Thursday, 29 March 2018

No.60 - Shaka resurgent, again

Shaka – that stubbornly legendary Zulu founder – keeps resurfacing, drawing me back into the debates concerning his character and times. The other day I was approached by one of Wikipedia’s participants – or compilers, or – it’s hard to know what to call the many non-specialists who footle about in the endless fields of knowledge trying to make it all better, sometimes with mixed results. (I tried to refurbish the “Shaka” entry some years ago, and haven’t had the nerve to go back to see how many dozens of people have arbitrarily edited it subsequently, and to what.) This particular person asked me to have a look at the Wikipedia entry for “mfecane” – the ostensibly Zulu word, usually translated as “the crushing”, which has been popularly used to designate the wave of subcontinental violence, scattering and depopulation beginning with Shaka in the 1820s.

The “mfecane” entry exemplifies many of the problems with the grand democratic enterprise that is Wikipedia. The earliest entries on Shaka were done by someone who had no specialist knowledge in anything, but decided he would try to fill the gaps in the Z’s, namely Zebra, Zimbabwe, and Zulu! Predictably, all the hoary popular legends received another shot in the arm, rather than up-to-date professional research. The “mfecane” entry has progressed only partly beyond this state, being presently a mish-mash of outdated myths, assumptions, and sources whose veracity has long been doubted, uneasily shackled to spotty coverage of some recent scholarly controversies. The accompanying “Talk page”, where one can follow some of the conversation that feeds into reworking the entries, is equally a tangle of the provocative, the useful, and the amusingly ill-informed.

One could start with the entry’s map, which captures the essence of the popular idea – that is, that a half-demonic half-genius Shaka conjured up, in under a decade, a militarised state so powerful and predatory that it sent neighbouring ‘tribes’ scattering in terror as far as Zimbabwe and Malawi, depopulating large areas in the process. One of the few eyewitnesses to Shaka’s rule, Henry Francis Fynn, estimated slaughter of up to a million; though he had no evidence for this whatsoever, that number was uncritically repeated for decades. Only in the 1920s was the term “mfecane” coined to describe this explosion, and it was consolidated into an orthodoxy by J D Omer-Cooper’s book The Zulu Aftermath in 1966.

In the early 1980s Julian Cobbing, historian of the Ndebele and teacher extraordinaire, got me excited about all this in his coruscating critique of the conventional picture. In 1988 he blew the whole thing open with an article in the prestigious Journal of African History, entitled “The Mfecane as Alibi”. He argued two main things: firstly that the regional “motor of violence” was not Shaka, but slave-raids from Mozambique and, a little later, Griqua raids from the west; and secondly, that the “mfecane” was essentially a cover-up for the far greater violence of colonial invasion. As you can imagine, there were howls of protest from the historical establishment, for whom the mfecane was a cornerstone of the national narrative. It was as if someone had tried to erase the Great Trek, or the Boer War.

Though aspects of Cobbing’s intervention remain arguable, I think he achieved one great thing: he dislodged Shaka from his iconic status as a sui generis explosive phenomenon, and instead located him within an envelope of forces unfolding on multiple fronts right across southern Africa. Shaka was aggressive and a state-builder, but both violence and state-building were happening before him and after him: colonial invasion within a decade of his death engendered violence and population movements far more damaging than anything he could have done.  In short, a number of historians, including John Wright, Gavin Whitelaw, Carolyn Hamilton, Norman Etherington, and Elizabeth Eldredge – and myself in two books, Savage Delight and Myth of Iron – expanded upon this complexity, though not always in agreement. In short, some of us argue that the “mfecane” as a free-standing, Shaka-inspired phenomenon simply melts away.

Most recently, John Laband has published The Assassination of King Shaka. Laband has devoted much of his career to the history of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, but in his big book Rope of Sand he ventured into chapters on the earlier Zulu leaders, Shaka, Dingane and Mpande. Even in so experienced a scholar, myths have powerful hold; though he cited my work arguing that the famous “Battle of Qokli Hill” was an invention, he still included that battle in his narrative. Now, I’m glad to see, he has dropped it, and in large part agrees with my view of Shaka’s reign.  He is not, he insists, writing another biography of Shaka: “Dan Wylie stole a march on me there,” he laments in his introduction. (Sorry, John; no malice aforethought, I was just blundering along at my own pace.)  Instead, he cleverly refracts Shaka’s career through the perspective of his assassination at the hands of his brothers in 1828, showing how his entire politics and situation culminated in that fatal moment. His perspective accords on the whole with mine partly because we both draw heavily on The James Stuart Archive, a six-volume collection of Zulu oral histories, edited largely by John Wright – a monumental, decades-long task of translation and scholarship. The JSA is tricky to interpret and use, but overall its testimonies support a narrative radically different to the popular “mfecane”. Laband deliberately doesn’t engage in scholarly debates, as I did, letting the story tell itself, as it were, in serviceable and readable fashion, and more fully describing Zulu cultural mores. Though we differ in emphasis and interpretation here and there, I think our books lie rather fruitfully alongside one another.

Myth of Iron has provoked some other interesting responses. One is to have had some influence on Shaka’s latest literary incarnation – the graphic novel. (It had to happen sometime!) With Shaka Rising, Luke W Molver and Mason O’Connor with Jive Media Africa (website here) has recently published an account of Shaka’s accession to power in a vivacious and thoughtful way. The artwork is powerful, rendered largely in rich ochres and reds, and the storyline is compelling – as Shaka’s rise from obscurity to power can only be. Shaka Rising is a fiction, of course, and some characters are conscious inventions deployed to enliven and sharpen the narrative. Relatively little evidence is available anywhere about Shaka’s childhood and youth, and different stories compete in the traditions. Molver and O’Connor have chosen a version in which Shaka goes into exile not as a child, but as an upcoming and potentially troublesome young man, earning his military kudos under Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa, who then boosts him into power over his brothers. (Shaka’s conflict with, and ultimate murder of brother Sigujana is a central thread of the story.)  If the images owe perhaps a little too much to the honed physiques of Henry Cele and the 1987 TV series Shaka Zulu, and the background architecture a little too much to that of North American stockades, it is a pretty complex and persuasive view of the period.

Most interestingly in the context of the “mfecane”, Shaka Rising follows the (still controversial and unproven) view propounded by Cobbing and endorsed, with some caveats, in Myth of Iron – the view that a primary stimulus of violence was slaving, crucially conducted by Ndwandwe middlemen who occupied territory between the Zulu-Mthethwa nexus on the Mfolozi rivers and Delagoa Bay (Maputo).  So, instead of the Wiki map, which has the usual bundle of arrows shooting away from the Zulu heartland, like sparks from a fire, in Shaka Rising we have a map in which the arrows emanate from the Ndwandwe. This, too, may be an oversimplification, of course, but at least it provides an alternative to the myth. Most gratifyingly, a section at the back of Shaka Rising lays out for readers all the questions I’ve raised here: it stresses the story’s fictionality, the possibility of other versions, the dubious nature of many of the sources, and the existence of ongoing controversy – inviting one into the debate, rather than closing it off. 

With my Mkhize mentors, and Zihlandhlo T-shirts!
I believe a sequel is in the works, and I look forward to it. Zulu history before the 1879 war remains rather neglected: we still await scholarly biographies of Dingane and Mpande, kings just as important to the foundation of the Zulu polity as their half-brother Shaka. I hope Zulu scholars are weighing in, though another consequence of Myth of Iron was a salutary reminder that university, on-paper scholarship is not the mode of history most relevant to most people. A couple of years ago, on the strength of my portrayal of the partnership between Shaka and his neighbouring Mkhize chieftain Zihlandhlo, I was invited to a Zulu-Mhkize reconciliation indaba at one of King Zwelithini’s rural palaces.
It was totally fascinating: politics in a mode that one almost never sees in the national press, conducted entirely in Zulu, dense with protocols and rich with undercurrents which this displaced white Zimbo could still only guess at. Thank goodness for the lovely Mhkize gentlemen who shepherded me through the day. It was history living into the future in a wholly different way, in which, one could say, the truth of the present is more important than the truth about the past – however one conceives of that.


Tuesday, 27 March 2018

No.59 - The novels of Claire Robertson

South Africa is producing a slew of impressive new novelists. Among them, Claire Robertson is easing into special prominence. She has published three substantial novels –  The Spiral House (winner of the Sunday Times Fiction Prize), The Magistrate of Gower, and now Under Glass – all handsomely produced in hardcover by Umuzi. Robertson is mining a rich and distinctive vein of historical evocation; although each novel is set in a different time and milieu, they feel of a piece. There are certain similarities of voice between them, some overlaps in their circling around issues of women’s domesticity, repressed sexualities, conditions of entrapment of “sorry green colonialists” (Glass 84) in the almost forgotten cracks in greater societal forces. They are period-pieces of exquisite precision, in which world events – mostly the evolution of empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – revolve in a shadowy dance behind the primary scenes of a slave house, a kitchen, an isolated magistracy, a sugar plantation.
The Spiral House is set in two periods, narrated in interlocking chapters. The first is the 1790s in the Cape Colony, focused on the experiences of a Dutch-Malay woman, Katreijn van de Caab, caught in strange twilight zone, technically free but obliged still to live much as a slave, yet better-educated than many of her farm-owner ‘masters’. (There were apparently a goodly number of such, Muslim-educated women in the Cape.)  This novel follows a recent strong trend to focus on slave society, including the historical researches of Rob Shell and Nigel Penn, and the ‘Petronella’ novels of Andre Brink and Dalene Matthee.  In the dense intimaco of her own research, Robertson’s portrayal of a fictional but similar character reminds one of Dan Sleigh’s wonderful novel Islands.

The second strand of The Spiral House is set a century and a half later, centred on a mission station in the Limpopo borderlands and refracted through one somewhat rebellious Sister Vergilius. Despite some commonalities of theme, this structure feels a touch contrived: two novels, almost, struggling to escape a single cover. For Katreijn, Roberston invented a new voice, by which a non-English speaker’s sensibility is conveyed in a unique, exotic yet natural English argot: a triumph.  By comparison the other strand feels a little flat. Nevertheless, the novel is  a worthy prize-winner.

 The Magistrate of Gower, with its Hardy-like title, is more satisfactorily singular in its chronological line (roughly 1900-1939), even as the omniscient narration ranges across characters.  The main character is a ‘Boer’, in the late nineteenth-century sense, Henry Vos, who finds himself, unusually, in a British prison camp in Ceylon for Boer-War POWs.  He returns to negotiate the ambivalences of post-Union South Africa, launching a law career in Cape Town, before being offered the remote magistracy of Gower, a small Karoo-type dorp somewhere near Jamestown.  There, inhabitants are barely aware of either bigger cities or the surrounding countryside, let alone national or world events, and nothing more dramatic than an arson case transpires.  Yet plenty of interest and tension unfolds at intimate and subtle levels. Henry Vos’s tortured and covert sexuality is just one of many dynamics. One of Robertson’s strengths is conveying these individual struggles through details of objects and gestures, often beautifully intertwined with emotions and thoughts.  Here’s a representative passage:

Mrs Theron keeps both arms pulled in close to her body, with her handbag in between her and the woman’s accusations. “Mrs Sara Theron! And what do we have here?” The woman has her eyes on them but her head is tilted slightly away as she speaks, as though she is commenting on them to another, invisible, party. She is utterly different from Mrs Theron: how firm and upright and solid is her body against the gentler form of the younger woman, how definite are her colours; Mrs Theron and the other Gower women Adaira has seen this morning wear veld and forest colours – fawn, most of all, fawn with a print of pale small flowers or dim inorganic shapes, and shoes of brown leather, neat buttons. (Magistrate 130)

Every such detail is marshalled to define a character or offer insight into the whole society – a technique, akin to Jane Austen’s, which appears small-scale and trivial, but is never dull and always deftly, economically and often ironically delivered.

Under Glass, Robertson’s most recent and accomplished work, exposes another such unexplored space, yet one as common and crucial to white settlement: the sugar cane estate in peri-coastal Zululand in the mid-1800s. This is also a two-strand novel, but cannily integrated. The main strand is omniscient but centred on the character of Mrs Chetwyn, wife to an emergent sugar-cane farmer, mother of five. The second, alternating voice belongs to the youngest of the five, “Cosmo”, whose true position in the family emerges only in the last quarter or so. Only a second reading reveals just how cunningly the clues are laid – and omitted. In the opening pages, we learn only that certain household members are “loyal to [a] conspiracy”. And I won’t spoil it for you by revealing its precise nature here.

Again, I’m impressed by how a density of research is deftly integrated into the portrayal of everyday textures and the revelation of character – what Robertson might well call a “housewifely” use of “lore, vigilance and care with thoroughness, thrift and duty” (Glass 72). Each novel is a thoroughly persuasive period-piece without ever feeling didactic. Much is filtered through the primary purview of the domestic, even ruminations on wider dynamics of empire, agriculture or science. (Nascent sciences – the new Darwinism, paleontology and human origins, botany and entomology – keep surfacing as a minor theme, reminding me of Ingrid Winterbach’s novels – there’s a whole topic for a thesis in this subtle presence of science in our fiction. Indeed, at times there is a cool forensic distance in Robertson’s narration which echoes that of her scientist-characters.)  Rather than being told by the omniscient narrator what to think of the characters and situations, what is not said is equally important: almost every sentence is resonant with implication. The richness lies somewhere between the intellectuality of George Eliot and the metaphoric lyricism of Australia’s Patrick White.

In all three novels, Robertson has developed a mode of present-tense narration which is influenced by the cadences and vocabularies of the depicted period, but which still feels unique – both authentic and invented, as it were –  a sort of ‘neo-archaism’.  In the case of Cosmo, the sensibility of a child, despite being considered from a point of adult sophistication, is almost magically conveyed in the present tense.  If there is a tiny criticism to be made here, it is that the passages of interiority briefly accorded to the Zulu manservant/guide Fuze, or to the indentured Indian maid Griffin, are not strongly enough differentiated from Mrs Chetwyn or, for that matter, Magistrate Vos. A danger, perhaps, of  falling victim to one’s own success.

Though our fashionable shibboleths of race, patriarchy, class and gender are present throughout, they are filtered through the everyday complexities of real relationships, a strategy refreshingly free of cant, gross binarism and sentimentality. Building character pixel by pixel, as it were, Robertson places a lot of faith in her reader to sense the implications. Consequently, there is scarcely a dull sentence in the entire novel, scarcely a paragraph not worth re-reading for its balance, resonance, and lyricism. A representative passage:

“The land is uneasy. Almost uncanny,” he [Chetwyn] says. He makes a picture of suspicious homesteads and women alone and marks of newness and strange patterns in the way cattle are herded and rivers forded. He speaks of a sense of tremors, the quivers that will sweep across the flanks of a horse hours after it has been in a carriage wreck – tremors under the surface, startlement never far, nerves rinsed and taut. But oh, the look of it. “It has a way with hills,” he says, and strokes the air as if stroking an animal’s flank, and speaks of hills that follow one another in successive swells to the north, or cut off to the east, all sharing the same blunt, sudden end ... (Glass 55).

Beautifully done: the sentences unfold rhythmically, and a compact indirectness is preferred over loose dialogue; the metaphors evoke the self-same lifeways, and there is the satisfying assonance of “blunt, sudden”. These are hallmarks of a novelist who is, in my experience, writing as well as anyone in the country today.


Thursday, 22 March 2018

No 58 - Rhinos vs Elephants: Myths and realities

For at least two millennia, the notion has persisted that the rhinoceros and the elephant are sworn enemies. Really? One can see why the idea is attractive: the world’s two heftiest land mammals, animal superhero hulks, if you like, having it out in the arena of WWPachyderm. But is there much to it outside the arena of the imagination?

            In her book Rhinoceros (Reaktion Books, 2008), Kelly Enright traces it all back to a Persian myth about a bad-tempered, isolated, one-horned creature named the Karkadann. Elephant, not knowing of the Karkadann’s habitual anger, comes ambling by. They hate each other at first sight. They fight, the Karkadann ducking under the rearing elephant and piercing its stomach. The elephant collapses on top of the Karkadann, irretrievably trapping it. At which point a huge bird arrives, plucks both of them up, carries them off to its nest, and feeds them to its babies. Fortunately for everybody no such gigantic bird exists, but the motif of the rhino stabbing the elephant in the stomach would be renewed centuries later. Enright includes an illustration of the fight from a 1550 copy of the Persian text Ajo’ib al-Makhluqat (“Wonders of Creation”), but doesn’t speculate on how old the legend itself might be. One of Wikipedia’s sources notes the appearance of the Karkadann – the name is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “Lord of the plains” – in a tenth-century tract by  Al-Biruni.

Bishan Das, "Emperor Babur shoots a rhinoceros", c. 1590.
Centuries on, the Indian Mughals tried artificially to pit captive elephants and rhinos against each other, with what success I don’t know.  It’s possible that the impression of the pachyderms’ enmity was exacerbated by some Mughals’ habit of hunting rhinos from elephant-back. The invading British followed suit, naturally, and in his compendious British Cyclopedia of Natural History (1837), one Charles Partington described exactly such forced hunting encounters, adding that “nobody has ever recorded, and probably nobody ever saw, a battle between an Elephant and a Rhinoceros in the state of wild nature.”

            The ancient Greeks and Romans were also fascinated by both elephants and rhinos, and in his Natural History Pliny compared the two. The elephant was, in his view, closest to man in intelligence: it understood languages and was trainable, while its enemy the rhino just irascibly sharpened its horn on hard stones, preparatory to poking the elephant in the stomach. Pliny didn’t claim to have witnessed any such encounter – and when the Romans, with their characteristic blood-lust, put an elephant in the arena with a rhino, they seemed entirely uninterested in fighting each other.

            Both creatures disappeared from European life for a millennium after the Roman period; artists’ impressions became increasingly distorted and improbable, until imperial travel brought a few captive animals to the menageries of the rich and powerful.  In 1515, Muzafar II of Gujarat sent King Manuel of Portugal an Indian rhinoceros. Manuel did the manly thing and put the rhino-elephant enmity to the test. Once again, no dice: the two animals just moved warily away from each other. (I’ve found only one scholarly article relating to this meeting and its implications – in Portuguese.)

Anonymous, 'Genuine portrait of a live rhinoceros ... Paris"
Clara - 1749 (detail)
Nevertheless, artists who began attempting portrayals of elephants and rhinos couldn’t let the idea go. In 1741 a Bengal rhino named Clara was adopted as a pet by a director of the Dutch East India Company, brought to Europe and shown to King Louis XV in 1749. An anonymous engraver commemorated the occasion with a portrait of Clara, with now conventionally exaggerated ‘armour-plated’ hide – and a rhino-elephant tussle going on in the background.

Similarly Peter Kolb, who visited the Cape in 1730 and should have learned better, but was largely concerned to recycle hoary myths about Africa, reproduced a bad copy of an Albrecht Dürer engraving of a rhino-elephant fight, complete with obligatory horn puncturing the obligatory tummy.

Hendrik Hondius, "A rhinoceros fights an elephant", Dutch, c.1610.
In the West, this legendary rivalry would persist right into the twentieth century, to reappear in popular form in de Brunhoff’s Babar the Elephant stories: the bad-tempered rhino Rataxes, seeking revenge for having a firecracker attached to his tail, leads a whole rhino army against the elephants, but is really rather dim-witted and the rhinos are defeated by Babar’s superior elephantine intelligence. This same desire to see the biggest animals in conflict ramifies into numerous websites and publications which speculate fruitlessly on which would win in a fight. And one Isabel Thomas has produced a whole children’s book entitled Elephant  vs Rhinoceros.

Africans had their own legends about rhino-elephant conflict.  Cobus van der Vlies, in his book Southern Africa Wildlife and Adventure, relays an unsourced and rather unspecific legend:

Folklore has it, that when the Great Spirit created Rhino, he was very jealous of Elephant and attacked him wherever he found him. Not having horns, Elephant was defenceless against Rhino, and many were killed. Elephant went to the Great Spirit and asked to be given horns, so that he could defend himself against these attacks. The Great Spirit told Elephant that to give him horns, would make him, as the largest animal, much too dangerous, but consoled Elephant by giving him beautiful tusks. To prevent Rhino from killing any more elephants, the Great Spirit took Rhino’s horns from his head and placed them in a row on his nose. He also took away Rhino’s sharp eyesight and replaced it with very poor eyesight, to prevent him from aiming and thus still being able to attack Elephant.

Kelly Enright also records two African stories about the rivalry. One concerns the relative size of dung-bolls; another is an Ndebele tale in which Rhino, wounded by Elephant in a fight, borrows a quill from Porcupine to sew up his wounds. He loses the quill, and thinking he’s swallowed it, spends the rest of his days looking in his poo for it. Both stories serve as explanations for why the rhino habitually scatters its dung about.  And no rhino dies.

With the advent of the national park in the twentieth century, animals could be monitored, scientifically studied, and photographed by tourists more comprehensively than ever before. So one would imagine that if elephant-rhino battles were true or widespread, someone would notice. Social media, notably YouTube and Instagram, do indeed throw up two or three incidences. And I mean two or three.

There is, prominently, one film clip which shows a couple of minutes of non-contact, show-off, argy-bargy between an elephant and a rhino, with the latter quickly deciding on a judicious retreat. This sort of thing probably happens fairly regularly, when a female rhino is sheltering a baby, or a bolshy young male elephant is strutting his stuff. I’ve observed similarly wary but respectful manoeuvrings between elephants and crusty old ‘dagaboy’ buffalo bachelors. Unfortunately, this particular clip has been repeatedly recirculated and successively pumped up into some mythic titanic battle “in the African jungle”.

This exaggeration isn’t helped by a slew of other images you can find, via Google, of slashing, blood-spattered battles between elephant and rhino, pictures which only a dunce would fail to see are crudely photo-shopped and clearly fake. Unhappily, these revolting bits of gratuitous violence seem rather popular.

In fact, fatal rhino-elephant encounters are very, very rare, and have probably occurred only under unusual circumstances. The single genuine instance of a fatality I could find was filmed by a couple in an unnamed park: an elephant male, possibly in musth, attacked a mother rhino, rolled and crushed her; she died after three days, leaving a half-grown calf. Like apparently random and gratuitous murders among humans, there is probably a back-story, some build-up of tension, a fright, a hidden injury or toothache bothering the elephant – to which no human was privy. Again, sadly, this aberrant incident has been sensationalised out of all proportion: the elephant is “testosterone-fuelled”, “crazed”, “brutal”.

Of course, the most famous rhino fatalities were those of 1999 in the Pilanesberg reserve – and these occurred as the result of a single management miscalculation. Young male elephants translocated from Kruger into a strange place, with little life experience other than post-cull trauma, and no supervision from older elephants, “ran amok” and tried to mount and/or kill a number of black and white rhinos. A kind of elephantine Lord of the Flies. Some “rogues” were shot, but long-term, remarkably, the importation of  some adult elephants reined in the wayward behaviour. It taught us a lot about the power and intricacy of elephant family dynamics.

You will also find numerous shallow and sensational retellings of the Pilanesberg aberration on the Internet, which are best ignored. Notably, the Pilanesberg case is the only such noted by Raman Sukumar, India’s leading elephant expert, in his comprehensive book, The Living Elephants. The best accounts are by elephant expert Rob Slotow, who has published several detailed studies of the problem. Slotow observes that other rhinos have in fact died under attack from elephants in Umfolozi-Hluhluwe and elsewhere; these incidents, too, were consequences of translocation. If there is ever fatal competition over grazing or browsing resources, in which (according to Graham Kerley in his chapter in Scholes and Mennell’s Elephant Management) aggressive elephants might play a role “analogous to predation”, this would appear to be infrequent and almost certainly the result of human-imposed constraints on the animals’ ranges and therefore relationships.

In short, rhino-elephant conflict happens, but extremely rarely, and even more rarely without our having interfered at some level. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.


Saturday, 10 March 2018

No.57 - Plagiarism: A lecture on a blight

"But Prof, I plagiarised so ACCURATELY!"
Three weeks into the first university term and already we are encountering the first cases of plagiarism in students’ work. It is the most infuriating blight on our academic and pedagogical life. I know I won’t have a chance physically to lecture our students at length about this mushrooming problem, so here is a written version of what I want to tell them.

Sources and motives
Why? Why do some of you – you students –  resort to plagiarism as a way through your academic work (and it is not only our literary studies)? I have characterised plagiarism as the blight, a disease, but in some ways it is a symptom of deeper undercurrents.  Seldom is it a matter of real malice or sneaky intent, though it happens.
More common I guess is uncertainty and fear. Insecurity in the face of a daunting task: all the assignments we give you are likely to feel daunting, precisely because it is our job to stretch your minds. That can be scary. It is especially prevalent in a society that is increasingly losing the reading habit: plagiarism goes along with an increasing reluctance by students, even at third-year level, to sit down and read longer works of literature. It’s understandable that you sometimes cope with this insecurity by leaning too heavily on someone else you think knows better: an internet site, a friend, a former student.
Fear of losing marks: schools have taught you to be obsessed with marks, rather than with the learning process itself.
Fear of failure: you are afraid that if you fail something you will be thought of as a ‘bad person’, and it feels easier and safer to plagiarise – to offer up something you feel will please the marker, regardless of whose work it actually is. This seems especially acute in our narcissistic times of Twitter and Instagram and selfies, in which one’s public profile and popularity ratings have become central to notions of self-worth. Save face at all costs seems to be the watchword. 
Last-minute desperation: you have, as usual, left doing your assignment until midnight before hand-in day, and you suddenly find you don’t quite understand what to do – and you resort to some ghastly internet site to help you out; you cut and paste some paragraphs which seem appropriate, add a few of your own hasty comments, and whack it in.

So the reasons are many and mixed. In every possible way, however, plagiarism is BAD STRATEGY.  Here’s why.

"But Prof, my girlfriend wrote it, and she's BRILLIANT!"
My main objections are pedagogical rather than legalistic.

Conditions of trust
The teaching-learning situation and process, for me, is not a matter of power-over, lecturer versus student.  We are here to help you get better at certain skills and knowledges we know to be useful to you in the world of your future, and to help you evaluate your progress. It is a mutual journey of discovery and advancement. It is not a competition between us. We progress assignment by assignment. These are not the be-all and end-all of life or learning, and they are not about who you are.  We evaluate your work; we do not judge you.  The teaching-learning situation, while obviously not equal in every respect, is nevertheless dependent on conditions of trust. You trust us lecturers to train you up to a requisite level of knowledge and skill; we trust you to do the work to the best of your ability, so that we can truly help you improve.

Plagiarism fatally compromises that condition of trust.

First and foremost, I have to trust that the work you are handing in is really your own.  Anything other than this is utterly useless. Put yourself in my shoes, as your marker-evaluator. I spend some time annotating your script, trying to point out aspects for praise and improvement – only to discover that in fact what I’ve been correcting are not even your mistakes. And what is the point of that? I have learned nothing about your abilities; you have rendered me powerless to help you. I don’t care what level you’re at, what the source and nature of your successes and errors. I care only to see you improve from wherever you are. Plagiarism makes this impossible.

Skill up!
Say we have assigned the simple task to summarise a chapter from the novel Nervous Conditions. You decide to take the easy route and just copy out a summary off SparkNotes or whatever. You have just deliberately prevented yourself  learning how to summarise.  And guess what: a little further along you will be asked to do it again – and you will be as clueless as before. Maybe you somehow survive your whole university degree failing to learn how to summarise – then you are practicing law, or business, or journalism, and your boss demands a summary of some big document yesterday –and guess what, you can’t do it. Guess what: you’re fired.
It’s a bit like watching a game of cricket on TV, and then trying to pretend you can bat like Hashim Amla.  It’s not merely dishonest: it’s self-deceiving. Obviously, learning a sporting or practical skill means getting out on the actual field or the actual workshop and start practicing, doing it over and over, honing the muscles and the techniques, making mistakes, over and over until you get it right most of the time. Why would you think mental and academic skills are any different? Why, in effect, by plagiarising, would you deliberately deprive yourself  of the opportunity to hone these skills?

Conditions of slavery
I ask you: do you valorise slavery, or freedom? Being a follower, or an innovator? Being stuck, or being dynamic?  Being regarded as a parasite, or a useful citizen? Pathetic, or strong? Cowardly, or robust? I’ve yet to meet anyone who opts for the first in each of those pairs. Yet that is precisely what plagiarism condemns you to. You slavishly follow others’ ideas rather than your own; you lose control of your own life and development; you stay trapped in the same unskilled spot you began in. No one is ever going to praise you for that.

Is lying clever?
Some plagiarists evidently think they have outwitted the system, and that this is rather clever. Some obviously even spend a considerable amount of time and effort first finding something to plagiarise, then trying to cover it over. Some pile lie on lie in order to avoid facing the fact of having been caught.  This is just pathetic and sad. A few get away with it, and feel terribly smug. Sure, it’s a skill of a sort – but isn’t one that will get you very far. Unless you’re going into politics, maybe. Lord knows governments everywhere are chock-a-block with people who have lied their way to positions of influence for which they are not skilled – but only at enormous cost to others, and inestimable damage to the well-being of society. Shame on you if such venal creeps are your role models. You may develop a superficial, manipulative skill of jimmying the system – but what will you do when confronted by a problem which can’t be solved by evasion and copying?

The ultimate insult
Can you imagine a lecturer, turning up for work every day, lecturing, tutoring, marking, trying to help you – then the plagiarist comes along, basically saying, I don’t give a toss for what you are trying to teach me, I choose to ignore it, subvert it, demean it. Plagiarism is also an insult to the intelligence of your tutors, who are trained to pick up exactly when a text rings false – and some plagiarism is so obvious as to appear profoundly stupid. Most galling of all it is an insult to your own intelligence – are you not the intellectual elite of the country, just by being here? Yet you choose to insult the discipline you signed up to study, the university itself, and all the people (ultimately the taxpayers) who are forking out millions to keep you here. Take responsibility for your life, and for its impact on everyone around you.

"You mean I actually have to READ the thing???"
Crime and punishment
Finally, plagiarism is deemed a crime – both at university and in the wider world.  In one ugly and notorious case, one South African university leader was belatedly found to have plagiarised his PhD from a Rhodes University MA thesis. He was of course fired on the spot.
So what’s needed, should you be tempted to plagiarise, is a serious change in attitude. For every assignment in our department, you sign a declaration stating that you understand what plagiarism is, and that you are not committing. This is in the nature of a legally-binding contract. If you sign it in bad faith, either not knowing what plagiarism is or knowingly plagiarising, you are committing a legal offence. Though we try to be understanding and generous on a first offence, thereafter the university has every right to take action against you, including excluding you altogether. Don’t even think about risking that.

What may be required is a serious change in attitude.

Place your self-esteem in the right place.  Your sense of self-worth is pretty fragile if it’s based only on lies and ‘saving face’. Rather it should be based on actual achievement – which means doing the job, working through shortfalls, feeling your mental muscles develop. As a teacher, nothing is more satisfying to me than seeing a student puzzling something out, working at it until the lights come on – fantastic.

We are all ignorant and unskilled in all sorts of ways. This is not a humiliation, just the recognition of a reality. We need first to recognise the limits on our knowledge and skills. That feeling, “Oh, I don’t know that,” or “I don’t know how to do this”, is not an attack on your being; it is where you start from. Not making that recognition condemns you to remain stuck exactly where you are. That condition of necessary humility before the vastness of knowledge and possibility doesn’t leave us. Not ever. Get used to it.

There’s no doubt that making the step from recognition of our limitations to doing something about it takes courage. You have to sort of swallow, put your shoulders back, and say, “I am going to deal with this, I am not going to run away.”  It means putting in some extra hours; or seeking out a tutor for assistance; asking questions. This is in the nature of learning. Just do it. Plagiarism is a form of cowardice. It is a bigger kind of failure than the failure to earn three marks.

It is also in the nature of learning that few if any skills come naturally or immediately. They accumulate gradually, with much practice and patience required. Old bad habits of writing and thinking take time to conquer and improve upon. Often it will feel like you are treading water despite hard work. You just have to keep at it. Plagiarism is a tempting way to ease the pressure, but in the long term it just makes it worse.

Negotiate the grey areas.
One grey area is knowing how much discussion with classmates eventuates in plagiarism. Many cases of plagiarism involve commonality between two or more students’ assignments; the excuse is often that discussion with a friend “inadvertently” results in certain phrases are repeated. The excuse is usually bull: plagiarism that is detected will by definition involve much more than just the odd phrase, more entire paragraphs, even a whole essay. Discussion of course is not a bad thing – but make sure that collaboration ends there. Write your essay on your own, for yourself. 
A second grey area is between “research” and plagiarism. Many schools seem to regard  cutting-and-pasting material off the internet as “research” – in the academic context a disastrous technique.  Hence students battle to distinguish between using secondary sources fruitfully, and being dependent on those sources’ ideas to the point of plagiarism. This, too, takes experience to get right. When in doubt, acknowledge and reference your sources fully. At most, use them sparingly. Never cut and paste.

Don’t take short-cuts.
Never use a secondary source – especially the student-help sites like SparkNotes and GradeSaver – as a short-cut. They are often misleading anyway, their interpretations no more valid than yours.  What we are after is your thinking about the primary text; declining to revel in the wonders of the original novel or poem or play, refusing to explore it for yourself, is both feeble and self-defeating. Nothing is more disappointing or galling to your teacher than to get a garbled and inauthentic mishmash of already poorly-expressed secondary sources, instead of your response. Your time and energy should be spent reading the primary text, making your own notes, your own summaries, your own character sketches, not subverting your individuality by burying yourself under others’ opinions.

"So I changed all the 'ands' to 'buts'; that's my argument..."
Be critical. Studying literature involves appreciating original artistry, and offering critical commentary on form and content alike. It also involves critically assessing others’ arguments or perspectives on the primary texts. If you consider a secondary source, take an independent and critical view of it, and build that critique into your own writing.

The double mantra through all of this is: BE HONEST, THINK INDEPENDENTLY.