The Politics of the Ordinary
A review of Richard Poplak’s Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa
Richard Poplak has written a fine autobiography of a childhood during apartheid. More precisely, Poplak gives us an account of what it was like to grow up white, Jewish and almost totally oblivious of politics in Johannesburg between the year of his birth—1973—and 1990 when his family emigrated to Canada, just months before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. His book clearly describes a life in what he calls “the miasmic fog that kept the country in darkness during the Apartheid years”: the fog of ideology that made it possible for white South Africans to avoid recognizing their brutal exploitation and oppression of the country’s black population. (The book’s title comes from a colloquialism for “Yes, no, man,” an equivocation in daily use in South Africa that seems to Poplak to epitomize the stance one has to adopt before South Africa’s contradictions.)
Poplak’s account, written from the internal perspective of his journey from childhood through boyhood to youth, is interspersed with a running political commentary, one informed by both an awareness of public events that made little impact on his early years and by his hopes for a South Africa transformed by mutual understanding and forgiveness.
On the one hand, there is the story of a typical middle class white family, with a lifestyle in which a swimming pool in your backyard and the cheap labour of a live-in maid as well as a retinue of other servants is taken for granted, along with marvellous weather that makes life outdoors an idyll of sunshine and continual barbecues. The politics of South Africa seems barely to intrude.
On the other hand, Poplak recounts not only the daily violence of apartheid, the elaborate and brutal legal machinery that made every black person fit for exploitation, but also the battles between black youths and the military might of the apartheid state of the 1970s and ’80s, battles that rage at times so close to his home that Poplak breathes in, as he says, “molecules of burning petrol, rubber, skin and flesh.”
How then—the puzzle of the book—was it possible for Poplak and his family to live such an ordinary life? For him, the answer is a kind of obliviousness, a naive assumption—reinforced by official ideology—that apartheid was an unremarkable state of affairs. Although Poplak’s family was Jewish, they identified themselves primarily as white. And like other white South Africans, he suggests, they unquestioningly accepted pervasive racism. According to Poplak, even his relatively liberal teachers simply did not succeed in connecting historical injustices with present-day abuses: they “could never make the link between the frayed, yellowed Apartheid of the 1960s [and] … the fast moving, mercurial Apartheid of the here and now, and that may have been because they couldn’t see it themselves.” Poplak sees government propaganda as having reinforced this disconnect, citing his youthful acceptance of official news broadcasts that portrayed brutal political clashes in the late 1980s as “black-on-black sectarian violence that seemed to be an indictment of the black man’s ability to govern himself.”
Like Poplak, I am a former South African and a Jew from Johannesburg. However, I was born in 1957 and grew up with a rather heightened awareness of the politics of apartheid. My mother was what would be called today a human rights activist. My father, who had survived the Warsaw ghetto and the destruction of Warsaw, had no tolerance for nationalism of any kind, whether that of the Afrikaners or of the black liberation movements. I knew that most of my fellow white South Africans were as oblivious as Poplak describes. Still, it is astonishing to read in such detail just how effortless it seemed to live one’s life in a fog.
But was it really effortless? “Yes, no” must be the answer. To live one’s life apolitically during one of the most fraught periods of the political drama of apartheid surely took rather an intense investment of energy, and Poplak and his family would have had to invest more than most white South Africans.
First, at least some South African Jews found disturbing resonances between the institutionalized racism in pre-war and wartime Europe, with all its horrors, and that in South Africa. And as Poplak was amply aware, Jews were somewhat marginal in white South African society. (The leaders of the National Party at the time it came to power in the election of 1948 were Nazi sympathizers and the National Party remained anti-Semitic throughout is existence, although it did soften its rhetoric progressively in the 1970s, as the government established ever closer military and economic links with Israel.)
Second, Poplak’s assessment of his 1980s education is, I suspect, rather unfair. Poplak’s senior school was King David Linksfield, a private Jewish school, which was among the handful of whites-only schools in the country where a few inspired teachers produced a small but steady stream of liberal and more radical opponents of apartheid. While Poplak may not have been assigned to these teachers’ classes, he tellingly describes a moment in senior school when he decided to create his own “wrong crowd,” one that cut class and smoked, because it was so difficult to join the existing “wrong crowd” who ended up “practising human rights law.” And to decide to make one’s youthful rebellion cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana in place of the kind of politics in which the nascent human rights lawyers would have engaged is, of course, to make a political choice. (In fact, the human rights lawyers for the most part embraced both options.)
While the TV news was an exercise in brainwashing by the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Poplak’s youthful acceptance of its messages likewise required a naiveté that was in short supply in the late 1980s, even among young, white Afrikaners. The fact of black revolt was apparent, and the two more or less liberal newspapers to which Poplak’s parents subscribed presented an alternative picture of politics. I’m sure that Poplak’s claim that he and his family never had a “full-blown political conversation” in his 16 years in South Africa—indeed, that he never had such a conversation with anyone—is accurate. However, to maintain that record required in the 1980s an almost daily choice, one that was, of course, more Poplak’s parents’ to make.
The great virtue of Poplak’s autobiography is that, at least as it is told from the internal perspective of his childhood, it answers well the call made to South African writers in the 1980s by Njabulo Ndebele, one of South Africa’s most important cultural critics, to avoid writing explicitly political work in order to “rediscover the ordinary.” Ndebele’s point was not that politics can be avoided. Rather, it was the much more subtle point that in art and literature the political is only properly illuminated through the ordinary.
In Poplak’s book, this illumination is constant, but particularly stark in the portrait of Bushy, the maid servant in his house, who effectively brought him up. (“Bushy” is a derogatory name—“someone from the Bush”—a fact on which Poplak does not comment.) Poplak seems never to have had a proper conversation with Bushy and he makes it clear that he never knew or wanted to know more about her than the facts of her existence that he could not ignore. She moves quickly from being the authority figure in his life to an annoying disturbance during his teens when he is trying to focus on a quiet wank. The scene when he visits her on his first return to South Africa is, in my view, the best described in the book, freighted as it is with a combination of intimacy and estrangement. Overpowering is their shared sense that for the Bushys of South Africa little—perhaps nothing—has changed in regard to white power. There is, though, rather more estrangement than intimacy, or, perhaps more accurately, estrangement is Poplak’s response to the embarrassment of a shared recollection of intense intimacy.
In the end, it is not apparent that Poplak’s retrospective bid to expand his “perspective as a white South African” gets him beyond the estrangements of his youth. His acknowledgements do not indicate that his research included talking to black South Africans, or that he read their accounts of apartheid or any of the vast literature on the political economy of oppression in South Africa. (One of the few works he acknowledges, Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart, is a sensationalist account of a South Africa doomed to tribal warfare between the white Afrikaners and the black African tribes.)
This is a significant omission. Poplak concludes his “Author’s note” in Ja, No, Man with the following:
“Finally, you’ll observe that I capitalize the word Apartheid. I’m of the firm belief that the term must be associated with a single place and era: South Africa 1948 to 1994. Misappropriating it as a pejorative for other regimes does an enormous disservice to those who suffered under it and threatens to cloud their history. Apartheid is Apartheid.”
But apartheid was not born in 1948, when white Afrikaner nationalists took power in South Africa. Rather, it was born in the history of colonialism in Africa. Its main elements were forged in the early 1900s by the British, who thought they could build a union between English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites, on the principle, as Lord Milner said in 1897, of “sacrificing the nigger absolutely” in a system of race-based economic exploitation. While the exploitation took a turn for the worse in 1948, this nastiness must be understood in the light of the National Party’s sense of grievance about the racist oppression visited by the British on white Afrikaners before Union in 1909, including the thousands of deaths from illness and hunger in the world’s first concentration camps, established by the occupying British forces during the Anglo-Boer War. It must also be understood in the light of the Afrikaners’ sense of an historic, Old Testament–based mission as a “chosen people.” God, after all, had signalled his choice by granting the Boers success in the battle of Blood River with the Zulus in 1838. By declaring apartheid to be exceptional, not only in the world, but even in the history of South Africa, Poplak re-enacts the flaw of which we see him accuse his teachers—of not making the link between historical periods and thus of failing their students.
In addition, apartheid was not so unique in a global sense. It was born in a colonial experience that went beyond South Africa and Africa. Any society in which a settler or largely settler class maintains a grip on power will have comparable features. One can know if they are comparable, and thus deserving of the moral slur that travels with such comparison, only by a careful analysis of what is similar and what is different. Poplak’s claim of incomparability can, that is, be made only through a process of comparison.
When my son jokingly sings “Oh Canada, our home’s on native land,” for example, the point is that Canada is a settler society, with a brutal history of “native” exploitation and segregation—indeed, a history that the white regimes of South Africa took as an example in establishing the Bantustans. And the fact that the live-in or live-out nanny comes not from the aboriginal communities of Canada but from the Philippines might make little moral difference. The rich countries of the north police their boundaries, even extend their boundaries into other countries, in order to ensure that only those migrant workers enter who are considered appropriately exploitable, much as the apartheid police in South Africa maintained the boundaries between the rich white enclaves and the areas set aside for blacks.
Whether or not aspects of the institutional ordinariness of the extraordinarily awful system of apartheid are manifested in existing societies is thus an interesting question. When the excellence of Poplak’s book is that it makes possible, even compels, comparisons between apartheid South Africa and the ordinariness of life in other societies, it is strange to seek to censor these comparisons. It is also strange to assume so lightly the moral high ground in claiming that such comparisons are “an enormous disservice to those who suffered under it [apartheid],” threatening “to cloud their history.” Surely those who suffered under apartheid or who are suffering under oppressive regimes today, or who wish to join in some way of exposing or resisting that oppression, have the right to speak for themselves?
I do not, however, want to make too much of these points. The Poplaks were trying their best to lead an ordinary life, much as any middle class Canadian family tries to do, but this can obviously mean profoundly different things in different contexts. A Canadian-born friend of mine once spoke to me of his great “moral luck” at not having been born South African. He meant that living an ordinary life in a rather ordinary society like Canada is very different, morally speaking, from living that same life in a society where great injustice is so much part of daily life that it is possible to be oblivious, or on my argument, to make oneself oblivious to it. Another white South African friend who had many white close acquaintances deeply involved in the resistance to apartheid remarked to me in the 1980s that one of the things he hated about South Africa was that it made many people who were unsuited to politics of any sort feel compelled to take part in the dangerous politics of resistance. They were constitutionally suited to living ordinary lives.
Poplak’s autobiography proves then to be a deeply political work: it shows that politics is situated unavoidably in the ordinary, and illustrates that the mechanics of political obliviousness do not reside entirely in a fog machine controlled by politicians. Rather, the mechanics involve countless daily, individual choices to maintain that fog, choices that will require more or less investment depending on one’s background. Political obliviousness is always resolute.