia, (what’s my name again?), this one’s for you

It’s great, it’s easier, I promise you, so let’s hear it again
……………. from —

…………………………………………………..

Walter Benjamin:

‘In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overwhelm it . . . Only that historian will have the gift of fanning some sparks of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.’

 

 

Jeremy Cronin is the author of several volumes of poetry. He is also First Deputy General Secretary of the SACP and currently serves as Deputy Minister of Public Works. This piece is drawn from a volume by the same title, first published in 1997. It previously featured in Chimurenga Vol. 7: Kaapstad! (And Jozi, The Night Moses Died).

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