Monday, 18 August 2008

The South African Midlands

In my constant quest to improve my knowledge of my Eva-Jane's country of birth and to gain a better understanding of one the most complicated political landscapes in the world, I spend a great deal of time consuming books, periodicals and other sources of information on South Africa.

The latest book I have read has been a real eye-opener, it's called Midlands and is written by the excellent Jonny Steinberg (who also inspired my post on The Number) and details a facet of South African life many of us may not be familiar with.

Midlands deals with the complex issue of white farmers being murdered and 'chased off' their land by black people who used to (and in some cases still do) work on the farm itself, or have homes that are based on the farmer's land. This is something that is usually associated with the regime of Mugabe in Zimbabwe and the farm attacks and forced land-reclamation, rather than the self-proclaimed "Rainbow Nation" and the terms I have used already will have alienated some readers; terms such as 'their land' and 'the farmer's land'. But the fact that this 'war' has not made the headlines in Western media, as the farm attacks in Zimbabwe have, says much about the complex nature of them as well as the representative hope that South Africa stands for in the eyes of many.

To be clear, there is a big difference between what is happening in Zimbabwe, where Mugabe's regime has made clear that as part of the lengthy changeover from white autocracy to black democracy, more land should be in the hands of black people, rather than white farmers. The fact that this has enfeebled the Zimbabwean economy, along with other factors and that it was a desperate measure to keep the people on his side as he steered his country into terrible economic and political waters, matters little in the rhetoric of black empowerment over the colonial forces of oppression.

In South Africa, there is no real directorate from the government that more land should be in the hands of black people. I say no real directorate, because there has been much rhetoric and broken promises that black people would be empowered by land ownership but that has been balanced by the very real need of the South African government to not 'do a Zimbabwe' and not only alienate the white community but also build the 25th strongest economy in the world; some achievement in sub-Saharan Africa.

So while the South African political machine carefully walks the line of reversing the damaging policies of apartheid and maintaining certain elements of the countries infrastructure to continue its economic development, the poorest members of their society see a government dragging it's heels and who want to take matters into their own hands.

This in turn leads to the intimidation, sabotage and ultimately violence towards white farmers, their families, land and livestock. The farmers then arm themselves, hire security, employ less people from the local communities, develop a 'them and us' attitude which to be fair, hardly needed any encouragement and you have communities pitched in out right battle. On top of all of this you have the complex cultural history that some white farmers cling to as a familiar structure but which many of the black people are trying to destroy completely and rightly so.

From my brief time in South Africa (and certainly, I hope to be there far more often) I learnt that to repair the crippling human rights injustice that was aparthied, is a complex and difficult business and that political change cannot possibly move at the speed that the people demand. The only hope is that in the wait for change, action taken by the people doesn't imitate the oppressors of old.

"Because these cultural questions are so delicate, so explosive. Innocent words and gestures can lead to such terrible misunderstandings."


  1. Look up at my blog, my post about the elections in Zimbabwe. I think it'll be helpful.

  2. I wish I had time to just read all day. I mean, that's what I do but not the stuff I want to read.... You might be interested in my latest post.

  3. RE: Enjoyed your post on that, fascinated by the need to make peace with the past in Africa but repair the damage of that past.

    M@: I'm eating books at the moment...well, not really but get where I'm coming from.

  4. Daniel, another post that has impressed me and feel rather guilty. I don't know enough about the background of my significant other, and I haven't made the necessary intellectual step to learn more about it...erm, yet.

    I'll follow ur lead. Most impt, as it would connect the two of us even more, and show her that I'm interested in knowing more of her history as well...

    You came back to blogging after quite a hiatus to bring better hard-hitting posts. I went on a hiatus not of my doing to bring less hard-hititng ones;-) Must work harder!

    Finally, on your post, I believe it to be very telling that out of the many readers of your blog, you got a miserly three comments--bar mine.

    Methinks Africa and social justice remains a difficult topic for some!!

  5. EKB: a rest is good but you have to have things to write about, things that get your goat but glad you liked this post and hope it spurs you into some reading, anything to spread the love!

    Totally agree with your comment regarding the subject matter, people either write it off or just don't feel able to get involved but its a crucial issue in a difficult part of the world.


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