Friday, December 16, 2005

Happy Day of Reconciliation

December 16 is an idologically loaded day in South African history. During the apartheid years, today's national holiday marked the "Day of the Covenant," "Day of the Vow," or "Dingane's Day," to celebrate the Boer victory over Dingane's Zulu forces at the Battle of Blood River in 1838. Boer history being what it is, that epic battle, in which Andries Pretorius' 464 men defeated more than 10,000 Zulu warriors on the banks of the Ncome River, which ran red with Zulu blood (thus "Blood River"), came to be seen not simply as the overpowering of an overmatched (even if numerically superior) foe, but rather as God's will. The Boers thus believed that they had stricken a covenant with their God. The Zulus at the banks of the Ncome would not be the only ones to lose their lives as a consequence.

Fast forward to 1995. In an act fraught with the symbolism of purification, the Government of National Unity, with the ANC at its head, established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which met for the first time on December 16, ten years ago today. Under the new democracy, the Day of the Vow gave way to the Day of Reconciliation. The TRC has been and continues to be widely debated, and indeed I have writen a good deal about the TRC, but one thing seems to me to be certain -- the Day of Reconciliation is a whole lot better to celebrate than a Day of the Vow. Whatever we think about the final outcome of the TRC, it is a shining grail when compared with the Afrikaner covenant with their God.

A scene unfurled outside of my fourth floor window last night that could have occurred on the streets of any city anywhere. My floor overlooks a three-lane, one- way street at the side of my hotel. On that side of the building are two bars, one a sports pub, the other attached to a Portuguese restaurant. I heard the familiar sound of a fight brewing outside my window, which I had open to let in the night sounds of the city and the summer air. Voyeur that I am, I decided to have a look- see. Two guys were in the pose, getting ready to throw down. Except they both had sticks and were shouting at one another in Zulu. Given the prevalence of stickfighting in Zulu culture, one could be forgiven for thinking that the two young men, one with lghter skin than the other and closely cropped hair, the other darker skinned and dredlocked, were play acting or perhaps ritualizing combat in some sort of duel (I will have satisfaction! But in Zulu.). This was not the case. The antagonist from my view was the drunker, and to his mind somehow clearly wronged, (I have no idea what happened in the bar(s) below, of course) close cropped fellow, who had initiated the stickfighting, but broke his stick in two, leading to my confusion. For reasons only he knows, he tore his shirt off (damn those restrictive short-sleeved button up shirts!) and found a bottle. It was unclear if he was going to try to bash his opponent, cut him, or throw the bottle at him. He aimed for the latter. Apparently the young man was never a cricket bowler, as he missed by a long way. Which was unfortunate for him, as his foe had managed to find two bricks, which he mashed togeher menacingly, and the use for which had bad intent. In any case, some local authorities -- sort of like an organized neighborhood watch, with para-military looking uniforms, tried to keep the peace. Or at least to contain it -- they seemed content to let them rage and periodically rush one another. The police eventually arrived from Hillbrow, one of JoBurg's famous nearby neighborhoods, and quelled things, though without even bothering to get out of the car.

As I said -- this could have happened in any city anywhere. I've seen much more brutal fights spll out of bars in Washington, New York, Boston and Athens, Ohio. I've seen worse fights in South Africa. Hell, I've been in worse fights in South Africa. Well, minus the bricks and stickfighting. But this is Joburg, with its legandary violence. So even though people are murdered all the time in Boston and New York and Washington, the expectation level for violence here is greater. And as I have written before, Joburg is tremendously violent. But at the same time, it's not like the odds are 50/50 of surviving a stay in Egoli, the City of Gold. The odds of encountering violence are still incredibly small. The so-called townships certainly have the worst violent crime, with the CBD ranking right up there, but with crime here being more along the lines of property crime run amok -- in other words, a hijacking in which the victim resists or a mugging gone wrong.

It's easy to categorize a city like Joburg as akin to the law of the jungle, in itself a more than subtly racist jab. Such a depiction certainly validates the apartheid apologists (despite the fact that the roots of the bulk of South African crime are directly traceable to decades of white supremacist social engineering) but it rings false. On the whole, Joburg is vibrant and exciting. It is beset with a host of issues that are the consequence of the country's tortured past but that still must be addressed by the present authorities.

Finally, my research this week at Wits went incredibly well. I hit the motherlode with three rich newspaper clippings files, and I was able to dive into a number of collections that will prove to be vital. I a juggling two, possibly three topics. I am just embarking on a comparative study on bus boycotts in the 1950s, and researching that is my main focus. I am really getting a feel for the nature of the boycotts and am excited about this work. I am also doing some last second touch-up work on my ongoing project on anti-apartheid resistance and state responses in the Eastern Cape in the 1980s. I've done work here on that project in the past, and I have published a handful or articles from this topic, and now am deciding whether to go with two big-time journal articles, a manuscript, or both. The final project is that I want to look at South African responses to the Civil Rights Movement, and more particularly, I want to look at newspapers and their coverage of the Freedom Rides. But I just got my last reader's report on my Freedom Ride manuscript (a book may yet be forthcoming!), and it calls for some paring, so any new research would have to go into a separate article.

The Cullen Library at Wits has a wonderful Historical papers archive, with a comitted, friendly staff. It is not a huge archive, but it possesses a wealth of resources. Wits itself is historic, graceful and beautiful. It has grown more insular, walled off and protected by guards, even in the last decade, but it is a first-rate, dynamic university. Tree lined, well manicured, evoking decades of history, but also certainly an urban campus (the M1 passes beneath campus)Wits is one of the elite nstitutions of higher learning on the entire continent; It may be the finest university in all of Africa. It has been a pleasure to work here this week. I'm sure I'll be back many times.

Tomorrow I am off to Pretoria, a city that bears more than a little of the Afrikaner heritage inherent in Pretorius'1838 victory. I plan to hit the National Archives in addition to my travels.


December 16 was also the birthday of my grandfather, George Catsam. Some of you might remember him from my most personal Red Sox Diary entry. (It's in the book, of course.) Rest in Peace, Papa.

No comments: