Tuesday, 20 August 2019

No.88 - "Wild Deer": The nature of neglect

Ethelreda Lewis ....

– huh? Ethel who? Exactly.

Ethelreda Lewis, née Howe, born in England in 1875, married and settled in South Africa in 1902. She got deeply embroiled in trade union politics, and produced several books, short stories, poems, and essays on the psychology of race. She published her South African-set novel Wild Deer in 1933. It was not a financial success. By the time the publisher David Philip re-issued it in the Africa South series in 1984, it had fallen into almost total neglect. That neglect has remained: Lewis does not appear at all in the regular literary histories by Michael Chapman, Malvern van Wyk Smith, and Stephen Gray. Wild Deer is overshadowed on the one hand by Lewis’s own three-volume Trader Horn (1927), a best-seller; and, on the other, novels of the same period such as Douglas Blackburn’s Leaven, William Plomer’s Turbot Wolfe, and Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi. I have found no critical treatment devoted to the novel apart from historian Tim Couzens’ excellent introduction to the 1984 edition.

Yet as a novel it is not half bad. In my view, Lewis’s insight, political complexity and stylistic flair are as good as those of her much more famous near-contemporary, Olive Schreiner, if not better. Like Schreiner, the outsider Lewis saw all too clearly the abuses colonialism and capital were inflicting on black people; like Schreiner, she detested Cecil John Rhodes and his money-grubbing, territory-grabbing ilk. Lewis got more directly involved in politics, repeatedly over-stepping the Colour Bar, and had a serious influence on the nascent trade union movement. She made particular friends with Clement Kadalie, an avowed communist and also an outsider (from Nyasaland). Her liberal, anti-establishment views found their way into several of Wild Deer’s characters, who range from communist activists to missionaries to an idealistic nature-lover. To Lewis’s credit, she does not come down simplistically on any one character’s side, not even that of her protagonist, a visiting African-American (in the parlance of the day, Negro), globally-successful singer named de la Harpe. (He is probably partly based on Paul Robeson, lines from whose song “Waterboy” form the epigraph to Part One.)

In his introduction, Tim Couzens (who later picked up Lewis’s subject of the semi-mythical traveller Trader Horn to write his own book, Tramp Royal) devotes most space to the complexities of the trade union movement and the obsessive racial dynamic. He makes only passing reference to literary quality and to the dimension that most interests me: the pervasive presence of the natural and animal world – starting with the title. But I don’t think one can make full sense of Lewis’s treatment of racial politics without incorporating animality and Nature (she always uses the capital N). In short, I’ll sketch the beginnings of an ecocritical reading of the novel.
Cartoon of Lewis cradling 'Trader Horn'. aka Aloysius Smith.
(courtesy Africana Museum, via Amazwi Museum of 
Literature [NELM]. Thanks especially to Marike Beyers.)

The title page carries an epigraph from her favourite poet, William Blake: The wild deer, wandering here and there, Keeps the human heart from care. Thus Lewis introduces a Romantic theme – the seeking of escape from industrialised civilisation into the sweet bosom of Nature – and it is maintained through to the end, though constantly modified, even contradicted, by reality. From the first page, de la Harpe, still on the boat headed for Cape Town, is becoming aware that his dream of reconnecting with some authentically “savage” African heritage, some pure precursor to his own slave history, is doomed. Just a week’s contact with English and Dutch South Africans had “wilted” a sentimental belief that he might encounter men “still free to wander up the centuries from savagery in Nature’s way, not the white man’s way” (16). In his journal he scribbles: “Oh God, have we lost our human joy in the solidity of rocks, the life in trees, in the rivers, in the seas...?” Too long enslaved, black people find their scope for discovery pre-empted, usurped: “Never shall a negro stand at his ship’s rail, discoverer of new lands on this earth ... The waterways are crowded. Savage man, the jungle beasts, look up and see the airplane staring into the inmost shrines of Nature ...” (14).

These early comments introduce at least two dominant ideas which might be regarded as deeply problematic nowadays, even offensive. One is an equation the characters (and/or the author) often make between pre-colonial people and wild animals.  The American de la Harpe feels Africans are “brothers [who] are in the hands of spoilers as a wild deer struggles in the mysterious muscular contractions of the python” (103). Though the Reef’s mines are no worse than Europe’s, the mode of oppression is unique, as if “bright zebras, great horizons reflected in their wild eyes, should suddenly be set to do the work of blind pit-ponies ... the innocence of Nature about to be outraged” (109). This naivety about the innocence of an Arcadian and animalistic “kraal” life cannot survive, however: de la Harpe wants his ideal Africans to “wander free as elephants”, but realises they would also fight one another, albeit never on the scale of Europe’s Great War of 1914 (165), as well as predatory aspects of nature. Lewis does appear to interrogate her own idealism.

The animal-savage equation is thus not as simplistic as it might seem. Unlike later derogatory usages, in Lewis’s formula it is always positive. She applies animal metaphors to almost all her characters, black and white; there are dozens throughout the novel. Her narrative technique is also slippery, often ventriloquistic, the point-of-view shifting between interiorities in a manner more Modernist than anything Schreiner ever attempted, so that one can’t always be sure what is a character’s ideas, and what the author’s, and what might shortly be undermined or contradicted.

A second governing idea draws a stark dichotomy between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’. De la Harpe brings with him an illusory image of Africa as a palm-fringed bucolic Eden, “primitive” and “savage” but naturally liberated, which is starkly opposed to a white-imported “civilisation” which is predatory, racist, and riddled with its own problems. Thus he is disappointed by Cape Town, a “low-built nondescript town sending its feelers between fir-clad mountain slopes. He had not wanted to see firs in Africa” (36). Deep into the novel, despite a series of troubling and hurtful incidents of both white racism and black suspicion – his colour does not automatically act as a bridge to an African identity – he clings to the illusion, if only in a moment of transcendent singing in which

he plunged deeply into the mood of the homeless patriot, articulate and seeking. ... It was the mood in which he had come to Africa, sought out this town, these cold enemy eyes. It was the mood in which he would presently flee this town, these troll-like eyes, to the secret wild places where black men still dwelt in happy oblivion on the breast of Africa... (195-6)

If we regard de la Harpe as a vehicle for Lewis’s own views, we might suspect her of the most gauche and romanticised version of ‘primitivism’. She is canny enough, though, to make her hero both different from herself, and often palpably deluded. Nevertheless, the novel is acidic in its criticism of industrial modernity. Its physical pollutions are symptomatic of a whole mentality that is mechanised, pessimistic, cynical. Interestingly, Lewis expresses this in terms of water-control:
Ethelreda Lewis
(courtesy Africana Museum, via Amazwi Museum of
Literature [NELM].)

System ... As if good-will could grow out of system. It is true that a river grows strong because it has cut itself a channel, but surely the channel must be cut wildly, impetuously – here a deep pool, here a violent, curve, here a headlong plunge over a precipice. The stagnant canals of Holland have no force; the water, the spirit, decays, it is divorced from Nature.(18)

This ‘natural anarchism’ will still appeal to those who feel trapped in modern over-regulated crowding and to advocates of ‘re-wilding’ as a counter to enviro-spiritual damage. At other points, Lewis bemoans the pollution generated by the mining around ‘Goldburg’, her name for Johannesburg.  Another idiosyncratically well-meaning character, Father Macmichael, tells de la Harpe that in his view “it would be nearer to the way and the will of Christ to keep Africa immaculately heathen rather than spread Christianity that comes tainted from the mines” (114). Together they gaze over “the repellent substance of a slimes-dam” where the natives, wrenched into the wretched near-slavery of the migrant labour system, “become part of the residue, the unusable waste of humanity” (115).  Father Macmichael fulminates:

In the compounds the sin against the Holy Ghost, against the innermost shrine of Nature, sweeps like a germ-laden breath from the deep sewers of civilisation ... Not a savage boar, not a venomous snake, not a cannibal spider, not a carrion vulture, not a lascivious baboon but is cleaner than primitive man forced by his chains to defile the laws of Nature. There is only one creature lower, and he is the white man who, in pursuit of gold, will thrust a young savage into the atmosphere of perversion ... (111)

Just the other day I was watching a documentary about Johannesburg communities of today suffering health issues from those very same mine-dumps. Little has changed in ninety years – or, to put it another way, Lewis was nothing if not environmentally prescient.

So, late in the story, de la Harpe does escape the city, largely through the efforts of a character named Brand Colenbrander. Colenbrander espouses a philosophy perhaps closest to Lewis’s own, a philosophy gleaned in part, probably, from James Stevenson-Hamilton, first warden of Kruger National Park whom Lewis had met, and in part from the natural mysticism of Jan Christian Smuts. Colenbrander summarises:

De la Harpe, the dominant race in Africa must be black. Not to-day. Not to-morrow. Ultimately. The white man must let Nature have her way – let her keep her black children where he found them. There’d be more harmony in the world if that were so. ... You know what old Thoreau said: ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world’. By God, he was a prophet. It’s time we remembered the Thoreaus and the Blakes before it’s too late... (272)

A century later, that last message is arguably more relevant and urgent than ever.

Like Lewis herself, Colenbrander swims against the tide of white supremacist racism, using his wealth to buy up land to preserve one last haven for both wildlife and a more or less still independent and pristine tribe, the “Macas”. (Lewis probably bases them on the actual people of Tshikedi of Bechuanaland, whose proud independence she admired.) He knows that this haven is doomed, that white capitalist ‘progress’ will overwhelm his vision of any separate evolutionary development towards an authentically black Africa.

Yet the novel itself, with its tenuously positive if Quixotic ending, suggests that the dream is worth preserving, even if only symbolically. Perhaps not coincidentally, Colenbrander’s natural haven seems set somewhere around the North Coast, not far from where Laurens van der Post would portray a similar remoteness in his novel Flamingo Feather. Van der Post would go on to promote an analogous set of views, critiquing modernity through valorising indigenous peoples’ closeness to Nature and its slower, more subtle and sustainable rhythms. For all her political rebelliousness, some of her views were widely shared. Ethelreda Lewis was a woman of her time, drawing on terminologies that now might seem to us dangerously quaint; in Paul Rich’s view, she “represented the last phases of the old post-war urban settlement liberalism rather than anything substantially new.”  But in her conjunction of ecological concerns and race dynamics, she seems to me strikingly in touch with identity politics which have acquired renewed currency today.


Sunday, 4 August 2019

No 87 - Winter impressions, ZImbabwe 2019

It is more than a year since I last visited. The strange coup that unseated Robert Mugabe, that swung from euphoria to death on the streets, is months gone. Emmerson “ED” Mnangagwa, a.k.a The Crocodile, has been saying some encouraging things, but the country has plunged ever further into economic hardship. A new wave of Zimbabwean job-seekers is hitting South Africa, fuelling resentment, maybe even murders of foreign truck-drivers on the N3.

I’m travelling up with a friend; the bakkie is loaded with basics – flour, cooking oil, sugar, candles – for our respective families and friends. The border is smooth enough, until the last step, when an anonymous official in plain clothes gives us a bit of a run-around, hinting he might like a bottle of nice whiskey. He is saying similar things to my companion, in Shona. But they let us go after a short while (I have no whiskey, or anything else I care to part with), and we drive off. My friend is anxious, afraid we will be followed, or stopped at the next road block. He was badly beaten up by ZANU-PF thugs at a previous election; he has every reason to be afraid. He is afraid for his family, and says they live in fear of spies and informers; few dare speak their minds. But no further trouble ensues. Compared to a few years ago, driving is a pleasure: the roads are newly refurbished by the Chinese, and there are almost no police road blocks. No one stops us. For the first time in many years, I drive through the small Midlands towns: Cement, Gweru, Kadoma .... Without exception they look worn, scruffy, messily busy – otherwise, no different from twenty years ago. No development here that I can see: none. In Norton, a once-flourishing furniture factory, now abandoned, wrecked and overgrown, seems symptomatic.

I drop my friend at his mother’s place. She rents a tiny two-room house, in amongst other little houses separated by scrubby dirt tracks, tiny vegetable patches, disabled cars, unkempt grasses. Her rooms are crammed with nice things – flat-screen TV, hi-fi, attractive furniture –  but it’s a tight squeeze under cracked asbestos roof, with only an unprepossessing communal toilet outside. Thus do the majority live. She is so sweet, treats us to a generous lunch of tasty chicken and rice; women and children come and go, and there’s a sense of helpful community around her. It is good to see mother and son re-united. He is here to get his passport renewed; different stories appear in the media, but none of them are good: the passport office is several years behind in its queue of applications, or can’t get the paper, and so on. Now apparently you have to apply to make an application, even if you know someone who knows someone...

I was warned about fuel and currency shortages. I have brought enough petrol with me to get in and out again; currency is another story. The government has been trying to extricate the country from its reliance on foreign currencies, and has banned their public use – though a lawyer says no actual punishments have been legislated yet. At the same time, you are supposed to use local Zim dollars – but there aren't enough of those to go round; I manage to cadge a few, enough to get me through the toll gates. I cannot get onto the “ecocash” virtual system; I can’t get cash from the banks; my VISA card doesn’t work. How is a visitor supposed to pay for anything? But Zimbos are nothing if not ingenious; trading will happen no matter what. The “informal market” will operate despite government’s sometimes violent and inhumane efforts to suppress it. Still, it all means the further evisceration of the tourist industry; and for now, every transaction is a mission. The Zim dollar was meant to be 1:1 with the US dollar, but immediately slid to 4:1, then to 10:1, and now every trader sets their own exchange rates, depending.  In addition, there are “RTGS” dollars, a virtual currency that trips off everyone’s tongue (standing for Real Time Gross Settlement – a crazed euphemism for an unreal medium of exchange, based on neither reserves nor material productivity).  The exchange rates are (it is explained to my non-economic brain) responsible in part for both fuel and electricity shortages: apparently both are being sold in Zimbabwe at way below global prices: until and unless exchange rates are adjusted, it just doesn’t pay suppliers to import, so they don’t – and the queues of cars stretch around the blocks at the few stations rumoured to have fuel. But the government has been reluctant to raise prices because of the knock-on effects on an already defunct economy. As for electricity, the same applies; but the country can neither pay for imported electricity nor keep its own generation going. Kariba Dam is so low that only a single turbine still operates. Throughout Bulawayo, Harare and Mutare, during my visit, there is power only between about 11 PM and 5 AM, every day. Businesses work on generators if they have – and if they can get the fuel for them – or on their phones: the cell towers have their own generators, but apparently those are groaning through over-use. And ZESA, the supply authority, is projecting “Phase 4”, meaning 4 days off, 6 hours on. (That's right, four days.) For the common person, candles have increased in price by 700%. Though the causes and dynamics are rather different from previous periods of shortage, in 2008 and earlier, for the commoner it all feels depressingly familiar. I’ve turned up a letter to me from my mother, dated 15 March, 2000:

The fuel situation is terrible. people queue for 9 and 12 hours. How can I do that? Men can at least step out for a pee. They go with others and push the cars along length by length as the queue moves, and often find the fuel has run out before their turn comes. Some guys are selling petrol in cans, often only water with a few drops of petrol floating on top. ... The young husband of N-----‘s receptionist was in a queue for fuel – which stretched almost a mile down the road – stepped out of his car to walk up to the pumps to see what the situation was like and a speeding truck hit him and smashed him into another car in the queue and killed him instantly.

Plus ça change. Meanwhile – though it seems little talked about – the International Monetary Fund is pressing Zimbabwe into “austerity measures” –  policies which have signally failed elsewhere – as a prelude to extending loans, so we can dig ourselves another hole of unrepayable debts. Thanks a lot.


The countryside between the towns is looking dry and tawny, as one would expect this time of year. Though locals complain of the cold, to me, coming out of Grahamstown’s considerably more biting winter, it feels delightfully balmy. Already some of the miombo woodland trees are coming out in hints of spring colour – from lime green to deep maroon – at least a month early. A product of the drought, and/or global heating?  In Harare, I sit in the garden of a friend’s house, and the Grey louries and Arrow-marked babblers creak and flicker through the trees; the dog chases sticks; I discuss the nature of the planets with the six-year-old daughter. It might almost be normal. Or, you might say, nature and the topography retain their own sanity. Back in home country, the eastern hills and the forests are as stunningly beautiful as ever. Though war vets have approached Mnangagwa with a view to acquiring yet more land, smallholders hang in and hope, and continue to try to farm, or sell cakes, or make tables... In town, young Tinashe continues to man his suburban corner mobile kiosk, as he has for a few years now. But it’s getting tougher, he says. “We must just trust to God,” he concludes.


I am invited to supper by acquaintances at a long-established club, which offers good food, an upstairs coffee bar, and accommodation. It is pristine, the waiters attentive, the Inyanga trout very tasty. The walls are covered with photographs of early settler Umtali and its subsequent stages of development. (In Harare, too, tiny enclaves of well-watered luxury, with boutique shops and cafes, continue paradoxically to flourish.) Also at the supper-table is an amiable and deeply Christian man who had a lot to do with Zimbabwean cricket at national and provincial levels. He paints a depressing picture of corruption, interference and plunder, wrecking Zimbabwe’s chances of qualifying for the recent World Cup. I tell him I’d just read an article about ZANU-PF’s hounding of wicket-keeper Tatenda Taibu; he enthusiastically praises Taibu, who would not compromise his principles, and had to get out to England. Meanwhile, misspending of a stable financial base spelled the demise of the province's cricket franchise. Our table-mate shakes his head and trots out the usual generalisation: “It’s tough doing business in Africa. We gave the ICC a huge file of evidenced complaints, but they did nothing, they’re toothless.” (A few days later, though, the ICC will suspend Zimbabwe from international competition, citing excessive political interference.) 
            Then the apple crumble and ice cream.


Though journalism has gone almost entirely online, newspapers are still being produced and are on sale on town pavements. I peruse a couple of examples. As ever, The Standard rants against the government; The Sunday Mail supports them, blaming problems on aberrations or inevitable errors: delightfully, “a few bad apples are on the prowl”.  The Standard’s headlines: “Bigwigs’ grand looting exposed”; “Audit lifts lid on parastatals rot”; “Mnangagwa insult case stalls”; “Rampant child labour sours Lowveld’s sugarcane industry”; “US$ ban piles pressure on employers” – and “pastor steals tyre”.
There seem to be any number of extra-governmental outfits shouting the odds through full-page adverts. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum publishes an “Anti-immunity update”, listing dozens of cases of government assault in the earlier 2000s. Another consortium fields a full-page “declaration on recognition of, respect for and participation of the informal economy”, obviously in the wake of government assaults on informal traders. They urge, somewhat contradictorily, all parties to establish representatives and bodies to address the informal sector (organised informality?), and to help its transition and integration into the formal sector (respect it, but end it?). (At the same time, a headline says: “Informal mining activities give farmers headaches”). A “National Transitional Justice Working Group”, in a presentation to the Permanent Secretary in government, calls for more transparency, a reparations fund for victims of army shootings during the August 2018 elections (the Sunday Mail says police investigations showed that these were committed by “rogues and bogus soldiers” in stolen uniforms), and the adoption of Africa-wide justice policies. Another outfit is calling on the president to apologise for the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s, against the backdrop of a Peace and Reconciliation Commission, which is supposed to start hearing testimony soon.
The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition headlines yet another full-page statement with “Zim currency reforms rushed” (unconstitutionally, another lawyer is challenging), and outlines 6 areas of necessary reform:

1) macro-economic stability that is pro-poor, inclusive and human-centred with increased fiscal space …;
2) Revival of the productive sector…;
3) Highly developed, functional and modern infrastructure …;
4) Creation of professional, transparent, accountable and globally competitive economic institutions …;
5) A modern, equal, peaceful, open and pluralist society…;
6) A devolved constitutional state where the Bill of Rights should be the cornerstone of economic development with a political system built on a free and fair electoral system …

There is some detail under each of these, but it is saying: build a democracy from the ground up. Lovely as it sounds, it is impossibly utopian, but symptomatic of what Zimbabweans feel they lack and are up against. Conspicuously missing  is the environment -  global heating, riverine water quality, soil creation, and so on - not to mention any kind of indigenous or traditional view or preservation: it espouses a Western industrial development model, in effect.  Some of this as sad in its way as a poem by one Elias Muonde, “Radio Maputo”, expressing nostalgia for the old days tempered with cynicism: “tell me the old propaganda again/ the voice of Samora/ Guerrilla tales/ Marxist fables/ aluta continua//… Oh good ol’ Radio Maputo/ Rhodesia fading/ Zimbabwe rising/ Apartheid dying/ Africa Borwa rising/ You were lying/ but it was sweet.”


I swore blind years ago that I would never go through Beit Bridge’s chaotic border post again, but the fuel shortage obliges me to take the shortest route out. I go by the better road via Birchenough Bridge, Chiredzi and Triangle, where Hulett’s sugar factory continues to belch black pollutive smoke into the Lowveld air. For once, I have timed it right: though the South African side is as poorly signposted and illogical as ever, it takes precisely 47 minutes to negotiate both sides. No official is remotely interested in what I might be carrying or doing.
            Friends have been nervous about me going to chaotic, militarised Zimbabwe – but it is only on the South African side one encounters signs that shout: “HIGH CRIME AREA. DO NOT STOP!”