A mess of pottage

“A mess of pottage is something immediately attractive but of little value taken foolishly and carelessly in exchange for something more distant and perhaps less tangible but immensely more valuable.”

An article by Nivashni Nair at Times Live states:

“Analysis from almost 40000 claims lodged in (KwaZulu-Natal) between 2014 and last year showed that claimants preferred cash to land… if you look at the outcome of first phase of the land audit, the amount of land that is private land, particularly that which is owned by white people in this country, is still in the region of between 70% and 80%. We can only change the land ownership pattern if people opt for restoration… If (claimants) opt for financial compensation the pattern stays the same. If you take the money, you don’t dent the problem that currently exists.” – KwaZulu-Natal Land Restitution Support chief director, Bheki Mbili. 

http://m.timeslive.co.za/?articleId=2651662 (31/5/17)  

I was thinking how – since the arrival of the Europeans on African shores – the deals made over land (when they have not simply been acts of crass dispossession and theft) have always been a sort of dodgy, dirty cash for stash affair. Cecil John Rhodes[1] excelled at grabbing land – but he was just one of many thieves. Chiefs sold off their birthright for “a mess of pottage”. Does the constitutionally approved process alluded to above not represent another incarnation of the same sort of money-grubbing?

Money, or pretty glass beads, or guns, or promises: the price of land that rightfully belongs to the people.

Of course, it’s easy for me to condemn the claimants’ choice of money over land. Who am I to tell a poor man with mouths to feed that he should refuse the money because of the vital symbolism of land?

Yet as the article above indicates, the land ownership pattern will remain bleak if compensation trumps restitution.


[1] (My emphasis in red): “… it was Rhodes who originated the racist “land grabs” to which Zimbabwe’s current miseries can ultimately be traced. It was Rhodes, too, who in 1887 told the House of Assembly in Cape Town that “the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa”. In less oratorical moments, he put it even more bluntly: “I prefer land to niggers.”

“Rhodes connived his way to wealth in a lawless frontier culture, then used that fortune to fund a private invasion of East Africa. He bought newspapers in order to shape and control public opinion. He brokered secret deals, issued bribes and used gangs of mercenaries to butcher his opponents, seizing close to a million square miles of territory from its inhabitants. Although he did this in the name of the British Empire, he was regarded with some suspicion in his home country, and when it suited him to work against Britain’s imperial interests – by slipping £10,000 to Parnell’s Irish nationalists, for example – he did so without scruple.

– https://espressostalinist.com/genocide/cecil-rhodes-and-de-beers-genocide-diamonds/




Landmarked: Land Claims and Land Restitution in South Africa by Cherryl Walker
(Jacana Media, 2008)

Land, Memory, Reconstruction, and Justice: Perspectives on Land Claims in South Africa
Cherryl Walker (Ohio University Press, 17 Aug 2010):

“In South Africa land is one of the most significant and controversial topics. Land restitution has been a complex, multidimensional process that has failed to meet the expectations with which it was initially launched in 1994. Ordinary citizens, policymakers, and analysts have begun to question progress in land reform in the years since South Africa’s transition to democracy. Land, Memory, Reconstruction, and Justice brings together a wealth of topical material and case studies by leading experts in the field who present a rich mix of perspectives from politics, sociology, geography, social anthropology, law, history, and agricultural economics. The collection addresses both the material and the symbolic dimensions of land claims, in rural and urban contexts, and explores the complex intersection of issues confronting the restitution program, from the promotion of livelihoods to questions of rights, identity, and transitional justice. A valuable contribution to the field of land and agrarian studies, both in South Africa and internationally, it is undoubtedly the most comprehensive treatment to date of South Africa’s postapartheid land claims process and will be essential reading for scholars and students of land reform for years to come.”

David Saks: “Enough, already, with the ‘you stole our land’ argument”:


“Even with regard to South Africa, the “you stole our land” charge is hardly straightforward. Fair enough, one might say such a thing about the northern and eastern parts of the country, but what about the whole western and southern Cape region? Here, the indigenous people at the time of the first European settlement were the Khoisan people. Apart from the fact that strictly speaking, they today no longer exist as a distinct grouping (racial, linguistic or otherwise), having long been subsumed within a larger mixed-race “coloured” population, they were very different from blacks of the type who constitute the majority of the South African population today. So far as the western and southern Cape go, the latter are relative newcomers, in most cases having only arrived during the last hundred years or so. This underlined for me the absurdity of this year’s Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Cape Town, where black students railed against white colonial usurpers despite being in a part of the country where whites had preceded them by centuries.

Even outside the western Cape region, one can no longer automatically view whites as newcomers — an alien transplant — and blacks as indigenous. A substantial minority of black South Africans — no one knows exactly how many, but by now numbering in the several millions — are first or second generation immigrants from other parts of Africa. A similar phenomenon is evident in the UK, where most of the black population today is locally born whereas a substantial number of whites only arrived, as economic migrants, from central and eastern Europe during the past couple of decades or so. There are many similar such cases around the world.

The conclusion would appear to be that the “your land-my land” approach is becoming increasingly obsolete in today’s more fluid and inter-connected world. It should simply be recognised that historically, there has always been a process of mass migration and settlement, and that there are few, if any, countries that have not at one time or another been conquered by an invading power. It is naïve, of course, to expect such a basic common sense approach to have the slightest impact in the Middle East context. It might, though, help to address somewhat certain festering racial divisions within our own society.”



The Struggle Betrayed

This is the text of an open letter to the National Executive Committee of the ANC, signed by Struggle hero and veteran WALLY SEROTE on behalf of the organisation’s veterans and stalwarts. The letter was sent to the Secretary-General of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, with a request that it be given to all members of the National Executive Committee who will be meeting on Friday 25 May 2017. – The Daily Maverick



Our People

The Preamble to the Constitution of South Africa contains the words, “We, the people of South Africa, recognise the injustices of our past; honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.”

Why then am I suspicious of the motives behind the use of the term, “our people”?

Is it possible the phrase has been appropriated and its meaning perverted to serve more narrow, nationalistic and ethnic agendas?

Increasingly – daily even – I hear the ANC, the EFF, BLF, Vryheidsfront, politico’s and just your average citizen calling into talkshows or writing on social media and using the expression, “our people” in a way far less inclusive than it appears in The Preamble to the Constitution of South Africa.

That little term “our people” unsettles me. At first glance it appears to be innocent enough, a word of communality and brotherhood, of inclusion, like the opening statement of the Preamble to the United States Constitution, “We the People” or the solidarity implied in the Soviet-era word “comrade”; yet on closer inspection these are different conceptions because they are not in principle (although perhaps in practice) constrained to a narrow racial identity. But then neither is the South African “We the People” based on race, correct? Then why does this term “our people”, seem at times discordant in the South African context?

I’m trying to understand the disquiet, and perhaps I’m wrong about all this. Why worry about it? Is the very formulation “our people” not a rather amorphous and slippery thing?

Who, and what, is “our people“?

Is the term quasi-religious, like the “our people” in the conception People of God, (The Jews)?

Does it have multiple meanings?

Is it ever a legitimate term?

Perhaps it is too soon for South Africans to abandon their beloved and expedient race categories – the very categories which were so useful to the colonial rulers and the Apartheid ideologues.

I imagine Hendrik Verwoerd clapping his hands in hell each time he hears South Africans defining themselves according to their race, to us and them, our people and your people.

Perhaps we are not yet ready to erase our own metaphorical ‘prison tattoos’, when we are everywhere reminded of our continued incarceration in a structurally unjust system. Perhaps the damage wrought must be held close in a perverse embrace: the tortured body has become “our” identity, and must not be healed too quickly by well-meaning surgeons.

Perhaps the exclusion – or inclusion – implied by the term “our people” makes those who are shut out feel lonely, envious, resentful or fearful, while affirming an in-crowd with the shibboleth.

Is this “our people” something more sinister, the manifestation of some manichean duality: the blessed and the damned?

If the Imperialist believed his own people (the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, or the Belgian, or the Herrenvolk) were somehow superior to the black “race”, then – given the violence of colonialism and its violent aftermath (which is ever inserted into the present) – a black nationalist use of the term “our people” may be a legitimate response. Who are “we” – we being the last dusty vestiges of the discredited white supremacist colonial experiment – to deny a subjugated people the right to speak in terms of their own “our”? The colonial debacle was all about “our people” (an allegedly superior and “civilising” one) – and what an appallingly bad joke that turned out to be.

Who – and what – is shut out and excluded by this “our”?

I challenged a work colleague on this point recently and it was clear she had not really thought through her own use of the phrase, and she was nonplussed when confronted with her own exclusion of “others”. It wasn’t clear at first even to her if she intended her expression “our people” to mean Africans in general or a tribal/linguistic sub group. Did her concept of “our people”, I asked, include all or some of the language groups of South Africa, and which if any categories of race established under apartheid? Clearly I was excluded as a “white man” – that went without saying. But as a Xhosa-speaking person, did she include Zulus in her “our people”? Was hers a pan-africanist “our”, or as I discovered, were the boundaries of her “our” limited to a tribal identity – bordering on a kind of narrow prejudice (The Cape Coloureds this, the South African Indian community that; resident alien Nigerians this… the Zulus that, the Venda this, the immigrant Shona that…”). She was disquieted by her own reflection on the matter.

Our people | die stem

Personally I distrust all our “ours”.

The old South African national anthem – Die Stem – penned by the well-loved and respected South African poet Cornelis Jacobus Langenhoven (13 August 1873 – 15 July 1932), was littered with euphemistic “ours” which clearly did not include the majority of South Africans. Ironically it was written in 1918 – the same year the Native Land Act formally dispossessed black South Africans of their own country. However beloved and talented the writer, I have always had an inexplicable aversion for the anthem which I was forced to sing as a schoolboy while standing to attention in my shitty brown cadet uniform on cold highveld mornings. Die Stem was a written and sung lie expressing a narrow patriotism/nationalism – no less than the oranje-blanje-blou was a flag without legitimacy, representing merely a fearful white supremacist populace, an illegitimate historical narrative, a cynical Faustian compact.

Some phrases from the English version:

“Ringing out from our blue heavens / From our deep seas breaking round / From our plains where creaking wagons / Cut their trails into the earth / Calls the spirit of our country / Of the land that gave us birth / In our body and our spirit / In our inmost heart held fast / In thy power, Almighty, trusting, Did our fathers build of old…”

The old national anthem went on and on with this frankly sentimental drivel, the oft-repeated “our”, this hypocritical and idolatrous fetishization of “our people” (which people for God’s sake?) – a specific racial grouping which inferred the exclusion of all but die volk – with a sideways almost grudging acknowledgement of die engelsmanne. (After all, did “my” English-speaking people trundle across the veld in creaking ox-wagons? I was born in Zambia which clearly gave me less claim to the anthem’s bestowed blessings. How was this anthem to represent the country’s disenfranchised black majority? And if the 4 million or so blacks that were discarded and packed off to dusty bantustans with their own flags and pseudo-heraldic fanfare, were these wretched of the earth excluded from the anthem’s “our people” too? Did the Asian Hindus or Muslims trust in the designated ‘Christian’ Almighty? What occult meaning can we deduce from the expression “the spirit of our country” – an alarmingly pagan or Masonic concept? Not surprisingly our Cornelis Jacobus was a Freemason. Die Stem was a minefield of presumption, supposition, myth and narrow nationalist mumbo jumbo and finally a piece of prose expropriated by Afrikaner nationalists in an attempt to legitimize Apartheid. Whatever Langenhoven’s poetic virtues, it became a cynical lie, like its flag, the bantustans, South Africa’s heretical religion, its entire raison d’être a hideous burlesque.

Back to “our” as a word of exclusion

John Berger wrote, “… all bigots derive their fervour from rejection, the more they can reject, the more righteous they themselves feel.” I’m not sure its fair to lift his quote from its context and use it to imply a certain bigotry in the “our people” trope, but the quote is insightful.

Am I just resentful towards the in-crowd, after a life of exclusion?

The our people mantra sickens me.

In South Africa, language and skin are the exclusionary, othering shibboleths.

“By this ye shall be known”.

The mark of Cain.

The Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev used the word Sorbornost, an untranslatable Russian word at best described as ‘fellowship-solidarity’, which he felt was intrinsic to the Russian people. But he reinterpreted sorbornost not in a narrow nationalist sense but as a characteristic or the universal brotherhood of mankind in Christ – and even here he moved to a mystical, inclusive sobornost of all living things in God, a theosis.

A final overcoming of alienation-from-one another and from God is an idea explored by Christian mystics (the early church was a model no matter how inadequate of a reconciliation between all people, all nations, all classes, all races ). History shows the mystical element was soon overcome by factionalism and internecine squabbles which in turn evolved into schisms and persecutions over heresy. This did not erase the eternal truth of ecumenism and the ideal of healing a fractured humanity. Communism was an attempt to enforce товарищество (enforced comradeship is no comradeship at all). Собо́рность is always something more profound than comradeship. “Comrade” was finally robbed of all meaning, no more meaningful than “mister so-and-so”.

(A thought right there: in reductionist, semantic terms, the Afrikaans word Apartheid simply meant “apart-ness”. Is this “our” simply one more nascent nationalism growing like some strange thorn from the soil of other hatreds?)

I may be wrong, but to me, the exclusionary “our” expresses debarment and refusal, even as it asserts preference and prejudice. It segregates, even if only semantically, as all nationalisms inevitability do. Am I wrong to sense a latent fascism in the expression “our people”? The sinister Volksdeutsche of the Third Reich with it’s origins in a Romantic, less belligerant völkisch, seems to find a parallel in this “our people”.

The non-inclusion is a disavowal of the other: you are not one of us.

It might – who knows? – be a legitimate if violent shibboleth. But lets not hide it behind some artifice of philanthropy and inclusiveness.

I suppose one must simply ask, “of whom do you speak, when you say, “our people”?

The “our” may well be a violent “our”.

It might seek to spill my blood.

Or it might be a well-intended “our”.

Or the kind of “our” which insists that a Tutsi and a Hutu, a Boer and a Brit, a Jew and an ethnic German are forever mutually antagonistic.

I try to speak this phrase to imagine for a moment that the words could be mine:


Alas, it can only ever sound obscene to me, a sort of fascist, British National Front anachronism. An offence.

My people – the vulnerable and innocent victims of the harm done to them by the Evil Other: Girardian mimetic scapegoating.

I sigh, for once again I’m out in the cold.

Deservedly, many would say: for in the narrative of “our people”, you who are not of our people are the guilty ones.

When I demarcate my people as distinct from yours, when I exclude you,

I have already unleashed the angel of death.

It doesn’t matter what the context is: Indians in Uganda, Pakistanis in London, Syrians in the US, blacks in the Deep South, Partition in India, the plight of Armenian Christians in the Ottoman Empire, the Jews of Nazi Germany, an Arab in Israel.

Once I have decided who my people are, and I have decided you are not of their number, then

I have already unleashed the angel of death.

But of course I am by now quite familiar with the narrative of “othering”, bring judged, “guilted”: it was the inevitable and predictable post-apartheid moral consequence. In South Africa, someone somewhere is always reminding you that you are an outsider, you don’t belong. You are not one of us.

You are not one of our people.



“Sobornost (Russian: Собо́рность; IPA: [sɐˈbornəstʲ] “Spiritual community of many jointly living people”) is a term coined by the early Slavophiles, Ivan Kireyevsky and Aleksey Khomyakov, to underline the need for co-operation between people, at the expense of individualism, on the basis that the opposing groups focus on what is common between them. Khomyakov believed the West was progressively losing its unity because it was embracing Aristotle and his defining individualism. Kireyevsky believed that Hegel and Aristotle represented the same ideal of unity.

Khomyakov and Kireyevsky originally used the term sobor to designate co-operation within the Russian obshchina, united by a set of common convictions and Eastern Orthodox values, as opposed to the cult of individualism in the West. The term “sobor” in Russian has multiple co-related meanings: a “sobor” is the diocesan bishop’s “cathedral church”; a “sobor” is also a churchly “gathering” or “assemblage” or “council” reflecting the concept of the Church as an “ecclesium” (ἐκκλησία); in secular civil Russian historical useage is the national “Zemsky Sobor” and various “local/местное” landed or urban “sobors”. Khomyakov’s concept of the “catholicity” of the Church as “universality”, in contrast to that of Rome, reflects the perspective from the root-meaning of the word “liturgy” (λειτουργία), meaning “work of the gathered people”.” -Wikipedia

The origins of the word Comrade:


Theodore Roethke



Over every mountain there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley.


Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.


How terrible the need for God.


What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?


I have gone into the waste lonely places


I have come to a still, but not a deep center,

A point outside the glittering current;

My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sandgrains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water.
I am renewed by death, thought of my death,
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.


Reason? That dreary shed, that hutch for grubby schoolboys.


I learned not to fear infinity, The far field, the windy cliffs of forever, The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow, The wheel turning away from itself, The sprawl of the wave, The on-coming water.


In the kingdom of bang and blab.


Be sure that whatever you are is you.

– Theodore Roethke

“The same feeling of not belonging, of futility, wherever I go: I pretend interest in what matters nothing to me, I bestir myself mechanically or out of charity, without ever being caught up, without ever being somewhere. What attracts me is elsewhere, and I don’t know where that elsewhere is.”

Emil M. Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born

“How important can it be that I suffer and think? My presence in this world will disturb a few tranquil lives and will unsettle the unconscious and pleasant naiveté of others. Although I feel that my tragedy is the greatest in history—greater than the fall of empires—I am nevertheless aware of my total insignificance. I am absolutely persuaded that I am nothing in this universe; yet I feel that mine is the only real existence.”

Emil M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair