Thursday, 13 August 2020

No 107 - Cats in some South African poems

In a forthcoming book chapter, our pre-eminent literary-animal scholar, Wendy Woodward, notes that while studies of dogs in our literature are growing, cats scarcely feature. Indeed, in discussing just three texts, she figures she has virtually exhausted South Africa’s stock of fictions in which cats are central. 

The situation may be different in poetry. (We are talking about the domesticated cat, not lions, leopards, cheetahs, servals, caracals, or black-footed wild-cats.) Trawling just through some of the collections I possess – archives being awkward in the Age of Covid – I turn up a fair slew of cat poems. So while the following sample is as small as a six-week-old kitten, we can make a start. Just what it is about cats that turns these poets on? 

One facet is of course cats’ innate kind of pent-up power, allied with uncommon grace. Perseus Adams’ 1965 poem “The black cat” is filled with an atmospheric electricity that the cat seems to embody, “igniting a black spell” – an allusion no doubt to the association of black cats with necromancy. By association, but also in paradoxical opposition, the cat seems to derive its mysterious energy from its wild ancestries. The final stanza reads:

If anything stands easy before him here 
 It is that brazen jaguar the sun 
Frying the garden with his steaming breath 
And bringing the house to his jungle door. 

Drawing up his dignity the black cat departs 
While the lawn hisses with an electrical tongue. 
            [from The Land at my Door

Anyone who has lived attentively with a cat knows how often the creature seems aloof or elusive or mysterious somehow. Eleanor Anderson captures something of this in her four-line poem “Witch cat” : Tamina, black and shining, leaps in through the window from the heavy rain. But she is dry. [from A Very Far Place

Somehow, that dimension of inexplicability coaxes or lures one into a space of self-reflection. So that fine poet and mentor of Johannesburg, the late Lionel Abrahams, writes in “Meditation with a cat”: 

 The cat inhabits this moment on the bed 
complete, nothing left over, nothing intended - ... 

Alongside, I simmer with thought, 
 intentions, memories, questions, memories... 

 The cat’s lesson seems to be that we should put down all those roiling thoughts to achieve an “agile, replete/ inhabitation of the moment”, an inner peace. I’d go with that, but Abrahams complicates this in several ways. The cat is also “gaoled” in the moment; he watches her test its limits. He knows – or thinks he knows – that beneath “her curious elastic ease” she is “tensed by suspicion” and a “cunning lust to kill”. He also knows that those motives are being attributed to the cat by him – an instance of that thorny philosophical question of anthropomorphism. Literary-animal scholars like Woodward are fond of referring to an essay by French man-of-letters Jacques Derrida, “The Animal that Therefore I Am”. The essay opens with Derrida standing naked in front of his staring cat, wondering what the cat is thinking of him. But the cat for him comes to symbolise utter incomprehensibility. I think Derrida was more worried about the state of his ageing equipment than about taking the time and trouble to read the cat. Several other respondents have demurred from Derrida, including Jenny Diski in her lovely, honest book, What we don’t know about Animals. The point is, we never really know what’s going through another animal’s mind – but if we’re attentive and willing to learn we can find an awful lot of animal commonality, and we can close the communicative gulf. In contrast to that, however, Abrahams ends his poem stressing his all-too-human difference and uniqueness: 

 Perception and concept and design 
 are the space wherein I’m free. 
          [from A dead tree full of live birds

 Cape Town poet Gabeba Baderoon is attentive. She even learns life-lessons from, or at least parallels herself with, two cats, in the truly lovely three-page poem, “Something I Know So Well”. Perhaps part of that something is a condition of entrapment: the cats, arbitrarily named by someone Krona and Mark, are rescued from a cage in an animal shelter. At the poet’s home, “Each day I learn/ the language we must speak to one another”. The kittens gather or make toys for themselves. One day it is an unravelled spool of wool: 

 One cat lies by the end of the strand 
 and one by the tangled mass. 
 I sit on the edge of the bed and watch 
 a small set of rules. 

 One tugs, and rests; the other picks up the end and takes it to the side, and rests; the first tugs again: “Without a sound, the centre point/ of the skein moves three steps back/ and forth between them”. “In broken objects,/ the cats seek/ the makings of things”: likewise the poet: 


 I want to find an unmade thing, 
 a raw length, and feel resistance 
when I hold it. A taut response, 
never greater than mine. 
I wish, on the other end, 
 for something I know so well 
I do not need to look at it. 
         [from The dream in the next body

 A model for successful relationship. Another of Baderoon’s poems is “At the breakfast table”, a compact, resonant observation-of-an-observation: 

 At the breakfast table 
 the cat looks intently at my food. 
 Suddenly, his head swings up 
 and swivels in a slow half-circle 
across the ceiling and down to the window. 
I see what comes into view - two geese 
flying over the house to meet his gaze. 
         [from A hundred silences

 The cat in a way ‘teaches’ the poet how to look. Derrida’s gaze goes all ways. There’s also the ever-present darker shadow of the cat’s ineradicably predatory nature. 

 The self-styled Tatamkhulu Afrika, once Cape Town’s favourite bohemian poet, lived for a period at the bottom of someone’s garden, and so was well-placed to observe the vicious antics of feral “Spring Cats”. Here, outside, named-and-domesticated and “silken-haired Maybelline” becomes impervious to the poet’s “ingratiating tones”. She is interested only in sex with roving males, whose “god speaks to them in tongues/ of blood and sperm”. Though at other times “prescient as a shade ... knowing she was beautiful and strange”, she now screams “outraged”, as battle-scarred tomcats “gang-rape” her. The poet persuades himself that this urban violence “is the quickening of the wood,/ this is the resurrection and the dream” – but he has to turn almost squeamishly away, feeling as if those primal fangs are “fastening in [his own] spine” [from Turning Points]. 

 Even more liberated are the denizens described in Ingrid de Kok’s “Italian Cats”. There, the ferals are barely tolerated, partly because of their historic predation upon plague-bearing rats, even as they “ransack/ leftover pizza with any sauce ... eyes acquisitive as sin”. 

The padrone wants these lean medici poisoned 
but does nothing 
except close every door after him. 
Still, they monitor his moods, entice, 
collude with younger guests, 
gaining on him and his city of food. 
         [from Terrestrial Things

 More domesticated cats have to endure, or choose to negotiate, a balance of domestic constraint and ‘wild’ freedom. Another Capetonian, Geoff Haresnape, writes in his poem entitled simply “Cat”, of a cat among the “criss-crossings” and “interface” of branches and walls. From innocuous and “tolerant” pads spring claws “like little bowie-knives of polished stone”. This hint of concealed savage wildness is echoed as the cat contemplates a flurry of White-eyes. Nothing happens, though. The cat has her “queendom”, but it’s small, really. Still, she can revel “in the fugitive moment[;]/ she takes as a universe/ minutiae that happen to be here”. The poem ends on a line of antitheses, in which we are reminded of the control we exert over our pets – especially their sexuality – even as we provide them with la dolce vita: “spayed but not spoiled in her Elysium” [from New-born Images]. 

Perhaps our finest poet of animal presences, Ruth Miller also captures antithetical aspects in “Two Cats”, symbolically white and black. The white, free or feral one is “Drawn towards the moon like any lover/ Awaiting the hunter who will snare her heart”, and “flies away on a broomstick of desire”. The black cat, in stark contrast, seems dangerous, “Sleek as a snake”, but in fact “lies obliterated in a silken sleep” indoors, “too enclosed with windows”: “Only his soft tail twitches, remembering”. Two sides of the cat, but also of the human poet, adventurous fantasy always in tension with easeful complacency. 

Gail Dendy also recognises cats’ predatory side, using some visceral imagery in “Cat and Rat”. A rat’s gruesome death becomes a learning experience for her children as well as a meditation on language itself. The poem ends: 

Cat, rat. The life of single syllables 
straying through all our nursery rhymes, 
prowling the dark around the tongue, 
hunting each specific word down, 
eager to see what happens next. 

A more affectionate poem “Cat, sleeping”, is part humorous, part sad, as Dendy listens to her aged, “oversized” cat snoring. She recalls his “killer” days, but now he’s somnolent, “a little moth-eaten”. But there’s still the pleasure of “listening to the hammers of the small/ wooden box of his chest”, watching him settle into “the last/ slim wedge of sunlight ... ladle up his paws and fix them to himself/ with a rounded scoop of tail”, his snore like “the wheezing clack of looms ... spinning his fur from base copper into gold.” 

Ageing pets, being so much shorter-lived, inevitably die on us, leaving us with the enigmas of affection and death. In the delicate, multi-part poem “Death of a cat”, Dendy buries her pet, put down by a vet: “One silver, slippery jab and she collapsed// in a soft snow of grey rumpling” – that appalling moment so many of us must face. 

With this final spade of earth 
we have damped her down, seeded her, 
placed her underground 
where she perpetually smiles at death 
and the thought of an afterlife 
and how we make sense of them both. 
        [all from The Lady Missionary

Moira Lovell perhaps takes identification with cat-ness furthest in three very short poems in her volume Departures. “Lizard” is a lament at the unnecessary predation of a “sleek pedigree-spoilt” cat upon a lizard, whose decomposition at least goes to “fuelling ants”; the poet slides the remains into a bin, like burying a sailor at sea. In the others, the cat’s perspective is more centrally imagined. “Feline Sky” reads: 

The tall sky 
Ladders above me 
Filled with claws 
Flexing like steel stars 
And your eye 
Tunnelling yellow 
Like the moon 

Cat heaven, perhaps? Even more so in the funny third poem, “Winter Cat-speak”, in which the cat is the narrator. It is being nibbled along its back by a friendly “pumpkin” of a dog, as if, the cat muses, “ I/ am a vegetable/ too; perhaps a mealie-/ (succulent to lovers’ lips)/ cob”. Such cross-species friendships are always amazing to me – part of the new ‘languaging’ of the domestic envelope. 

Wendy Woodward should have the last – if somewhat disturbing – word. In her poignant poem “Parallel Worlds”, we are reminded that however problematic our domestications might be, it’s a very tough world outside that space. The poem depicts the poet driving to work, listening to Ted Hughes’ animal poems (themselves pretty red in tooth and claw). Near her workplace, she notices a feral black kitten, “desolate in the feathery rain”; also feathery, two storeys up, sits a “vigilant” eagle-owl. When the poet returns, the cat has gone from the quad and the hills and plains of his wet desert The owl, supreme, has marked the wall with painterly excrement white against the liver-dark bricks [from Love, Hades & other animals



As I said, a tiny sampling. If you know of other South African cat-centred poems, please feel free to let me know. 

 For more animal books and paintings, visit www.netsoka.co.za 

 *****

Monday, 27 July 2020

No 106 - The Animal in Dambudzo Marechera

My original 1988 cartoon
I confess: I don’t much like Dambudzo Marechera’s work. Or I should say: I still don’t like it.

Back in 1988, a year after Marechera’s untimely death aged only 35,  I wrote a brief assessment for the Zimbabwean magazine Prize. I acknowledged that the wild child of Zimbabwean literature was enormously “talented, imaginative and sensitive”, capable of “brilliant moments  and often great delicacy”. Up to a point, I admired his honesty and his assault on conventional English. In retrospect, I would have stressed more the astonishing breadth of reading and sharp if spotty philosophising, unmatched by any other Zimbabwean writer then, and perhaps even now. But his anarchistic thoughts, striking out in every direction with a blend of raw self-exposure and lancing political critique, were too solipsistic, too uneven, too wallowing in self-disgust and misanthropy, never marshalled into sustained craftsmanship, to provide a really fruitful model. So I argued.

I think I largely stand by that, pompous as it was, though Marechera’s fans and acolytes would doubtless retort that time has proved me wrong: he is still inspirational, 33 years later.  Innumerable academic articles and theses have argued in his favour, albeit with, in my view, a certain amount of special pleading. Australian scholar Jennifer Armstrong even wrote a PhD suggesting he is a kind of shaman, ultimately healing – a suggestion I think Marechera would have found mystifying, if not offensive.  But people will get what they get from literature, and good luck to them. For this pampered and over-sensitive white boy, at least, it makes for some tediously ugly fare. Black Sunlight, his second short novel, I now find unreadably vile.

Anyway, I found myself returning to his best-known work, The House of Hunger (1978), while looking for instances of dagga-use in southern African literature. It appears the collection’s phantasmagoric effects are stimulated more by alcohol than mbanje – but in the course of that earth-shattering discovery I became intrigued by another aspect altogether: the frequent appearance of animals. What are they doing there?

As far as I’ve found, no one has looked in detail at this aspect. One Chinese scholar has suggested, I think a bit tendentiously, that Marechera modelled much on Chinese tales of the Monkey King trickster figure of Eastern folklore. I am not persuaded that the parallels go as deep as he claims. Other articles mention the animal appearances only in passing. One of the best articles I’ve read, by Christopher Wayne and Bridget Grogan, explains Marechera’s fragmented and tortuous obsessions as projections of what Julia Kristeva has famously termed the “abject”. Abjection – literally ‘throwing-away’ – involves taboo subjects and materials, primarily excreta, viscera, waste and the corpse. Exposing these repressed aspects of life can be used to express other ‘unspeakable’ subjects, including violence, political marginalisation and rebellious or dislocated personal identity. Wayne and Grogan focus on the latter, but I suspect that a reading of animal presences can also usefully be viewed through the lens of abjection. After all, Marechera seemed to view all of life as comprised of multiple layers of abjection: our “chicken-run existence”, he called it in Black Sunlight: trapped, inferior, and doomed to slaughter.

A vicious example occurs early on in the titular story in The House of Hunger. A girl, Immaculate, is being beaten up by one Peter, “raw courage” still showing in her “animal-like eyes”. At the same instant as she is knocked “sideways”, a cat somewhere screams in “utter agony”. The unnamed narrator also gets pummelled: it is as if everyone’s agonies are shared, of a piece. The neighbour’s children shout “break its neck”, then in the darkness “a furry and wet thing” , bloody and half burnt, hits him in the face: “It was my cat. It was dead.” Tension between the narrator and Immaculate he takes out on the cat’s body, giving it a hefty kick, sending it flying right out of the yard. So embittered, “mixed-up”, enmeshed in his “labyrinthine personal world”, hating humanity just “for being utterly and crudely there”, that he has no room for compassion or loss for the actual cat. Indeed, the animal seems to serve as mere cipher for the violence that pervades his township world, his “disturbed universe”, his political oppression, his turbulent “soul-sickness”.

In numerous places the narrator sees human life being reduced to, or at least on a level with, the animal. Humans exist in “the crocodile’s jaws”. A character Philip expostulates: “There is nothing to make one particularly glad one is a human being and not a horse, or a lion, or a jackal, or come to think of it a snake ... There’s dust and fleas and bloody whites and roaches and dogs trained to bite black people in the arse” (58). A little later he figures himself as victimised animal: “You tuck your tail between your legs and some enterprising vandal sets fire to your fur, as you streak through the dry grass of your fears” (59) – echoing the earlier cat casualty.

The question of our commonality with animals is treated at greater length in the hallucinatory, alcohol-fuelled outpouring – it is hardly a ‘story’ – entitled “The Writer’s Grain”. Apparently being attacked by his own false teeth at a party, the narrator suddenly goes down on all fours and starts braying like a donkey, “like a pack-ass lost in the desert” (108). He flees into the streets, is robbed and knocked out.  He comes to:

A mongrel was licking my face and sniffing me with its wet black nose. Its eyes were large and clear and black and hesitant like a child who knows that the world can hurt. Up to this point in my life  I had always hated dogs. And all animals, really. Not so much hated them – because that may imply a ‘reason’ –but because I was afraid of them. There is something in every animal which is also in us... (109)

He attributes this partly to a childhood diet of horror films, and a consequent fear of turning into a werewolf or a vampire, gorging on his sister’s neck or even, tellingly, his own neck. Weirdly, animals still seem to like him.

One day I went up to my room late and drunk. There was a strange cat on my bed. It had fixed its eyes on my own. It was only half-grown; with white fur gilded here and there and long thin white whiskers. Its eyes were green, and the transparent green was brilliantly shot through by a terrible apprehension of its position. (110)

Its position is being trapped with an hysterical human bent on its destruction. A full page is devoted to a graphic description of the “kitten” being smashed to a pulp. It quickly transpires that the cat is an avatar of white privilege: “These feline shits are so used to being treated better than we blacks are treated it probably thought ... Why should I care what it thought?”  With vicious irony, the narrator uses a series of iconic ‘white’ books – Shakespeare, Hardy, the Concise Oxford Dictionary and, for the coup de grace, the Encyclopaedia Britannica – to despatch the kitten before ejecting – abjecting – the corpse across the street.  In this visceral fashion, the writer-narrator symbolically attempts to rid himself of a dependency on cultural influences he sees as creating a false or self-destructive identity – and turning the very language he has learned to use against itself. The disgust the cat-lover will feel at this unashamedly heartless passage is, of course, precisely the effect Marechera desires.

The scene segues immediately into a wider thought:

Animals. Animals were a steak on a plate, a lamb chop, a gammon, roast chicken... And one was supposed to eat them correctly with a knife and fork and with correct manners and correct conversation. ... And the only ones that could afford them were the bloody whites. And the bloody animals looked and sounded and behaved as though they liked to be eaten only by whites. Not niggers, bleated the sheep.  (111)

Typically, what might sound at first like a critique of the appalling industry of mass animal slaughter resolves into a personalised howl of protest. One can both agree and disagree that the “thing that happened to the Jews has never been unleashed against animals. And the things which bloody whites – among them Jews – are doing to my family, to my countrymen, to black people everywhere, have never been done to animals. What is done to the animals is nothing compared to the grisly history of man’s appetite for inflicting misery on other men.” There is both perspicacity and incoherence in all this – as might be expected from someone self-admittedly “cracking up”.

Insects also recur, both physical and symbolic. Humans are depicted as delicate skeletons caught in a spider’s web. In “House of Hunger” Philip says: “There’s clouds of flies everywhere you go, flies eating our dead. There’s armies of worms slithering in our history. And there’s squadrons of mosquitoes homing down onto the cradle of our future” (59). Existence is “God’s wound and we were the maggots slithering in it” (70). In another passage of extreme existential abjection:

Does the corpse protect the thick black flies that are laying their horrid eggs in his eyes? Flies fascinate me.  Their six legs. Their silver scissors of wings. Their huge compound eyes. Vomiting upon the food we eat. And calmly washing their forelegs. The way they fall into your soup and calmly pierce you with an upward stare as you debate what to do. They prize the unguarded cracks of our soul. (105)

The motif of being scrutinised by the animal also crops up often. In the story “Burning in the Rain”, the narrator confronts himself in the mirror, his body mocking him with “a certain ridiculousness”. An ape, in short, which gets “the better of him ... Those hairy hands and the backs of his hands where the scars ... Monster!”  A kind of Frankensteinian patchwork; he will retaliate by dressing like a human, or rush out into the rain of “self-pity” (83). He meets a lover named Margaret, but he seems incapable of accepting the lyrical beauty and love she represents; rather she is “the punishment for the ape in the mirror” – “his kinsman, the ape, lumbering awkwardly into his intimacy”. It is a kind of doppelgänger – a term Marechera used of himself – “laughing sarcastically”, with a “power over him” to make romantic encounters “more sordid, more unbearable” (86).  It “seemed to be treasuring a huge but secret joke at his expense”. The ape seems to be a figure of all the narrator’s self-doubts, taintedness, victimisation within a “national catastrophe”.

The idea that only clothes distinguish a man from the ape or animal  within reappears in the story “Black Skin What Mask”, in obvious allusion to Frantz Fanon’s book Black Skin White Mask. “If clothes make the man, then certainly he was a man. And his shoes were the kind that make even an elephant lightfooted and elegant. The animals that were murdered to make those shoes must have turned in their graves”. That’s a nice irony: to cover the inner beast one wears covers fashioned from other dead beasts. But this character is obsessed with the impossibility of belonging (one assumes the story is set in England – Marechera went to Oxford). He tries to make every other African about mimic him: “After all, if one chimpanzee learns not only to drink tea but also to promote that tea on TV, what does it profit if all the other god-created chimpanzees out there continue to scratch their fleas and swing around on their tails chittering about Rhodes and bananas?” (94). Doubtless this is also in ironic counterpoint to white colonists’ habit of equating Africans to simians. A little further on, the character tells the dishevelled writer-narrator: “You ought to take more care of your appearance, you know. We’re not monkeys”.  But, the narrator thinks nastily, his friend’s dancing made him look like a monkey. All this owes more to Kafka’s ape than to the Monkey King, perhaps.

The second part of “The Writer’s Grain”  is a bafflingly fantastic piece involving a small boy (another Marechera doppelgänger) being lectured by a sardonic Mr Warthog, with two dinosaurs as sidekicks. I’m not sure quite what this nightmarishly illogical sequence is all about, apart from a lot of neo-cannibalistic eating and literary name-dropping. It does seem to boil down to Mr Warthog’s one extended instructive speech exalting

Your right to put the spanner in the works. Your right to refuse to be labelled and to insist on your right to behave anything other than anyone expects. Your right to simply say no for the pleasure of it. To insist on your right to confound all who insist on regimenting human impulses according to theories psychological, religious, historical, philosophical, political, etc. ... Insist upon your right to insist on the importance, the great importance, of whim. There is no greater pleasure than that derived from throwing or not throwing the spanner into the works simply on the basis of one’s whims... (122)

This, a little simplified, is Marechera’s manifesto, reiterated many times, and enacted in the very tumult of his delivery. Animal presences are part of his disorientating techniques, though ultimately they are mere psychic instruments, not ethically considerable in themselves.

While Marechera remains unique in the Zimbabwean context, and his work is particularly challenging in the scope of its self-referential disgust, it’s worth recalling that his stance is echoed by others. The scholar George Steiner has written of the French modernist poets whom Marechera admired, Mallarmé and Rimbaud:

The poet no longer has or aspires to native tenure in the house of words. The languages waiting for him as an individual born into history, into society, into the expressive conventions of his particular culture and milieu, are no longer a natural skin. Established language is the enemy. The poet finds it sordid with lies. Daily currency has made it stale. The ancient metaphors are inert and the numinous energies bone-dry. ... He will seek to resuscitate the magic of the word by dislocating the traditional bonds of grammar and of ordered space ... He will rescind or at least weaken the classic continuities of reason and syntax, of conscious direction and verbal form ... the public crust of language must be riven. Only then shall the subconscious and anarchic core of private man find voice. (After Babel, 178)

Marechera applied such a programme to his colonial and post-independence milieux, with a particularly visceral, animal-populated twist.

By the way, if you know of any southern African literary works in which dagga plays a prominent role, do let me know.

*****


 Also visit www.netsoka.co.za for more Wylie books and art.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

No 105: Beyond racism? Zimbabwe's newest fiction

Can we speak of a “new wave” of Zimbabwean fiction? Maybe I’ve just accidentally discovered the novels that have appeared recently, but 2018 seems to have been a particularly fruitful year. Notably, these are only novels internationally published and available to me; works produced within Zimbabwe are harder to obtain, including those in Shona and Ndebele. So this toe-dip is no basis for generalisation, but certain features of this batch are interesting.


Some names are new, some better established. Many have been incorporated into an intriguing little compilation by Tinashe Mushakavanhu and Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats (2018). This is an eclectic collage of grainy-chic photographs in brick-red and yellow, extracts and how-to-write homilies from Zimbabwean writers old and new, ranging from Doris Lessing to John Eppel, Yvonne Vera to Faith Nyamabuya, and dozens of others. Mushakavanhu, working out of New York and Johannesburg, has been producing other samizdat publications, too, and is set to field a re-evaluation of 1970s bad boy of literature, Dambudzo Marechera.

Marechera’s wildly talented influence on the younger set is not at all reflected in the novels I discuss here, perhaps precisely because they are ‘mainstream’, published outside Zimbabwe.  Almost all of these writers live abroad now, or have done so for long periods. I wonder how this affects how they write, and what kind of editing attention they receive. As with some slightly earlier novels, such as Panashe Chigumadzi’s Sweet Medicine, and short story collections like NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (2013) and Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory (2015), there seems to be a notional list of approved ‘national issues’ or tropes – the violent and/or unfaithful husband, the incestuous uncle, the AIDS sufferer, the lure and pressure of the transnational, the teenage pregnancy, and so on – which must be ‘ticked off’ before the closing page. Which is not to say these problems don’t exist, or that it’s not vital to probe them, or that these books aren’t good at doing so. But it does tend to make these fictions just a bit (to use a sophisticated lit.crit. term) samey.

Most interestingly, I find, is how all these novels treat racial questions and presences. Consciousness of colonialist racism and material culture is recognised as pervasive, but it’s treated with a kind of ecumenical, or perhaps multicultural touch, a decentralised inclusiveness beyond or outside the angst and aggression, victimhoodery and oversimplification characteristic of so many race exchanges in South Africa and, right now, the (Dis)United States. It’s a tone established by earlier novels like – to take just one example – Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare (2010), in which a white client of said hairdresser, a woman displaced by the farm seizures, is depicted with the same empathy as any other character. This has become easier, perhaps, where numerically whites have dwindled to a miniscule minority.

Though all these novelists are thoroughly ‘internationalised’, the only genuine ‘outsider’ is C B George. This is the closely-guarded pen name for someone said to have worked in southern Africa for some years and now living in London. He/she describes The Death of Rex Nhongo (Quercus, 2015) as a “loose-limbed thriller”. The primary crime question – who, if anyone, did kill the real-life Rex Nhongo, aka Solomon Mujuru, in 2011? – is neither really central to the novel, nor is it any more resolved than it has been in real life. (Anthropologist Joost Fontein has explored and theorised this in exhaustive detail in article in the journal Kronos.)  George’s story rather weighs in on the interlinked intimacies of five married couples, all of whom are touched one way or another by the passage of a gun which may or may not have been used in the Mujuru murder. The characters range from poor to rich, from Shona to English and African-American, from taxi-driver to Central Intelligence Organisation officer. It’s cleverly plotted and authentically observed, unfolding against the backdrop of economic collapse and Mugabe’s oppressive regime. It’s a cool outsider’s view in some ways, not allowing one’s sympathies to settle on any one character for long. It comes down particularly hard on foreigners, pretentious embassy wallahs and cushioned NGO operatives – more so than on the regime itself. Domestic dynamics are parsed more analytically than politics. Perhaps the closest it comes to the latter is the British Jerry Jones’ self-critical impulse to “reorder the inexplicable into a Western equation of coincidence, autosuggestion and psychological trauma”, making sense within “an eloquent and meaningful narrative”, such as one that “explains” Mujuru’s death. “This latter story is not Jerry’s own, but it can also be appropriated. It doesn’t matter who owns what any more: small but elaborate lies are necessary to underpin the megalithic icebergs, which necessarily remain mostly below the surface.”  A fluid and deceptive world. With the exception of odd interpolations in the voice of one small girl, whose invented ‘pidgin’ feels awkward and largely irrelevant to the plot, it’s a strong and readable novel.

A clutch of novels emanate from Bulawayo. The only one published in Zimbabwe, by the only author of this batch still resident, is the ever-prolific John Eppel’s The Boy Who Loved Camping (Weaver, 2019). It’s a more mature-audience story than it sounds, an affecting but slightly uncharacteristically bland story that was eviscerated (Eppel tells me) by his editors of his usual raunchy humour and savage satire. In its economical sweep from a 1950s childhood, through the liberation war, into a transnational later life, the protagonist Tom’s life in some respects parallels the author’s. Landing up in England, Tom experiences alienation every bit as intense as any back in liberated Zimbabwe; such alienation is not necessarily predicated on race or racism.

In contrast to Eppel, Graham Lang was born and raised in pre-independence Zimbabwe but subsequently emigrated to Australia; he now practices art in Tasmania. I’ve written elsewhere about his robust novel of the post-2000 farm seizures, Place of Birth (2006), and have belatedly caught up with his next novel, Lettah’s Gift (2011). As in the previous work, a white ex-Rhodesian returns to the country of his birth, finding a very different situation from what he remembers from his childhood. The premise is less dramatic than in Place of Birth: Frank Cole has to deliver a bequest from his deceased mother to erstwhile beloved family servant Lettah. It’s a kaleidescopic portrayal of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, very much about the self-defeating ambiguities of memory and attempted redemption. Characters ranging from the ugly, cryptic policeman Chombo to the conservative and equally dubious white farmer Brak, are portrayed with satisfying ambiguity. In both novels the protagonists’ emigré status (reflecting the author’s own) enables rather more robust, not to say embittered, critiques of both colonial and present governmental abuses than we find in most other fictions.

Modern Bulawayo is depicted from a different angle by Sue Nyathi, who was raised and educated there (Eppel was one of her teachers). Her first novel, The Polygamist, which I haven’t read, has been described as “pulp”. The Gold-diggers (Pan Macmillan, 2018) is a cut above that, I think, though the romantic and action bits do drift towards the Mills & Boon end of the stylistic spectrum. The sentences are short and texturally ordinary, digestible as Smarties. It’s interestingly premised, however, on the passengers of a single minibus trip, whose varied careers, unfolding between Bulawayo and Johannesburg, crisscross through the novel. There’s some rich detail of both cities, and a strand of biting critique of the metaphorical “gold-diggers”, the venal and the shameless profiteers of contemporary society, trailing misery, success and deprivation in equal measure.

The minibus driver’s family was slaughtered  in the 1980s massacres of Ndebele civilians known as Gukurahundi. Gukurahundi, overlaying the effects of colonialism and civil war, haunts all these novels, complexly integrated with the backdrop of post-independence misgovernance, hyperinflation, electricity and water shortages, and so on. But the focus is rather on domestic and family affairs, on individual fortunes as the characters swim through modernity.  Little overt judgement is passed either on past racism or present ills: not that critique is absent, but both aspects seem to just take their place amongst many cultural issues that must be negotiated.

At the foot of the cover of Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s intriguingly-titled The Theory of Flight (Penguin, 2018) appear  two hands, one dark-skinned, one pale. This reflects the (excuse the phrase) even-handed fashion in which race is (ditto) handled. There is so-called miscegenation, and mixtures of generosity and meanness on all sides. Postcolonial anxieties persist, to be sure, but politics is deliberately displaced into the realm of the everyday: “Real revolutions happen on farms, in workshops, in garages and in basements, usually in the middle of nowhere, propelled simply by the need to realise a dream.” The central dream here is one character’s quixotic desire to build an aeroplane and fly. This first novel won the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize in 2019, the judges charmed, I imagine, by its injection of South American-style magic realism, its sly humour, and the clever interlacing of its sundry characters’ lives. As with The Gold-diggers, perhaps too many characters: the eye and the empathy can’t settle, and it feels as if Ndlovu is aiming for an epic reach on too small a canvas. Underlying grimness is rather defanged by the arch levity of the delivery and a somewhat irresolute plot. Still, an enjoyable read from a writer who, one hopes, will continue to take flight.

Another promising debut novel, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone (Atlantic Books, 2018) shows some similarities. It’s also set in Bulawayo, and also revolves largely around a disappearance during Gukurahundi. There is another white man fathering himself upon black women, muddying the racial waters. There is a similar panoply of characters, and a plot which spirals repeatedly and fragmentarily through past and present. This is very mod, and might at a stretch be said to reflect the shattered national consciousness, but this old man wonders: Whatever happened to telling a good old story from A to B? In this case, some potential suspense is lost, with characters still chewing over questions already answered a hundred pages earlier. Tshuma’s tone is more sombre than Ndlovu’s, her critiques of both colonialism and post-independence misgovernance a bit sharper. Tshuma writes, not very originally but succinctly: “The past was an overpowering presence, too present and not past, as it should have been, cannibalizing our present, mutating our future.” Yet the writing itself seems to have moved beyond such entrapment, even if the future looks less than rosy. House of Stone is a substantial piece, no question, but I wonder if any novel could live up to the overweening hype the PR machine has generated. If Tshuma gets better, as she well might, there will be no adjectives, because the superlatives have all been used up. Not to mention the rather self-congratulatory introduction and interview included in this edition. This kind of thing does young writers few favours, in my view.

Tsitsi Dangarembga isn’t exactly new on the block: her rightly acclaimed first novel, Nervous Conditions, was published way back in 1987. After pursuing a career in film production, she eventually followed up with The Book of Not, which took the life of the first novel’s protagonist, Tambudzai Sigauke, into adulthood. Now, Dangarembga extends this fictional biography into a third novel, This Mournable Body (Jacana, 2018). We follow the tribulations of Tambu and her extended family into her early middle age under Mugabe’s regime, with its perpetual undercurrents of neglect, corruption and patronage, electricity and fuel shortages, and disruptive farm seizures. It’s generally indeed a mournful and mournable situation as Tambu flounders between jobs in an ad agency, teaching, and tourism business, collapsing more than once into near-psychotic breakdown – another ‘nervous condition’ meant slyly, perhaps, to reflect the muddled breakdown of the country in general. As in the other novels I discuss here, direct and overt critique of the government is avoided: I don’t think Mugabe himself is mentioned once. We still await, as far as I know, a substantial novel that really gets at the core of that regime with forensic courage.

Neither The Book of Not nor This Mournable Body quite match up to the sharpness of postcolonial critique and psychological focus of Nervous Conditions, and the first half of Mournable feels distinctly meandering. Instead of the conventional first- or third-person narration, Dangarembga has chosen the rarely-used second person “you” – as if Tambu is speaking to herself as an other. It takes some getting used to, but eventually seems appropriate to Tambu’s self-suffocating inner disjunctions: the passages describing her hallucinatory breakdown are I think the most arresting in the book. There are other moments of brilliance, too: she describes Tambu’s mother’s gnarled joints as “thick as bulbs ready for planting”; “the tongues of discoloured tennis shoes loll forward as though from a throat”.  Postcolonial racial issues are present – the older generation critiques Tambu’s dodgy acquisition of “Englishness”, making her potentially “nothing but a foreigner visiting”; her tourism boss is a white school contemporary; her cousin Nyasha has married an edgy German; the echoes of white rule and culture pervade society, variously accepted, adapted, and resisted. But the racial aspects are again just one of many ambient problems, neither more nor less remarkable than many others, neither ignored nor centralised. All this is particularly fascinating in the context of the world-wide post-George Floyd anti-racism protests; it’s as if Zimbabwe, while in some ways regressing to forms of medieval warlordism and impoverishment, shot through with threads of techno-modernity, has already moved past all that; as if, persistent cultural ambiguities notwithstanding, a certain egalitarianism has been achieved – one all might aspire to.

All the above novels suffer, if that’s the word, from a certain issues-driven studiousness, a constraint reflected in the mode of social realism. Forays beyond this mirror-of-society style remain rare. But one writer who is proving more adventurous is Petina Gappah. She exhibited considerable deftness in her earlier collections of short stories, The Book of Memory (2015) and Rotten Row (2016). She showed herself capable, for instance, of thinking her way, not without empathy, into the headspace and argot of Rhodesia’s last white hangman. Now she has published a novel which she regards as the culmination of her writing career: Out of Darkness, Shining Light (Faber, 2019). This is narrated from the points of view of two of the 69 people, almost all Africans, who chose to transport David Livingstone’s decayed remains from Ujiji, where he had died, to the East African coast, a gruelling trek, so that he could be taken home to England to be buried. It’s in any view an instance of extraordinary cross-racial loyalty and self-sacrifice for a personage often regarded as a harbinger of colonialism, despite his antipathy to the slave-trade. Gappah imagines into the light the personalities, struggles and arguments of the bearers themselves, otherwise all but lost to history. She deploys an English-language voice for her Zanzibari main narrator Halima which, if just occasionally too derivative of the Cockney “innit”, the Ulster “so it was”, and other ‘working-class’ quirks, is innovative and convincing. The characters are vivacious and complex, the background research self-evidently intensive, the implicit critiques razor-edged but even-handed, the language bewitchingly rich, as this opening paragraph shows:

It is strange, is it not, how the things you know will happen do not ever happen the way you think they will happen when they do happen? On the morning that we found him, I was woken by a dream of cloves. The familiar, sweetly cloying smell came so abruptly to my nose that I might have been back at the spice market in Zanzibar, a slim-limbed girl again, supposedly learning how to pick out the best for the Liwali’s kitchen, but really standing first on one leg, then the other, and my mother saying, but, Halima, you don’t listen, which was true because I was paying more attention to the sounds of the day – the call of the muezzin, the cries of the auctioneers at the slave market, the donkeys braying in protest, the packs of dogs snarling over the corpses of slaves outside the customs house, and the screeching laughter of children.

That sets up the story with beautiful economy. And it’s refreshing to find a Zimbabwean taking other parts of the globe as her creative stamping-ground, beyond the generally claustrophobic preoccupation with ‘being Zimbabwean’, without necessarily abandoning relevant themes.  

There may be something in Tinashe Mushakavanhu’s observation that much Zimbabwean writing remains insufficiently “introspective”.  And it would be naive, of course, to hope that racism is, or ever will be, somehow eradicated. Yet the confident, well-read intelligence of all this writing in itself seems to me to indicate a move beyond the conventional, the sloganeering obsession with racism, into a more secure and nuanced sense of selfhood, even as the future is depicted as still mired in uncertainty.

*****


For more books and art by Dan and Jill Wylie, go to www.netsoka.co.za 

Friday, 15 May 2020

No 104 - South Africa’s fevers: the real in the fiction



As if it weren’t enough to be numbed by the mounting Covid-19 death numbers, baffled by the welter of lunatic conspiracy theories about whose fake news is really true, and lost in admiration at Donald Trump’s transparent and incisive leadership – no, we also have to wallow in stories and films about yet more epidemics, pandemics and related afflictions.

One just has to watch, for example, Will Smith in I Am Legend, which starts well enough, New York’s streets hauntingly emptied by the virus; but then, all too predictably, the dog gets the chop, and it’s downhill from there. Infected people appear somehow to have acquired these superhuman/beastly leaping and smashing and snarling and cannibalistic powers. Hollywood must have in stock just a single spitty-roary-snarly sound-effect track which has been used for every zombie movie since 1978. So boring so silly.

Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion (2011), in contrast, is a chillingly accurate reflection of today, with the sole exception of the rate of infection – but even that may not be so far off. It is all there: its beginning in bats, transferred through the wet markets of China; the manner and ease of its spread; the race to find a vaccine, with all its testing, time delays, and difficulty of choosing who to give it to first; the misinformation on the internet; the tensions between the WHO and the US government; the outbreaks of violent desperation on militarised streets; the altruism alongside the selfishness; the venal journalists and the profiteers; the striking nurses and the dying doctors; the face-masks, the banning of handshaking, even the phrase ‘social distancing’. The self-isolation and the fear.

Again and again, one has to say, Don’t claim we weren’t warned.

But that’s all American. What of South Africa, which of course has had its historical share of plagues, pestilences and epidemics, affecting both humans and animals? (See Howard Phillips’ Jacana pocket history, Plague, Pox and Pandemics.) The last and only true pandemic, I think, was the so-called Spanish ‘flu of 1918, which now is suddenly coming back into historical focus.  But before that there were many less sweeping, nonetheless damaging outbreaks of smallpox, horse-sickness, rinderpest, anthrax, measles, cholera, and even bubonic plague, some of which are by no means eradicated. After that the scourge of HIV/AIDS, which also hasn’t gone away; millions have learned instead to live with it, thanks to anti-retrovirals. The same, most likely, will eventually be the case with Covid-19, even if and when a vaccine or treatment medications can be produced in sufficient volume.

What do our creative literatures have to say?

Russel Brownlee’s fine novel, Garden of the Plagues (2005), is set in the embryonic Cape Town of the 1670s, when it was under the governorship of Simon van der Stel. A ship has arrived from the Far East, with four people on board dead of mysterious causes. One young woman with that group has survived. The ship and crew, like the many stranded cruise liners today, are not permitted to dock, but the woman is lodged for observation with the nearest to a doctor the settlement boasts – the gardener, amateur botanist and sometime physick Adam Wijk. A kind of love develops. She does not, it turns out, have the plague; but meanwhile the town is gripped with fear. People self-isolate; soldiers patrol the streets, enforcing the lockdown.  In the end, though, the really dangerous plagues, in Brownlee's representation, are diseases of attitude and mind, greed and drunkenness, prejudice and violence against women and the indigenes. It’s a nuanced and tightly observed novel, and it’s a pity Brownlee appears to have published nothing since.

The following century at the Cape was dominated, epidemically speaking, by smallpox – already ancient and global. Outbreaks were recorded in 1713, 1755  and 1767. Locals called it “amaas”. The first epidemic in particular is widely credited with practically obliterating local Khoekhoen groups, though historian Robert Ross judges these later accounts to be probably exaggerated. The nineteenth century recorded repeated outbreaks; ships coming into our ports were routinely quarantined. Still, a thousand people died in Cape Town in 1858; a quarter of Colesberg’s coloured community in 1860. The Xhosa were repeatedly stricken in the years leading up to the 1856 Cattle Killing; they compared smallpox’s facial cicatrices to anteater turds. As Jeff Peires showed in his study The Dead Shall Arise, expanded on by Andrew Offenburger, the Cattle Killing was associated with a devastating outbreak of lungsickness among the Xhosa cattle. But it was foreshadowed by smallpox, and amplified by drought and locusts.  In most of the outbreaks, the African peoples were especially vulnerable; the authorities sequestered them, notably in an infamous “smallpox war” on the Kimberley diamond fields in the 1880s, and in an outbreak of bubonic plague in Cape Town in 1901. In time, Africans came automatically to be associated with contagion, and actual disease outbreaks helped form the township system that eventually hardened into apartheid.

Livestock were also riddled with diseases, some parasitic, some viral, throughout the nineteenth century: Dutch farmers called them brandziekte, lamziekte, dunsiekte , meltziekte... Newly appointed state veterinarians battled against resistance from farmers, and found novel germ and vaccination theories – it was the age of Jenner and Pasteur – getting politicized. A rinderpest outbreak in 1865 killed half a million cattle. Set in the Eastern Cape a few decades after the Cattle Killing, Marguerite Poland’s novel of missionary endeavour, Shades (1993), deals at one point with the more famous rinderpest epidemic of 1896. This had apparently started in East Africa and made its way south into Rhodesia and Bechuanaland. After it was first detected on a farm south of the Limpopo drastic measures, including fences and large-scale slaughter of animals, failed to prevent it filtering southwards. It not only killed thousands of cattle: it devastated the economy at all levels, and was a huge factor in diverting young black men, deprived of sustenance and a living, into the horrors of the migrant labour system. Its social effects could be pernicious, too. In the novel, Poland relates in unsettling detail how, at an armed checkpoint, a Xhosa priest is forced to go naked through an anti-rinderpest dip along with the oxen, while his white fellow-priest is not. An excruciating scene.

I haven’t yet found a South African fictional treatment of the 1918 pandemic: do tell me if you know of one. I did come across this bit in Breyten Breytenbach’s surreally lyrical memoir of the Boland, Dog Heart (1998). He writes of the Long Street Mission Church, turned into a museum. In 1918,

People come to die in great numbers within its walls during the influenza epidemic when it is converted into a house of passing away, of dark wind. It is believed that the epidemic – some call it the Spanish Plague – commences with the gathering of a crowd to rejoice at the Armistice of 1918. Peace festivities propagate the killer disease. The old Salvation Army hall becomes a makeshift hospital for whites. A soup kitchen for coloured people is opened in the Ebenezer Church Hall. All three local doctors fall ill (Wessels, Muller and Mrs Muller). Ds van Huyssteen, minister to the Dutch Reformed congregation, admonishes the voluntary workers to eat a little salt, take some snuff, and tie small bags of garlic and wildeals around their waists. Maybe it helps. ... Church services are conducted in the open air, under the tall trees of Lovers Walk. People are afraid to whisper to one another. Will you stop breathing on me! ... Burial proceedings are not held in the churches, either; there are short and simple graveside ceremonies with mourners gathered at a safe distance on the outskirts of the graveyard, they fasten cloths over their noses and mouths.

Andre Brink’s The Wall of the Plague was written in 1984, and clearly one of Brink’s purposes was to drive home to shielded, unthinking and silently complicit South African whites just how terrible their treatment of black and coloured people was. The main action occurs in France, where the Coloured protagonist Andrea Malgas delivers a dense, three-tiered narrative of three successive lovers, travelling at different times over the same ground while researching for a film on the 1340s Black Death. Her in-betweenness is a bit too neatly triangulated between her British, white South African, and Xhosa partners. The story only really gets going on page 124 or so; there are a lot of angry dialogues, overheated emotions, and showing off about the minutiae of French villages and cuisine; much of it an exercise in forensic tedium. It has its moments – terrifying flashbacks to South African experiences, interesting long quotations about the European plagues from historians like Barbara Tuchman and Phillip Ziegler. Malgas  is obsessed with finding the remnant of a mediaeval wall, built to sequester a certain village from the plague. The wall failed, of course, and is so ruined now it’s hard to find. At some level, Brink seems to suggest that all walls – those between population groups in South Africa, pre-eminently – are doomed both to hurtfully divide and to break down. There’s a reference to Hitler’s SS as the ‘Black Plague’, and thence to apartheid’s Special Branch as similarly toxic (indeed, it’s implied, their lethal tentacles reach even into France). Such comparisons are tendentious at best, and to be sure Brink doesn’t push it, but despite some rather laborious dialogic philosophising, it all feels a bit tangential and muffled – perhaps necessarily so, given the novel’s timing. What it’s not about is actual plagues in South Africa.


Deon Meyer’s Fever (2017) is – sort of, being futuristic.  This thriller might more accurately have been called After the Fever, though, since that’s when it takes place: really a post-apocalyptic Wild West Texas Rangers-type story, with a (mostly) moral cobbled-together community in the desert defending itself against bad guys, some good guys becoming bad guys in order to shoot the real bad guys, some bad guys proving to be good guys after all. It’s readable enough, chopped into digestible, sometimes redundant, chunks from various perspectives, but the machinery creaks along rather obviously. What is revealed in flashbacks about the viral outbreak itself – a corona virus that wipes out 95% of humanity –  presumably didn’t constitute much of Meyer’s self-proclaimed ‘four years’ of research, since there isn’t anything there one can’t pick up from Wikipedia in twenty minutes. What seems in the midst of Covid-19 amazingly predictive is no more than what a quick read of history would supply. Still, the echoes ring true enough. Characters’ ideas compete. There is the view that the Fever was “actually good for the world”, humans having been so destructive. In contrast, the boy-protagonist’s father feels that technology was on the brink of solving everything, so he says: “The Fever, it’s horrible, the billions who died ... but I wonder if the greater harm wasn’t the interruption of what we were on the road to accomplishing. We had such problems before the Fever. Political and social and ecological, but we were finding solutions ... we never had the chance to continue all those developments, to use our ingenuity to solve those problems.” One character asks, “is it not maybe the earth that sent the sickness”, while the pastor puts it down to God. Global warming, plastics pollution, nuclear meltdown, misinformation, racism and inequality all get mentions if not exploration. When various characters are asked, there’s not much about the pre-fever world they really miss, apart from varieties of entertainment. That much seems true to the present: as lockdowns are eased, it becomes apparent that global ‘civilisation’ is more concerned to amuse itself in bars and stadiums, resume its profligate luxuriating, and get its hair done, than to really secure the environmental and economic foundations of its own future. Back in much of Africa, I fear, we are more likely to end up reverting to conditions closer to those of the 1860s.

*****

Thursday, 23 April 2020

No 103 - Was Shaka a slaver?

The recent news that an alleged Brazilian drug-smuggling kingpin has been finally arrested in a posh Maputo hotel coincided with my receiving a new article on the nineteenth-century slave trade out of that same port. Like many ports, then, a den of iniquity and illicit trade, not much changing over the centuries.

The new article, in the prestigious Journal of African History, is by Linell Chewins and Peter Delius of Wits University. Chewins is working on a PhD; Professor Delius is well-known for his work on the history of the Pedi people. The article carries the ponderously informative title, “The Northeastern Factor in South African History: Re-evaluating the volume of the slave trade out of Delagoa Bay [Maputo] and its impact on its hinterland in the early nineteenth century.”

I read it with great interest, since it promised to cast some light on one of the many puzzlements of Shaka’s reign: his relations with the Portuguese and their slaving activities out of the Bay. As noted by Chewins and Delius (let’s call them C&D for short), South African historians of this area of inquiry have been almost uniformly English-speaking. They have therefore been unable (or “unwilling”, C&D allege) to utilise Portuguese archival sources (though a few items were available in translation). In any case, they tell us, the Lisbon maritime records were until very recently in chaos, and hard to sort through.  As it was, myself and colleagues indeed had to work with “fragmentary and circumstantial” evidence from which to draw some inevitably tentative conclusions. Now, C&D have scoured those Portuguese archives in order to throw further light on the impact of the slave trade on the peoples of what is now southern Mozambique and Kwazulu-Natal.

All terribly specialised. I need to backtrack a bit.

In 1988, Julian Cobbing of Rhodes University began challenging the accepted accounts of the Shakan period (roughly 1780-1828). Drawing on some tantalising hints by previous historians, he put together a series of papers, building a case that caused what C&D call an “intemperate” debate – actually the most exciting upheaval in South African historiography in years. Essentially, Cobbing argued that, contrary to the usual mythology, a perceived wave of violence spreading across the subcontinent in the early nineteenth century was not to be attributed solely to the manic imperial ambitions of one Shaka and the Zulus. Rather, he suggested, a crucial, if not the primary, source of regional violence was a growing slave trade at Delagoa Bay. Indeed, the ripples may have played a part in the surge towards ‘state formation’ by the Ndwandwe, the Mthethwa, the Zulu and others. In that 1990s ‘Africanist’ phase of historiography, there were howls of protest that this implied that African states couldn’t form themselves, but had to be dependent on some outside force. But Cobbing’s major contribution was that, instead of “South African” and “Zulu” and “Mozambican” history being pursued in different ‘nationalist’ boxes, he insisted on seeing the whole region as seamless and interlinked. This was later reinforced by Australian historian Norman Etherington, whose book The Great Treks (2001) did exactly that, in more detail, and it’s a perspective rightly endorsed by Chewins and Delius.

C&D do not give Cobbing remotely sufficient credit for launching this perspective. They mention only his earliest, most exploratory paper, rather than a series of later, more finely detailed and rigorous ones. Some of those, to be fair, were not formally published but circulated in sort of samizdat copies.  Cobbing was nevertheless somewhat hobbled by the lack of access to Portuguese sources (not to mention Dutch, French and American ones – they were all slaving). So was I (hobbled, that is, not slaving), when following up on Cobbing’s work in my own study of Shaka, Myth of Iron (2006). I demurred from Cobbing in various ways, and in writing the book tried to evaluate the available evidence independently and on its own terms. In the end, though, I came round to presenting a rather similar view.

Still, here was the main sticking-point: there was simply too little direct evidence of the scale of slaving in the crucial periods – that is, prior to 1815, round about when Shaka assumed the chieftainship of the still-small Zulu people; and then during Shaka’s reign itself. Slaving from Delagoa Bay was unquestionably afoot, and expanding, but was there enough slaving to stimulate the kinds of change visibly happening in the interior: violent movements and consolidations and varieties of militarisation? I looked excitedly to C&D’s new research to bring us closer to certainty, if not clinch the matter. (As Jeff Peires reminded me the other day, no conclusion is ever reached in history.)

I was doomed to be a little disappointed. Not because of the quality of the research, so much as because the Lisbon archives apparently can’t offer much more than what we already surmised. We already knew that slaving appeared, relative to that further north, subdued in the Bay area prior to about 1810. Was this due to a lack of slaving, or just a lack of documentation? Despite their access to the Lisbon records, C&D are obliged to find pre-1820s slaving “as-yet unquantifiable”. In the early 1820s,  Brazil (alongside other operators and destinations) took further advantage of  loopholes in the unfolding international slaving ban to start shipping out several thousand slaves a year, continuing well into the 1830s. But C&D’s tabulated figures for slaves offloaded from the Bay begin only in 1829 (the year after Shaka was assassinated by Dingane). Those figures are themselves bound to be underestimates, and before that date numbers of a deeply clandestine trade simply don’t appear to exist. Whatever C&D can postulate about the earlier era is, they admit, as fragmented and “circumstantial” as ever – little more than “a hint” (97).

The primary questions (or at least my questions) remain: did slaving crucially stimulate state consolidation among the Zulus and others? And did, in that process, Shaka himself eventually participate in the slave trade? The first question, C&D point out, couldn’t be treated “satisfactorily” within the scope of the article, which focuses on the late 1820s onwards. That’s fair enough. They do show that Dingane, Shaka’s successor, was quite deeply involved in various trades at the Bay, including at times slaves. Was Shaka, too? C&D offer a couple of tantalising clues, but no more than, as they say, a “probability”.

A crucial issue, which they discuss in some detail, is identifying exactly who was doing what in the vicinity of the Bay. The Portuguese themselves raided and fomented local wars to generate captives, but there were also groups marauding further inland, sometimes with extreme violence, feeding victims into the slaving network. (It’s an uncomfortable truth, that some Africans – from Sierra Leone to Somalia and Angola – were willing to sell other Africans into slavery, but so it is.)  The marauders in question were variously described by the Portuguese and English visitors to the Bay as Vatwas, Vatuas, Bathwa, Zwietes, Switis, Hollontontes, Mapsitas, and Zoolas. It was very confused. The same name was often applied to quite different entities. I discussed this in considerable detail in Myth of Iron (pp.240-52), presenting and evaluating such snippets as I could find. C&D omit some of mine, and add some to mine; but even a combination of them all doesn’t cast much more light. There were several groups. Zwide’s Ndwandwe (Zwietes) are underplayed by C&D, though as recent work by John Wright and Carolyn Hamilton is confirming, they were palpably the most aggressive of the inland peoples. Other groups, led by Shoshangane (the Gaza), Zwangendaba (Jere), and Nxaba (Msane) are well documented as continuing to vigorously trade slaves into the 1830s. These migrant polities were somewhat fluid in the first place, identifying them from the outside tricky.

C&D want to conflate ‘Vatwas’ with Zulus – as they were on just two documented occasions –  more firmly than I think the evidence can bear. They claim tangentially that the Zulu “army” was “in the Bay” (whatever that means) in 1823, and that they pursued a “scorched-earth” strategy of “destructive forays”. This seems to me to over-generalise the import of only a couple of references; and exactly where, and upon whom, these forays were deployed is not stated, apart from allegedly disembowelling one priest. There was some devastation: John Cane, an Englishman camped at Port Natal (Durban) who was twice sent to the Bay by Shaka, reported as much, but he did not attribute this to Shaka’s forces. (C&D don’t cite this rare eyewitness testimony.) Very interestingly, they do reference a Portuguese letter saying that Shaka established a monitoring or trading-post 100km inland of the Bay on the upper Maputa river. This is one of very few Portuguese items they can offer: they otherwise rely heavily on the testimonies of a British naval officer, W F W Owen – as did I. So, as Owen averred, the links were certainly there. Portuguese were encountered at Shaka’s own capital, way south on the Mhlatuze river, in 1824-5. There seems no reason to discount slaves as part of Shaka’s trade dealings. It would not be a big step from inducting war captives into the existing forms of local servitude, to releasing some of them into the international network. But this still speculative, and C&D can still provide no incontrovertible “smoking musket” or specify the scale.

As for the wider implications of the impact of slaving, C&D do not engage at all with the 30-odd pages throughout Myth of Iron in which I unpack the evidence in painstaking detail. In some ways my case was negative or deductive. The oral records we have indicate several groups moving wholesale away from the Bay in the period 1790-1810 (some eventually into the arms of Shaka): why? A little further south others were consolidating militarily and using hilltop retreats: why? I argue that some common earlier hypotheses – blaming drought and the ivory trade, primarily – don’t make complete sense of these dynamics. Escaping from, defending against, and/or participating in violent slave-raids would be a more logical explanation. C&D state that I blandly “concluded that slavery at the Bay remained a controversial subject”. In fact, my sentence reads: “How much Delagoa Bay participated in the upsurge remains controversial” (162). Which is what C&D are saying, too! Nor was this sentence my conclusion, but a cautionary rider to my conclusion, which concerned Ndwandwe involvement in particular and is clearly stated just a page later:

Zwide was almost certainly amongst those chieftains angling for a greater portion of the expanding Bay trade. There is little question that commerce of all descriptions was traversing the Thukela-Phongolo catchment ... The coincidence of an upsurge in trade of all kinds, most importantly slaving, and the increase of more violent attacks by more organised amabutho [armed units] in the immediate hinterland, is, at the very least, deeply suggestive. ... I think it’s safe to say that slaving was the most important factor in stimulating [those] kinds of attacks. (163-4)

C&D seem determined to include me in a “straw man” construction of the passé historian who needs to “pay more attention” to the “northeastern factor”, when in fact I – and several others – have long done exactly that.

 Similarly, regarding the earlier scale of slaving, they cite my question as to whether Delagoa Bay was “somehow exempt” from the terrible depredations happening further north. This was the assumption made by earlier historians, such as American Elizabeth Eldredge. It was therefore a question I posed at the beginning of a section. In proceeding to answer that rhetorical challenge at some length, I suggested strongly that, despite the lack of precise figures, the Bay could not be so exempt. A question is obviously not a conclusion –  and ironically our conclusions in this instance coincide.


In a final odd misreading, they state: “Historians have commonly viewed Shoshangane and Zwangendaba’s move north to as an [sic] attempt to escape from Shaka’s violent orbit”, rather than attracted to the Bay trade. They cite Myth of Iron, p.245. It’s ambiguous: do they mean that this is what I state? (As it happens, it’s true, but I don’t say so there.) Or do they mean that I also hold that “common view”? In fact, on p.235 I offer a more complex, push-pull interpretation: “[P]rompted by Shaka’s growing power, Zwide’s shift northwards, and an attractive explosion in the slave trade, they gradually moved closer to the Bay”. And on p.245 I actually reinforce C&D’s own emphasis: “If it was not Shaka chasing the Msane, Gaza and Jere into the Delagoa Bay area and northwards, why did they go there? ... [T]he answer [is] quite clear: slaves”.

One does not demand to be agreed with, only to be read accurately.

On the whole – though there are other details I would question –  our differences are matters of nuance  rather than substance. It’s good in its way to know that this further research pretty much confirms one’s own. The paper will certainly help revive an area of debate which, as Chewins and Delius rightly note, has gone rather quiescent.

And if this all sounds like minor quibbles and merely incremental advances in arcane knowledge about one remote corner of the globe, remember that slaving is greater in volume today than ever. There are more misbegotten people living in various conditions of servitude than at any previous time in history – according to the International Labour Organisation, anything between 26 and 40 million. And I will bet my bottom escudo that some are still being trafficked through Maputo.

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