Spies Tell Lies.

May 19, 2016

Police spies have, historically, been deemed the most contemptible of people. The “copper’s nark” of Britain was traditionally seen as an enemy not only of the criminal fraternity but even of the working class, and richly deserved the savage kicking he received in prisons. In Paris, police spies were on the same level as pimps, but not as valuable members of society. In South Africa, of course, the police spy was necessarily tied in with the apartheid state, and to be called an “impimpi” was as much as one’s life was worth (provided that one was weak, unprotected and unarmed — ideally an elderly female whom the brave young lions could boldly burn to death).

The exception in the West is the middle-class perspective on the political police spy. Of course Verloc in Conrad’s The Secret Agent is an unattractive figure — but then he is an agent provocateur, and working for the Czarist government whom Konrad Korteniowski necessarily disliked. But in a lot of cases the attitude is more that of I Was a Communist for the FBI — focussing on the courage of the political police spy in betraying the spy’s friends and allies on behalf of the centres of power. The same was true under the apartheid regime in South Africa, when police spies were honoured (except by those against whom they were used) — except that some felt that there was something a little problematic about them, not that anybody in authority minded.

Olivia Forsyth’s Agent 407 is, thus, interesting as being a voice from within the problematic stuff. The question is whether anybody will admire it, and also, of course, whether anybody will believe a professional deceiver.

Forsyth was mildly famous at one stage. She was a campus spy — a fairly lowly form of life, but extremely common; it was particularly easy to recruit conservative white people and get them to pretend to be left-wingers in exchange for a free university education. Such people, if they were caught, would not be necklaced or shot, but would simply be embarrassed and might have to go to some other institution. So they risked little and all they had to do was deceive the people who surrounded them, which was usually easy, and pleasing for them because conservative whites naturally despised white left-wingers even more than they despised blacks.

Forsyth comes from a fairly familiar background — part colonial, having been partly brought up in Zambia, part official, since her biological father worked for the government, living some of her time in conservative white Natal, some of her time in conservative white Pietersburg (now Polokwane, of course). So it is not very surprising that someone of this schizophrenic reactionary origin should have sought out a job with the government, first supposedly with the Foreign Service, then with the National Intelligence Service, and then with the Security Branch of the South African Police. Or maybe she was always angling for an SB job — who can say for sure?

What one can say for sure is that this is not a person whom one would trust under any circumstances. You twig this on the first page, when she is talking about how she was getting ready to be sent off to Russia for training, and how she was being escorted out of Luanda by some MK troops, thinking that they were there to defend her against FRELIMO bandits. FRELIMO were, of course, the government of Mozambique at that time, and so had they been there in Angola they would not have been bandits but allies. Also, they were the government which the South African government was trying to overthrow by sponsoring RENAMO guerrillas. In fact the people she is talking about was UNITA, who were certainly bandits, but who were enjoying the full and unqualified support of the South African and United States governments at the time. So someone who can’t tell the difference between her friends and her enemies, who gets her acronyms wrong, can hardly be trusted to know when she is telling the truth — and very probably she is being sloppy anyway because she assumes that her audience is a bunch of ignorant and politically gullible Britons.

Anyway, after a reactionary life and a brief bit of university training she was recruited as Agent RS407. She claims not to know what the initials stand for, but wonders if it meant “Republican Servant”. Unlikely, since it would have been in Afrikaans, and in Afrikaans that would be “Republikeinse Bediende”. More probably it stands for “Republikeinse Spioen”, and the fact that she didn’t think of that suggests how she is completely running away from the realities of her actual trade of treachery and falsification.

Why should she? Why should she be so inaccurate regarding details where she could check the facts with a single act of Googling? Presumably, because the truth does not matter, because what matters is something else. But what?

She started out, with apparently very limited training, as a simple spy on Rhodes campus, the most interesting campus from the perspective of the secret police in the 1980s because it was an extremely right-wing university in an extremely right-wing area, and therefore the destruction of NUSAS, the principal leftist organisation, was always a possibility; the university had already disaffiliated from NUSAS once. (NUSAS depended heavily, and ironically, on the subsidies of institutions, in return for NUSAS members largely keeping students quiet in respect of the corruption and mismanagement of academics and university authorities; it was, thus, a pensionary of the power-structure.)

However, she wanted more. She says this was her own initiative, but it seems likely that the secret police were grooming her for more. It was always assumed that white people rose rapidly within the ANC because black people had an intrinsic respect for whiteness. (While there may have been some truth to this, a reason which the racist secret police failed to consider was that whites who joined the ANC tended to be people with much more initiative and political understanding than the average, and were thus better qualified to rise.) So a white leftist inserted into the ANC might be expected to get into a significant position.

Forsyth also seems to have had one significant advantage. She was young, pretty and would fuck any man within reach. This apparent utter lack of self-respect naturally made her attractive to the thoroughly sexist males of the leadership of the white left, protecting her against exposure as a police spy — for by making herself absolutely available she proved her political virtue. It also distinguished her from the women of the white left who were usually more subordinate dogsbodies and generally had a distaste for such abjection, as a result of exposure to feminism which never troubled Forsyth. (Also, just at the time when Forsyth was becoming active, sexualised “post-feminism” was beginning to raise its head, which could have been used by Forsyth had she so wished.)

Another advantage was that since Forsyth was simply playing a part, and had no liking or respect for any of the people who surrounded her (she claims otherwise, but provides no evidence for why she might have evolved liking or respect for the people she betrayed to prison or death under the increasingly repressive politics of the era) having sex with any of them was of no more significance than the sexual activities of a porn actress; it simply didn’t count as real sex because her partners were not human.

So, having successfully betrayed NUSAS and the End Conscription Campaign at Rhodes, there was nothing for it but to go on to fight against the African National Congress, using her contacts in the white left to gain access to the ANC underground and thus make her way to Luanda and become part of the external ANC, with the possibility of a huge betrayal of the liberation movement — which, of course, for her, was not a betrayal, but simply undermining the enemy. However, unmentioned in the background of one of Forsyth’s trophy photographs of all the young people whom she was informing on to the apartheid police force is the cheerful face of the sprightly, bumptious, self-centred aspirant journalist Gavin Evans, who unbeknownst to people like Forsyth was one of the main ANC counterintelligence officers inserted into the white left. It seems quite likely that Evans was the man who recognised that Forsyth was an actor, and was probably at best a stooge and, most probably, a traitor.

Forsyth was playing in a whole new game, again unbeknownst to her; the white left inside South Africa had long ago given up all hope of curbing the vast flood of police spies (they were considered quite useful for stuffing envelopes and making platform-parties seem larger) whereas the ANC took spies seriously, partly because they were useful in maintaining an atmosphere of paranoia which benefited many of the more repressive leaders of the organisation.

So when Forsyth arrived in Luanda she was monitored, and then scrutinised, and then chucked into Quattro, a.k.a Number Four Camp, the prison camp where ANC dissidents and spies were held, abused, re-educated and sometimes debriefed. And this is the point at which the narrative really goes off the rails.

Forsyth claims that she did a deal with Ronnie Kasrils, the head of MK Intelligence (as opposed to Mbokhodo, ANC Security, which ran Quattro and was generally of much higher status and lower quality than MK Intelligence). Under this deal, she would eventually be swapped for some or other captured SWAPO or MK guerrilla, but she would really be working for MK, and would therefore be an ANC intelligence agent at the heart of the white establishment. In fact, she hints that while she had been busy betraying NUSAS at Rhodes she had undergone a complete change of heart and thereafter wanted nothing more than to be posted to spy on the ANC so that she could betray the apartheid establishment to them.

This is, of course, entirely her claim, which no conceivable evidence could substantiate. It is naturally what she might be expected to claim thirty years after the fact, when virtually everyone who could refute her claims is dead or senile. Of course it is possible that she might have so fallen in love with treachery and become so detached from reality and moral good sense that she might have pursued such an agenda for its own sake. (It is inconceivable that she might have somehow developed actual moral sense; nothing in her entire career suggests this.)

However, she obviously did some kind of deal, presumably under pressure, for she was taken out of Quattro again and placed under house arrest in Luanda. Conceivably Kasrils, who was always rather gullible and something of a grandstander, although honest according to his lights and more competent than most of those around him, was fooled by her line. Of course this would not have been a great accomplishment — she was an insignificant part of the South African espionage machinery and would not have known much more than gossip, nor been able to learn much — but MK and its allies were desperate for some modest success at this stage, their machinery in South Africa having been heavily penetrated or broken up. She then escaped from her safe-house to the British Embassy in that city. (Supposedly, the British government was highly indignant that the Angolans did not fast-track the rapid and easy repatriation of a spy from the South African government, which was then occupying and bombarding large parts of their country.)

Of course this escape makes nonsense of her claim to have wished to be a double agent for the ANC. There was no cause for such an escape unless one assumes that she remained loyal to the regime. After that she participated in a ludicrous pretense undertaken by the Security Branch under which she would pretend to have been a top agent who had successfully penetrated the ANC’s heartland and made it back with vital information, a pretense which fooled nobody who didn’t want to be fooled. Part of the deal was an arranged marriage with another secret policeman (probably the lick of truth in Forsyth’s narrative is that the Security Branch no longer trusted her) which, like the rest of her career and life, gradually faded away into the obscurity and misery which she had always richly deserved.

Why bother to write the book? Perhaps for the money, but who thought that the disingenuous fantasies of a dishonest reactionary would sell? Or was it sponsored by someone seeking to sanitise the odious history of the apartheid regime’s police spies? There are a few vague hints in the book that Forsyth would like to present herself as an anti-Communist – although this is ill-constructed and also decidedly implausible. Arguably, this is the kind of political stance which modern reactionaries try to take, and perhaps the wish to sanitise its own record on behalf of the old apartheid regime matched Forsyth’s desire to justify herself and possibly confuse the public enough to escape too much historical odium – for in the end Forsyth’s apparent lies and distortions are as likely as anything more honest and accurate to get into the history books.

Sad, really, but hardly surprising.


Teetering.

May 19, 2016

The last few years have seen a number of U.S. foreign policy initiatives, all of which have been disastrous. The U.S. government has avoided taking responsibility for these disasters by claiming in retrospect that it had nothing to do with them — the “Arab Spring” calamities, the invasion of Libya, the assault on Syria, the attack on Russia, the invasion of Yemen, the deliberately raised tension with China, the political and economic chaos in Brazil, the political, military and economic chaos all across West Africa. All of these were problems which could have been avoided, but the U.S. government and its allies in NATO determined to promote the problems as if they were solutions. This, on top of all the calamities which arose out of the Afghan, Iraqi and Somali invasions, has generated the greatest global refugee crisis in history (which is a pretty impressive accomplishment given the bloody history of the past couple of hundred years) and a scale of political chaos almost unprecedented; vast areas of Africa and Asia either have no effective government, or no legitimate government, and the march of disaster continues ceaselessly.

So we have grown accustomed to bad political conditions in countries which cannot defend themselves. What is a little unusual about this is not only the scale of the problem, but also the fact that some countries, it would appear, can defend themselves. Syria and Yemen did not just roll over and submit to the Wahhabi aggression of Saudi Arabia. Russia resisted the attempt to seize her military bases in Crimea. Iran was not bullied by American warmongering. China was fazed neither by the American blustering attempt to bully them out of the South China Sea, nor by yet another risible American attempt to seize control of the faltering economies of the Pacific Rim. (The Trans-Pacific Partnership, if successful, will deftly eliminate competitors to China, since American economic domination of a country invariably means the collapse of manufacturing there, and hence the countries involved will be more dependent on China and financially weaker in relation to it).

It would appear that not only is America a gangster who can only effectively rough up toddlers, but that some of the toddlers have called in their big brothers, or invested in steak-knives. That is why the American gangster is now obliged to rough up babies in pushchairs (Honduras, the Central African Republic, Burundi and so on) because it dares not take on anything that can even feebly fight back — a logical extrapolation of the Powell Doctrine.

All this is bad, but it’s not very bad for those not directly bombed, shot, burned or robbed. It does little harm to that part of the world which is able to defend themselves against imperialist aggression. Admittedly, it means that those countries where imperialist aggression is most effective are growing steadily economically weaker. This might be quite beneficial for those who can defend themselves (basically, Russia, China and their friends). The big problem is, however, that economic activity is global, and those who are able to defend themselves against bombers and gummen might not be able to defend themselves against bankers.

Why is the global financial system behaving so oddly? The DOW is up to levels which were only fantasies in the 1990s — a book called DOW 18,000 was jeered at when it came out, but now the DOW has reached that level. European and NATO-supporting Asian stock markets are at record highs. The US unemployment rate is down from where it was five years ago. It appears, according to the financial trade papers, that we are booming, and yet those same trade papers are telling us that there is a crisis, the exchanges are jerking around wildly, currencies are bouncing up and down as if they were on bungee cords, and Solemn Utterances from Lenders of Last Resort are delivered to Inspire Confidence, which of course causes panic because everybody knows that the lenders of last resort, the privatised entities which were once national banks, have no money worth the paper it is printed on or the electrons it was created with.

The general issue seems to be twofold: the collapse of the oil price, and the collapse of the Chinese economy. Together these are sending the world into a tailspin. The collapse of the oil price is of course nobody’s fault because that is the inscrutable working of the invisible hand in the free market. But the collapse of the Chinese economy is the fault of the Communists, and the solution to that problem is to overthrow the Communist Party and have the IMF install a free-market dictatorship in Beijing (possibly Chiang Kai-Shek could be disinterred and propped up with cushions), a policy which worked so well in saving the economies of Italy, Greece and above all Ukraine.

Now that we’ve all had our little laugh at the explanations in every newspaper in the world, shall we consider what is actually happening?

The big hidden issue is that national treasuries, mainly the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the European Central Bank, have been creating money and using it to buy bonds from various financial institutions which were in trouble, so that those institutions could have liquidity and could lend money without fearing that they might be caught short without cash and go bankrupt. This has been going on since 2008 in some cases, and it involves vast amounts of money, none of which has anything to do with productivity.

If the money had actually been lent to producers in the form of investment, then it would have generated massive economic growth (and also quite a lot of inflation). This is the theory behind the concept of monetarism, of supply-side economics; create enough money and the economy will automatically look after itself. It has been repeatedly disproved, but it remains alive because it puts financial institutions, which are highly centralised industries with few employees, at the centre of the national economy, relegating all productive activities to the margins. Anyway, once again the theory was disproved. What the banks did was to plough the money into the stock markets all over the world, which duly soared, although the money was not used for productive investment there either; it was mostly recycled into web-based and financial companies.

What all this means is that the global economy is now more of a Ponzi scheme than it was in 2007; the bulk of economic growth in the NATO countries and their allies is in financialised systems which depend heavily in cash generated by national treasuries. This money is virtual, however; if anybody starts to sell seriously, the value of the stocks and bonds will fall precipitately, as began to happen in China before the Chinese government stepped in to stop the game of musical chairs (the Chinese National Bank is not a private entity and the Chinese stock exchange is under government control). In other words, the moment the mythical gold actually needs to be produced, it will turn back into straw — which is what you expect from fairy gold. Meanwhile, the US government has stopped pumping money into the system, and although the Japanese and the Europeans are pumping money into the system it is not taking up the slack, partly because the US government has also raised interest rates and is expected to do so some more.

Basically, everybody is waiting for a huge financial crisis which will probably make the 2007 crisis look puny (since the global economy is more fragile than it was, and since the financial system is less resilient and more endebted than it was) and the Americans are pursuing policies which seem likely to precipitate the crisis, believing (almost certainly wrongly) that they are better able to ride out a crisis than their competitors in Europe and Japan. In other words, while NATO is engaged in a shooting or a cold military war with the rest of the world, the U.S. is engaged in a financial war with the rest of NATO.

Meanwhile, the Chinese economy has slowed down. We are told that this is a crisis, but in fact the Chinese economy has slowed from a growth rate of 7.7% to a growth rate of 6.9% per annum — in other words, instead of growing three and a half times faster than the U.S. economy and eleven times faster than the South African economy, it is growing three times and ten times faster respectively. A recession that ain’t.

What is more significant is that the Chinese financial economy is in trouble — a real estate bubble and various related financial scams has taken severe toll on the Chinese stock exchange and banking system, although there have been few substantial failures and of course there is plenty of money sloshing around because of China’s rigid exchange controls and nationalised central banking system. Many of China’s billionaires working in hot money and derivative scams have lost their shirts — which pleases the Chinese government, because financial billionaires are much too independent for their liking, and they don’t want to have to kowtow to them. However, the West ploughed a lot of money into those silly schemes, and so a lot of Westerners have lost a lot of money and are worried about it. Hence they are blaming the Chinese in order not to blame themselves.

Maybe that isn’t a big enough disaster to trigger a financial crisis — although given the feeble state of the European and Japanese financial economies, and America’s destructive financial policies, it might be. But the fall in the oil price is an ostrich delivering its plops on the head of Wall Street’s bronze bull.

The oil price has fallen because the Americans wanted it down. Having so much money, they could easily manipulate the futures price in oil, and that would spook investors to bring the current price down in line with that. Meanwhile, when they told the Saudis that they wanted the oil price down, the Saudis were happy to oblige. The Saudis were flush with cash, and they were busy eliminating two of their enemies by overthrowing the Ba’ath Party in Syria and persuading the Israelis and Americans to invade Iran. Cutting the oil price wouldn’t have to be a long-term thing, and once the Wahhabis were in power in Damascus and Iran had collapsed into civil war and chaos, the Saudis would rule the region.

But the other big thing was to hammer the U.S. fracking industry. Fracking in the U.S. is to some extent another Ponzi scheme — it doesn’t produce nearly as much oil and gas as the propaganda pretends, it’s grotesquely expensive and environmentally devastating, and in the long run it makes it harder to get the bulk of the hydrocarbons out because they get lost in the cracks. However, in the short term it was the biggest growth industry in the U.S. and the thing which was going to make Barack Obama’s Presidency look good in its last year. But that was when oil was $60 a barrel and set to rise. Now that it’s below $35 a barrel, no sane person would invest in fracking. So the industry has lost its investments and is frozen — actually it’s set to collapse. So why did the Americans permit this? Because they wanted to see Russia, Iran and Venezuela collapse first, and because the fracking industry is insured against losses.

So the American insurance industry is having to bail out the fracking industry. But this has been going on for a long time, and the heat is on the insurance industry and on the fracking industry, both of which look in a bad way. At a time when the possibility of a financial crisis looms large, this is not a good thing to see. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran have shown no sign of collapsing — the American-promoted sanctions against both countries have meant that they don’t need all that much foreign currency to survive, and both countries have developed strong manufacturing industries. Venezuela is in a bad way, but that doesn’t really matter. And also meanwhile, the Saudis have spent vast amounts of money in the Syrian quagmire and their dream of a Wahhabi regime in Syria is nowhere near fruition; meanwhile they overstretched themselves by invading Yemen and are in another quagmire there, and so they are blowing vast amounts of cash which they don’t have, based on income they aren’t getting, and are screaming for help. As is Nigeria, America’s closest ally in West Africa (and an economic basket case).

So, basically, the next few months could see a calamitous global financial collapse. But not just a financial and banking collapse; a serious decline in the purchasing power of Western currencies, and a substantial crisis of overproduction in Asia and Germany which will throw people out of work in those regions — problems which didn’t come up in 2007. That will combine with the bursting of the bubbles which have been inflated by massive money-creation over the last few years, and with the decline in trade caused by the devastation of so many minor countries in recent years. This looks like a perfect storm — and given that there are so many politico-military flashpoints which the Americans have engineered between themselves and their allies and their competitors, and given that the NATO countries will be the big victims in any such collapse, the consequences could be a global war.

Invest in candles and cans of beans!


Same Game, Different Rules.

May 19, 2016

The last decade has seen a dramatic deterioration in South African economic and political conditions. In this modern world very little attention is paid to memory, so the world of 2005 seems misty and vague, but in retrospect it was a national Utopia; we had a strong and popular government which was working to solve problems like inequality and HIV and foreign affairs with vigour and efficacy, we had a booming economy, and the nation was cohesive; the poor expected that someone would look after them, the rich expected to be left alone with their wealth, blacks and whites were gradually moving away from the hostilities of the apartheid era. In contrast, nowadays things seem to be falling apart; even the Parliamentary opposition has fallen into desuetude.

But in 2005 many were convinced that South African economic and political conditions were simply not good enough — which was a fair enough claim if anybody had been able to prove that they had a better alternative. There was a strong groundswell calling for radical change within the Tripartite Alliance, as if this long national nightmare of peace and prosperity needed to be brought to an end, to make room for strife and poverty. And, lo, that was exactly what came to pass. Now, in 2015, there seems to be another groundswell within the Tripartite Alliance, calling, if not for radical change because nobody would believe in that any more, at least for regime change.

Basically, the SACP and COSATU are threatening, as they did between 1998 and 2007, to withdraw support from the ANC until their demands are met. They are also, increasingly, criticising the government’s policies, and are throwing their weight behind a candidacy for the Presidency of the ANC not favoured by its current President. This all looks like a re-run of the Mbeki-Zuma struggle of 2005-8, but it is actually very different in practice although the actors and agendas are very similar.

The SACP and COSATU are aware that their influence within the ANC must decline with the departure of Zuma, who leaned on them and their capacity for manipulating elections very heavily in order to seize control of the party. Now the rest of the ANC leadership at provincial level is as good at rigging votes and faking credential challenges as anyone in the alliance, and they don’t need the SACP and COSATU. Therefore, the formerly indispensible cheaters are naturally looking for other allies. However, the process of looking for other allies makes them behave unreliably from the perspective of Zuma supporters. Therefore, increasingly, the SACP and COSATU are distancing themselves from Zuma – and thus makes others eager to step into their shoes as the gofers and hit-men for Zuma. In other words, they are making themselves dispensible, and meanwhile, since they have until recently been the utterly unthinking supporters of Zuma, nobody imagines that they are in any way principled.

Their weakness might not seem to be a problem. When they attacked Mbeki in 2005, he was completely independent of them, since they had withdrawn support for him for the previous seven years. Yet the hostility which they showed overthrew him – so can’t this be done again?

In 2005-7, however, the SACP and COSATU operated in alliance with the sleazeballs and derelicts who’d been flung from power, and with agents of Zuma who had hidden their real allegiances until it was too later for Mbeki to act against them in any principled way. There are still plenty of sleazeballs and derelicts, but the ones who opposed Zuma, or didn’t support him enough, have been turfed out of all positions and made a horrible example of, and that doesn’t encourage anybody to follow their example. So the SACP and COSATU may not have as many allies as they need, even though obviously think they have them.

The SACP and COSATU can no lonber pretend that they stand for anything positive. Both are so tainted with their unquestioning support for Zuma’s antics, especially where it contradicted everything they pretended to stand for, that they can’t get much in the way of disinterested public support any more. Therefore it’s harder for them to fool people into supporting whatever clown they decide to support, except for those whom they can bribe with cash (of which they don’t have much these days) or offers of jobs (and they have difficulty being trusted even with that.).

Much of the big business community supports the same person that the SACP and COSATU support — namely, Cyril Ramaphosa — so it is possible that the SACP and COSATU might be able to garner their support. However, the alternative to Cyril Ramaphosa is not a figure like Mbeki, whom the neoliberal elite hated and feared; it is, instead, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, whom the neoliberal elite know that they can do business with. So, although the elite might like Cyril, they don’t like him so much that they feel the need to do any favours for the SACP and COSATU. Moreover, the neoliberal elite ultimately does not like Communists or the organised working class, and would like to see them both eliminated; they were happy to offer them rope with which they could hang themselves, but now much of the big business community thinks that it’s gallows-time.

The general situation is also very different. Under Mbeki, the economy was doing tolerably well and the illusion of success was widespread in the global economy as well. Administration appeared to be functioning. It seemed easy to throw everything into chaos without long-term consequences; it seemed so easy to run South Africa, once one assumed that Mbeki was a corrupt and incompetent windbag; even a disaster like him could accomplish much.

But now the economy is deteriorating weekly, the world a combination of bloodbath and banking crisis, the administration of the country is inept on so many levels, leaderless and bankrupt. We know that bad times are coming. Therefore, disruption and disaster no longer seem like fun episodes without consequence, but rather seem like things liable to precipitate the catastrophe which even the ruling class is a little worried about, for fear that they might not get their cash out before it is looted or becomes valueless. Therefore, the ruling-class struggle against Zuma is not playing out in the same way that the ruling-class struggle against Mbeki played out.

There is not going to be a massive uprising. There is not going to be a mobilisation of the ANC’s leadership against Zuma. This is partly because Zuma has been there before and knows how it is done; in this sense he is more shrewd than Mbeki because he does not suffer from any illusion about how the members of his party or of the alliance might be motivated by any idealism. Like Stalin, he knows that politicians are motivated by greed, spite and fear, and therefore Zuma prevailed over Mbeki as Stalin prevailed over Trotsky, and any competitor to Zuma who does not have everything in the ANC sewn up in advance will fail as Bukharin and Zinoviev failed against Stalin after Trotsky’s fall.

But in that case, the ruling class attempt to overthrow Zuma will necessarily fail, because it is half-hearted. The ruling class doesn’t really care who rules South Africa so long as they rule whoever that person is. They know that the difference between Zuma or Dlamini-Zuma or Ramaphosa or even Maimane is not all that significant — certainly much less significant than any South African journalist would like people to believe. But meanwhile, Zuma very desperately doesn’t want Ramaphosa to take over, and meanwhile, a lot of Zuma’s supporters, and even his opponents, very well remember the slights and bullying and backstabbing which the SACP and COSATU perpetrated back in their days of glory. The fact that they want Ramaphosa to win is almost, in itself, a reason to oppose Ramaphosa. Wouldn’t it be nice, they ask themselves, if the SACP and COSATU went down to hell, dragged down by the concrete lifebelt of Ramaphosa?

As a result, current South African politics is strangely content-free. The savage and well-justified attacks on Zuma late last year, the frantic wish to have him removed for his temerity in deposing the ruling-class’s own man in the Ministry of Finance, blazed up but then died down again as soon as Zuma had appointed the ruling-class a new man in the same Ministry. Nobody cared that the new new man had a track record of incompetence identical to the old new man’s. The fury was just stage fire, created for the purpose and sustained by the incoherent and inchoate hatred which a politically ignorant media establishment is obliged to feel for anyone against whom their masters tell them to turn their hatred. When the ruling class walked away from the fire they had started, of course it guttered out; there was no fuel for it at all.

So we are stuck in a meaningless political transition between alternatives, none of whom are of any use to us. It is like the American Presidential elections, a mass of sound and fury and fanatical declarations that this empty suit or that empty suit represents the greatest hope or the vilest betrayal that ever existed in the history of what was once a Republic. Truly, our politics are now normal, driven, like everyone else’s, by Twitter and Facebook.

And without hope, of course.


Dowling’s Good Bad Book.

May 19, 2016

Finuala Dowling is one of the more interesting writers working within the white community in South Africa at the moment, largely because she is working for her own amusement rather than seeking to fulfil the expectations of a market in return for cash. Therefore it is possible to read her work without devoting too much time to identifying the familiar political buttons being pressed by the writer so as to manipulate the reader, and which are so irritating when one reads, say, Deon Meyer.

But since she is serving herself rather than market, it is natural that she should draw on her own life. Although Dowling’s life has been interesting enough to be worth writing about, it also leads to a certain repetitious self-consciousness — even self-indulgence — in her works. Also, where she is making use of painful memories, there is a certain manifest difficulty in what she is producing, a degree of blockage and distance between the creative writing and the material being utilised. This blockage is probably not artistic but is likely to be produced by Dowling’s own sense of hurt and loss.

This was already present in Home-Making For the Down-At-Heart, where she was writing about the dementia and death of her mother. She had already written most of a volume of poems about this, and the novel seemed to be a way of addressing the issue in a sustained way. The poems were usually short vignettes depicting her mother’s bizarre behaviour or utterances. The novel was a sustained depiction of decline and death (seen from the perspective of a person who had her own problems with coming to terms with daily life.)

However, both of these volumes managed to evade the essential horror of the issue by exploiting the dark, ironic humour which could be derived from living with someone who has lost touch with reality. As a result, although Dowling was managing to make the painful episodes of her life appear entertaining for the reader (and not so painful as to be difficult to read, which would have been commercial suicide) it’s a moot point whether the end product was therapeutic. Perhaps art shouldn’t be therapeutic.

So is this true of her most recent book, The Fetch?

Well, the work is interesting because it is an attempt to break out of the Hout Bay Bohemian-suburban environment which is the setting for her earlier novels. Instead it is set in Slangkop, an imaginary village across False Bay from Hout Bay, making it the mirror-image of her hometown. Daringly, in a sense, there is a tough, no-nonsense, elderly black person who acts as foil to the central character, a naïf librarian who stumbles into the inner circle of both the village’s only aesthete and the village’s only hippie.

But these characters are distinctly stereotypical and their interactions are not coherently motivated; nobody seems to have any real desire to do anything other than fulfil their role as defined by their status in the book. They bounce between each other like billiard-balls, remaining completely unaffected by being bounced (as when the hippie is obliged to adopt an abandoned baby). It is not really possible to engage with these characters as people; the problem isn’t so much that Dowling is trying to appeal to her audience, as that she needs these characters to provide a background for the central feature of the story which is the relationship between the librarian and the aesthete. Therefore, although the characters are supposed to be human, they are actually mechanical dolls.

The trouble with Slangkop itself is that it is not a realised place. There are occasional references to location and to events, but it is not a community; there is none of the subtle interaction between people which exists in small towns. Everybody is isolated, but this is not social commentary, it is rather a lack of development. Again, a place was needed to provide a background for the relationship between the central character and the aesthete, but it is not described in a way which would make the reader want to visit it, let alone believe that it exists.

The narrative is a series of vignettes, often stylised (as with the lone baboon which has lost its troop, which is obviously a metaphor for the doomed male homosexual character). The book is similarly fragmented into episodes which appear arranged to show the innocence of the central character and the way in which harsh reality crushes it. She does not understand the world, but the more she tries to engage with it by falling in love with the aesthete and then becoming his dogsbody, the more she is setting herself up to show that the world is not prepared to conform to her expectations.

This is a fair enough point. Of course, it is a very old story, the story of the romantic young person who imposes her own values on the world and thus manages to kid herself that she has attained her goal, when she is simply living in a fantasy. The person who tries to risk all for love — and it is always tempting to give in to the deliriums of desire — is going to be disappointed in the object of the love, because nobody is as perfect as a fantasy partner. The more the lover gives to the object of desire, the more the lover surrenders, the greater the eventual disaster is likely to be when reality breaks in. It is well resolved in the book; the aesthete is (of course) bisexual and runs off with a beautiful boy, and the beautiful boy is (of course) a psychopathic manipulator who steals all the aesthete’s money. It is a familiar white middle-class Cape Town story, and the bulk of it is the story of Dowling’s own disastrous marriage.

And then what? Dowling makes the librarian a rather hapless figure (actually everybody in the book is rather hapless, but she stands out in this respect), easily threatened by dangerous urban women her age in expensive outfits which they are more willing to take off than she is. This is slightly Jamesian (and in a way perhaps Dowling is trying to be a bit Michiel Heyns). For a contrast to this we therefore need a corrupt but fascinating central character, which it seems likely that the aesthete is meant to be. But in the book, he isn’t; unlike the corrupt milieu figures in Heyns’ Invisible Furies, Dowling’s aesthete isn’t sufficiently strongly constructed to bear the weight of being a tragic hero.

It seems likely that he is loosely modelled on some of the figures at the English Department at UCT where Dowling studied, some of whom tried to fulfil the role of being life-artists and big frogs in tiny artistic ponds. Slangkop, however, cannot provide a background like this because nobody there cares about aesthetics or life-artists, and the aesthete is thus suspended in a void; only his parties and his journalism exist to impress anybody (and what pitiful accomplishments these are, getting an article published somewhere or getting some pretty people to come and drink your whisky). Nothing that happens seems unusual or interesting enough to justify making this person the centre of attention. Therefore his fall, and his subsequent death from AIDS, appear both inevitable and insignificant; since the central character is no longer in love with him and nobody cares about him, and nothing he has done suggests that the planet is losing a giant talent or intellect, however much compassion Dowling pours into the last part of the text it still amounts to very little impact.

Again, perhaps this is part of the problem. Dowling seems, on one hand, to be offering a kind of tribute to her ex-husband. On the other hand, her ex-husband was himself a master of illusion, creating the impression of being a giant talent on the basis of very little accomplishment, so this is a fair representation. But it’s in a sense sad and squalid, and it’s never quite clear in the text whether the aesthete is indeed a no-talent, delusional loser, or whether he is indeed a great talent gone to seed and ultimately to waste.

Perhaps, then, Dowling is torn between the artistic need of the text and the truth of the material which she is dealing with. But still more important is the problem that she is dealing with her own sense of pain and loss, making it difficult for her to engage with anything; on one hand the other characters in the work are foils for the aesthete and the librarian, yet on the other hand if the aesthete and the librarian’s interaction is made too powerful then this opens all the wounds of her marriage. Thus if the book had been more of a success as a narrative, it might also have been horribly painful for its author — and maybe she wasn’t ready, or even able, to go there.

Maybe the moral of the story is that Dowling made a mistake in trying to do this in the first place. It’s an honourable failure; the book is reasonably well-constructed and written with Dowling’s customary skill and there is a lot of potential there, even if it has its trivial and manipulative side. But it does seem to be a failure, and the failure does seem to arise from trying to exorcise a ghost who simply won’t go away however much Dowling tries to drive him out.