Saturday, 7 December 2013

An Inspiration to Lawyers Everywhere

The first time I came across the word Apartheid may have been in Arthur C Clarke's 1953 novel, Childhood's End, which I think I read around 11 or 12, so about 1972. Superior aliens, the Overlords, turn up out of the blue to stop the Cold War and save humanity from extinction. They insist that this will only be a watching brief (their shyness is eventually explained by their resemblance to traditional European images of the devil), and that they will keep their interventions to a minimum. The two notable exceptions are to stop the bloody killing of the whites in South Africa, following the collapse of Apartheid a few years earlier, and the bloody killing of bulls in Spain, which Clarke obviously felt had gone on long enough.

South Africa also featured in another SF classic, Michael Moorcock's The Land Leviathan of 1974. In an alternate early twentieth century, the republic is an enlightened outpost of democracy and racial harmony, whose president is the former lawyer, Mohandas K Gandhi. Moorcock's Oswald Bastable books are now seen through the prism of what would subsequently be pigeon-holed as Steampunk, and consequently works of techno-whimsy, but they were actually a satire on colonialism and the compromises that liberalism makes with it. Though set in an Edwardian world of imperial self-confidence and Fabian social progress, the critique had a sharp, contemporary resonance in the 70s when the reactionary right still urged that we should sympathise with the predicament of a white minority faced by communist encirclement without and the "immaturity" of blacks within.

The transformation of the ANC from part of the problem to the basis of the solution is now attributed to the dignity and forbearance of Mandela and his imprisoned colleagues, aided and abetted by the wider anti-apartheid movement, but this was actually the product of more profound forces, notably the global triumph of neoliberalism. I recall meeting a South African businessman in the early 80s who assured me that change was inevitable, partly because disinvestment and sanctions were hurting, but more because the inefficiencies of the system were holding back capital. Apartheid prevented the growth of a larger consumer society, and it stopped industry making full use of the available talent. It just wasn't good business. While the Afrikaaner small capitalists, farmers and state functionaries were in two or three minds, symbolised by the lunacy of the Bantustan strategy and the AWB, the predominantly "anglo" big capitalists were largely reconciled to the inevitability of majority rule after the Soweto Uprising in 1976. It was a matter of cutting a deal that would keep the country open to international capital and marginalise the SACP.

In 1982 Mandela was moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison, which (it subsequently transpired) was the first fruit of the unofficial negotiations opened between the Apartheid regime and the ANC that would culminate in his release in 1990. Exploratory discussions between "people of goodwill", whether through deniable back channels or semi-official "Track II" NGOs, is a key modus operandi of neoliberalism. Where the 50s and 60s had been marked by a reluctance to talk except under duress, symbolised by the absurd "hot line" (and parodied by the Batphone), the era since the 70s has been one of promiscuous chat on the back of increased trade and travel, improved communications technology and globalisation. The strong commercial slant has fed back into the language of politics and diplomacy, thus "conferences" and "treaties" have been updated to "talks" and "deals", and the official products of negotiation are often aspirational and hazy: words like "openness", "reconciliation" and "commitment" feature a lot. The real promise is always more talks, more chat, more sidebar business opportunities.

From our vantage point today, it is clear that big capital was the winner in South Africa in the 90s and 00s. An inefficient and debilitating racial divide was replaced by a more efficient but equally debilitating class divide. In some respects, the fate of the ANC was the result of its leaders being lawyers, very much in the tradition of the Edwardian Gandhi, if not exclusively committed to non-violence. At the same time that Algeria was undergoing a bloody war of independence, the ANC was fighting the long drawn out treason trial of 1956-61. It is little remembered now, but the founding of the Pan-African Congress in 1959, and the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, were seen by many contemporaries as reproaches to the strategy of the ANC. Paradoxically, the jailing of Mandela and other ANC leaders after the Rivonia trial in 1963 reinforced their pre-eminent role in the struggle. Had they been released, they might have been marginalised by more militant elements in the townships.

As the needs of capital increasingly pointed towards the dismantling of Apartheid, Mandela increasingly became a symbol of hope and his eventual release a promissory note of change, but with the specifics left suitably vague. The deferred gratification of "hope" was a leitmotif of the times, from Berlin in 1989, through New Labour in 1997, to Obama in 2008. Since then, we have realised the extent to which neoliberal society was based on illusory hope: that incomes and house prices would keep on rising, that education would pay, that ability would determine success. One of the best films of the immediate post-crash era was 2009's District 9. Though most people interpreted it as a specific parable of Apartheid, it was actually a universal parable of class and its fragility, with the white protagonist's accidental infection, and the instrumental attitude of his employer and family, forcing him into the underclass as he transforms into an alien "prawn". Hope had turned to fear.

When I first saw the film, I recalled Childhood's End because of the South African connection and the hovering mother ship, though the aliens are quite different. Whereas the "prawns" of District 9 are troublesome proles, the Overlords can be read as a prescient metaphor of neoliberal interventionism (the image of Tony Blair as a horned devil will obviously please some). Michael Moorcock's vision of an alternate South Africa was obviously ironic, but in one respect he too was prescient in imagining a society whose figurehead and moral compass was a crusading lawyer. What he perhaps didn't anticipate is that it would be the corporate lawyers who would ultimately be the power behind the throne.

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